He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.--Rafael Sabatini
Monday, April 22, 2013
The Old Sommeliers Home
I’m not sure when I first noticed the problem. It only slowly worked its way into my conscious mind. I think the first incident was an old guy I saw standing along Highway 29 just in front of Opus One holding a sign that said, “Homeless Somm—Looks of Disdain 25¢” I was being tailgated by a limo filled with a bachelorette party, Feels on Wheels, so I couldn’t stop. But the sight of him, unshaven and dirty, like a nominee for a Country Music Award, extending his empty tastevin pleading for quarters, stuck in my mind. And once that happened, I began to notice them everywhere.
Leaving the grocery store parking lot a few days later, there was another old somm, distinctive in his worn tuxedo, looking more like an attendant at a funeral parlor in Appalachia than a sommelier (he should be working at French Laundry, I thought), pushing an old, wobbly dessert cart filled with his last earthly possessions—a few corkscrews, a copy of the 1984 edition of Parker’s Buying Guide, several logo hats from varied wineries around the world (I noticed one that said, “Chapeau Souverain”), and an autographed and well-worn photo of Robert Lawrence Balzer. He was clearly mad. I walked over to him and, as inconspicuously as possible, dropped a dollar bill into his tastevin.
“Thanks,” he said, “that’s usually where I urinate.”
Why, I wondered, were homeless old sommeliers turning up everywhere? It’s understandable that they’re unemployed. They got old. Their senses of smell and taste had abandoned them, all the bluffing and prevaricating in the world can’t stop the march of time. Old umpires go blind and live off their pensions. Lame ballerinas open dance schools and torment young anorexics. What does an old guy who’s lost his sense of smell and taste do? All the major wine critic jobs are already taken. But I thought there was a Home for Old Sommeliers. I was sure there was, but why, then, was I suddenly seeing the poor old wine stewards out on the streets begging for food, work, shelter and the latest issue of Mutineer Magazine (apparently, very absorbent)? I decided to find out.
In San Francisco one breezy afternoon, I spoke to an older gentleman who was approaching strangers and trying to sell them old corkscrews for a dollar apiece. “I must have had a couple of hundred of these when I retired from the restaurant,” he told me, “but now I’m down to about twenty. That doesn’t auger well for me.” He chuckled at his own pun. Asshole. So I kicked him. You know, no matter how many times you do it, it just feels right to kick a sommelier.
I asked him how he ended up on the streets after a lifetime of service. “I spent twenty-five years as a sommelier, worked in some of San Francisco’s best restaurants, talked down to its wealthiest residents. In fact, I was the guy who first marked up wine list prices 400%! That was me. Before that, hell, you could pay a few bucks above retail for a wine in a nice joint. I should have trademarked the idea. Everybody stole it. And do you know who created the first wine-by-the-glass? ME! Listen, I told my boss at the time, you’re screwing ‘em on the cocktails, we can do the same damn thing with wine. It doesn’t even have to be good wine! If I tell ‘em it’s good wine, they’ll believe me. I used to sell White Zinfandel for eight bucks a glass. Then it was Chardonnay with residual sugar. Now it’s Moscato. The public doesn’t get any smarter, you know.”
He was very articulate, and, at first, didn’t seem at all mentally ill. But then he told me he’d been married to both Jancis Robinson and Jay McInerney. McInerney I believed. He also claimed that he loved orange wines. I wondered how a guy with mental issues like that could survive on the streets.
Had he ever tried to get into the Old Sommeliers Home? “Oh, for Parker’s sake,” he told me, “yeah, I was in that loony bin for a couple of years. Have you ever been around a bunch of old sommeliers? Hell, man, they can outbore Michel Chapoutier. You fart and they all start to chant, “Mercaptan, O My Mercaptan.” That they can smell. They endlessly bitch about the wines they serve at the home. Like you really need Sancerre to wash down lung oysters. It’s horrible there. And the nurses treat you like crap. Taunting you all the time. ‘How’s your worm workin’ now, old man?’ I just up and left one night. Besides, I hear they closed the place. Ran out of money. Turned ‘em all out into the streets to fend for themselves. Bunch of old guys with no usable skills at all. Sommeliers don’t have skills, they don’t do anything useful. They get people drunk and take their money. Know what we used to call that profession? Father O’Reilley.”
I decided to check on whether the Old Sommeliers Home had been closed. He was right, it was gone. No one had noticed. But I guess there just weren’t that many sommeliers to put there. There just weren’t that many sommeliers in the United States thirty years ago. Americans didn’t buy wine in restaurants, not unless it featured some sort of colored person—a Blue Nun or a Green Hungarian or a Zeller Schwarz Kat. Yet it won’t be long before the need for an Old Sommeliers Home will be desperate. In recent years, there has been a huge infestation of sommeliers. Where will they go when their noses fail, their tongues become as tasteless as Verdicchio?
There are more sommeliers now than ever before. More degrees, more letters to append to your otherwise worthless name, more hubris walking the restaurant floors than a stadium filled with Grammy Award winners. You have a “well-chosen” list of 20 Italian wines in your wood-fired pizza joint—you’re a sommelier! You took an online test and passed the fifth time, you’re a Level One sommelier! You work in a wine bar with eleven different wines that you buy from a different broker every month because you owe all the other ones money—you’re a sommelier! The world crawls with them now. They have Journals and conventions, they’re rock stars and gatekeepers, they’re winemakers and tastemakers. They’re this generation’s deejays.
I asked the old sommelier in the park if he had any advice for all the new, young sommeliers out there. Any words of wisdom from all his years being a sommelier.
“Being a sommelier is like a Riedel wine glass—it’s beautiful and clear when you first pick it up, but everyone can see through it, and, eventually, you can be sure, you will be a victim of planned obsolescence.”
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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