You Say Somalia

You understand, of course, the consequences of forwarding an alcohol-related topic to the Burning Question crew.

We are experiential reporters, meaning we never simply ask experts for their input. Instead, we visit the sites, drink the drinks and suffer the nauseating aftereffects. Curiously, our sense of dedication and willingness to immerse ourselves in research please almost everyone involved. Obviously bouncers get a bit tired of dragging our carcasses out of establishments night after night, but we enjoy the alcohol haze, and our editor appreciates the lengthy absences.

We preface this week's Burning Question in this manner for two very good reasons. The first is really a note to our editor, forewarning him of expense reports that may exceed, slightly, company recommendations. It's just unfortunate how, after five or six bottles, a Petrus or a Lafite Rothschild no longer seems expensive and how quickly the empties mount up during an impromptu chugging contest. In addition, our notes on the subject left us no choice but contrition, seeing as how the introduction we scribbled in the aftermath of the chugging exercise explored the fictional exploits of the world's first sommelier, pondering, for example, the "rather young wine" served by Jesus to his multitudes.

Yes, we know many locals insist Jesus merely turned water into Welch's grape juice, but that seems unlikely given the dearth of juice sommeliers. Yes, some restaurants around the country generated media attention by employing water sommeliers--sorta ironic, actually--chocolate sommeliers and tea sommeliers. But we've never come across a juice sommelier.

Actually, a sommelier is little more than a waiter with some expertise in wine. "A lot of people just fall into the role because they put an effort into learning wine," explains Phil Natale, who runs the wine program for Cuba Libre, Sense and Bamboo Bamboo. "Suddenly, you become fluent in the subject." And fluency requires an understanding of service as well as viniculture. "Before I was in the wine side, I was a waiter," recalls Fabian Hernandez, cellar master at Nana. "The difference between a waiter at Bennigan's and a waiter at Nana is that they're serving food, and you are providing a service." Thus a person using the title sommelier should know wine, wine service, food pairings and be able to ascertain the flavor profiles favored by each restaurant patron.

In general, anyone in the service industry with knowledge of the subject may adopt the title of sommelier. At Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, several sommeliers decked with traditional tasting cups work the room, advising patrons on wine selection. They deal specifically with the wine inventory, leaving other service items to the traditional waitstaff. The Green Room, however, relies on waiters to pair wine with Marc Cassel's eclectic "feed me" menu. "It depends on the formality of the restaurant," says Van Roberts of Lola. "I'm the owner, the wine director and the sommelier, but I don't call myself that." Todd Lincicome, wine director at Al Biernat's, compares the title to that of auto mechanic. "If I read a bunch of books and rebuild my old Corvette, I could start a garage and call myself a mechanic," he points out. "But that doesn't mean I'd be a good one."

The only formal designation for sommeliers is the exclusive Court of Master Sommeliers, a program more demanding than board certification in otolaryngology, whatever that is. "You gotta admire a guy like that," Roberts says. "They memorize obscure facts and blind taste wines from all over the world. It's like a doctorate in wine." Hmmm. If only universities offered degree programs in the illicit arts, a bourbon scholarship, a minor in single malts. Of course, only 47 master sommeliers work in American restaurants--25 in New York, none in Dallas. The program tests applicants in knowledge of glassware, cigars, international wine laws, vintages, varieties, production methods and so on. In fact, the court's Web site cautions that many candidates enter the program unprepared. "If, as you read this, you can recite from memory facts such as the Grands Crus of the Cote de Nuits, the satellites of St. Emilion, the districts of Chianti, the AVAs of Sonoma County or the Bereiche of the Rheinhessen," the introduction continues, "you have probably reached the degree of preparedness needed to pass this examination." Hell, most of us can't even point out Texas on a map--a fact that explains Europe's objections to war against Iraq. Who knows where American troops might actually land: Baghdad, Bourdeaux, Beaumont. The only current Texan holding the title is Paul Roberts of Café Annie in Houston.

Those in the local wine-service industry seek validation from knowledgeable patrons and skilled peers. "It's a matter of earning respect," Lincicome says. "That's the way it is in the world of wine. You don't last long if you're bad at what you do."

"You can't fake it," Hernandez agrees.

Still, most see no problem with the blurry lines between waiter and wine expert. "Wine is an opinion," Lincicome explains. "If you are totally wine illiterate, it's fine to ask a waiter. Most waiters memorize two or three good wines. Finding a sommelier is about getting to know someone and being honest with them." Whereas wine directors constantly encourage waitstaff to learn the inventory, sommeliers--whether or not they claim the title--enjoy the challenge of a perfect match.

"When I taste wines, I memorize flavor profiles," says Randolph Hollo, wine director at Del Frisco's. "Then I try to learn what the patrons like, their mood, their order and match the wine." They somewhat casually refer to this as an extra level of service, dismissing the pressure of maintaining sales levels and remaining on top of a million different wines. The experienced patron might judge them on their ability to stay abreast of the countless wines available around the world; restaurateurs hold them accountable for revenue figures and inventory. (Al Biernat's, for example, generates more than $130,000 each month in wine sales.) But the wine guys themselves appreciate the challenge of service.

"They ask for a good bottle for $100 and you get them a great one for $60," says Roberts with a smile. "Surprise them."

Just don't chug the bottle in their presence. They really hate that.


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