Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Actual Secrets of a Sommelier


In this edition of Basics of Wine Appreciation we’ll focus on ordering wine in restaurants. Reading a wine list is an acquired skill, like using a napkin. But nothing impresses your date more than your ability to sniff out the best wine at the best price on a wine list. Unless it’s your ability to work your iPhone with your tongue. Let’s get started.

What is the purpose of a wine list?

Think of the wine list as a really boring book, like a Jay McInerney novel only with better-drawn characters. It’s presented to you at the table for you to peruse at your pleasure. Open it to any page and it will be complete gibberish. You studied James Joyce in college, think of it like that. It’s just a bunch of made up words and made up prices. Its purpose is to remove you from reality and make you see the world in a completely different way. The longer you stare at it, try to make sense of it, the less chance you have of remaining sane. It’s often best to just hurl it to the floor. (Hint: This is also often a useful tip for handling your date.)

Should I ask for the sommelier?

You don’t need the sommelier. Try very hard to avoid the sommelier. Do your best to never make eye contact with the sommelier. If you should happen to make eye contact with the sommelier, break it at once. Prolonged eye contact can lead to a sommelier throwing his feces at you. It’s a sign of dominance among their kind. If one should approach your table try not to make any sudden moves. Sommeliers startle easily, and their fear response is to freeze like a possum—and then you’ll never get rid of them. If this happens, the best solution is to make gentle cooing noises in their direction until they regain their senses and leave, or start to hum along. You’ll find they make excellent pets.

Why order wine in the first place?

Ready for Dinner!
Nothing enhances your meal more than the appropriate wine. Except maybe using hand puppets instead of eating utensils. I like Punch and Judy, but only in Michelin-starred restaurants. But be sure and take your own puppets to the restaurant. The only puppets most restaurants own are Wine Spectator critics. But aside from complementing the food, wine’s most important job is to get you drunk. Think of the wine list as a summary of all the different ways you can achieve insobriety, as if you were reading Mel Gibson’s autobiography. A meal without wine is like sex without a partner—necessary but don’t get caught. 

What about wine by-the-glass?

Are you kidding me? Why not just order steak by-the-bite? Makes about as much sense. "I’d like one fifth of the T-Bone for what the entire steak actually cost the restaurant, please." Wine by-the-glass is the restaurant’s profit center for wine. It’s like french fries at fast food restaurants. They even have the same different sizes—small, medium, salty stroke; and 2 oz., 4 oz., and it’s cheap and red and I need to glug it now. By-the-glass is for those self-delusional folks who think they don’t drink much. “Oh, we can’t finish a whole bottle!” Two hours later they’ve polished off six glasses of wine. Just buy a bottle. You’re not fooling anybody. Dimwit.

Why are wine prices so high in restaurants?

It takes a lot of capital to run a big wine program. So when you pay $175 for that $60 dollar cabernet, just remember that you’re drinking it out of fine Riedel stemware, $7 a stem, and that it has been perfectly stored in an air-conditioned wine cellar along with 20,000 other bottles for about 50 cents. The rest is a modest profit for the restaurant. Think of yourself as the Department of Defense and the restaurant as Lockheed Martin. This should give you great comfort and make you feel patriotic. Only traitors and draft dodgers complain about wine prices.

What’s the secret to reading wine lists?

Google this question and you’ll come up with endless articles by experts who will tell you the same damned things. “Look for wines from lesser-known appellations.” There’s usually a reason they’re less known—the wines suck. And, besides, you don’t know the appellations either! If you did, you’d be a damned sommelier yourself. God knows you’ve passed the first level WSET exam—I finally did, too, and my gut feels much better now. And I finished pre-wiped! “Ask help from the sommelier, after all, it’s his wine list.” Yeah, that makes sense. It’s exactly like when the magician helps you to pick a card. You can trust him, after all it’s his deck of cards! Sucker. So what is the secret to reading wine lists? If you recognize a lot of the wines on the list, order beer, it’s probably a stupid wine list. If you don’t recognize a lot of wines on the list, order the second cheapest wine. It won’t be as good as the cheapest, but at least it will get the sommelier to leave you alone for the rest of the meal.


Marcia Macomber said...

Loved the Dept. of Defense / Lockheed Martin bit. And what makes it so, so funny is it's absolutely true!

Not so sure about the whole T-bone steak / by-the-glass thing though. Made me think about buying a whole cow to eat. Or drinking a whole vine instead of a bottle. I know, weird...

If these are "Actual Secrets" will you be doing a piece on "Fake Secrets"? Perhaps something on the sommelier's ashtray, er, tastevin secrets?

John M. Kelly said...

I was so excited when the title of this post turned up on my eu-Googly machine! Here I thought Hose was going to take us even farther down the dark path, and tell us details of personal hygiene - like how he sprinkles Gruner Veltliner in his crunders before going on a big date. Or maybe one of those insider somm initiation rituals - like being made to play La Marseillaise using a Vinturi as an ass trumpet. But no - it's just "secrets of reading a wine list." Way to channel Raj Parr. Weak.

Joe said...

i like to sit in a tree-stand at a Monday-morning, industry-only tasting group to observe sommeliers in their natural habitat. Taciturn, yet jejune.

I make sure to bathe my hipster camouflage in a mixture of Vin Jaune and Gaulouises so they don't detect my presence with their hyper-sensitive nostrils.

Mockingbird said...

Wow! This is like reading a Karl Lagerfeld interview.....

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Long ago I learned from Tom Wark that the way to get more hits was to have titles that would come up in Google searches, so when I finished this admittedly stupid post, I ripped off the title from Raj Parr. Seems to have worked.


You're talking a different post altogether--you're thinking of the MW exams, most of which involve stirrups. I just may get to them in a later post. "Weak?" Yeah. You're right. Maybe it's time to walk away again.


Sommeliers are used to being observed in the wild, sort of like Dian Fossey's mountain gorillas. They nonchalant it when observers are around, but once you're gone the mating rituals commence. Sadly, due to deforestation and the fact that the Chinese value their horns, sommeliers are quickly vanishing from the wild. Soon the only ones left will be in zoos, like New York and Las Vegas.

Man About Wine said...

The top 10 lists were much better. Should have stoppe while you had a , oops, I mean, while you were still, a head.

Man about wine, DR

Marc the Wine Guy said...

As a supposed wine professional, a major wine buyer for a large retail chain, a former sommelier at a very nice french bistro, a graduate of the advanced WSET program (and if I donate my kidney and sell my children to medical science to free up time and budget, I will enter the diploma program) and have seen the costs from vine to glass, I can say you are dead on correct. Wine lists, prices and supposed professionals are a joke. The margins at restaurants are disgusting and the growth of BYOBs and entertaining at home can be attributed to the greed. There was a time when it was reasonable, but I found before I left Hospitality for other parts of the business that they were covering food cost issues with liquor and those mark ups got worse and worse. People often ask me for a suggestion when I'm out, because I'm supposed to know, but what I often know is the real cost and I lose my appetite.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Thanks for the show of support. As the job of sommelier becomes more of an avocation, that can only spell bad news for wine consumers in restaurants. When I started as a somm in 1987, in the entire city of LA I think there were only 6 of us that did the job exclusively (that is, we weren't actually a dining room manager, we were sommeliers). We were vestigial organs even then. I have no idea how many there are now, since I live in Sonoma. But in SF, wow, there are more sommeliers than there are dentists--and I think I dread them more too.

Anonymous said...

There are good sommeliers out there that are in the business because they love wine and want to share that love with other people and aren't looking to rip people off. It's too bad you've never encountered one and apparently weren't that type when you were one.

Patrick said...

Hose Master, you sound like Glenn Beck. You're spouting over-the-top gross generalizations, one after the other. Get some help.