Secrets of a Steakhouse Sommelier
Sep 02, 2011 12:46PM ● Published by Mike
According to an ancient Persian fable, wine was the accidental discovery of a princess seeking a permanent escape from the daily stresses of royal life by partaking of what she thought was poison. Luckily, for all mankind, she learned the elixir’s intoxicating effects not only offered her a brief respite from the stresses of everyday life but the taste was quite enjoyable. Centuries have passed yet the growing of the grape and the fine art of wine-making continues to intoxicate us all on many levels.
For some of us, the interest in fine wines goes far beyond a fondness for a favorite red or particular white. The wine world is unique and has its own set of knowledge, rules, and traditions, amongst them the sommelier. From the French, the term “sommelier,” pronounced soh-muhl-YAY, comes from the term for a provisions manager, or sommerier whose job was to hold the keys to the wine cellar, manage the cellar, and serve the wines, reminiscent of the days of old when royal families sat on their thrones with a scepter in one hand and a challis in the other. It was not uncommon to see a sommelier with a shiny silver, shallow bowl on a chain around their necks called a tastevin, French for, what else, “taste wine.” Wine cellars were notoriously dark, mysterious places and the tastevin actually originated in the dark caves and wine cellars of Burgundy, France. The shiny surface with the bumps in the bottom of the cup reflected what little light there was, making it possible for the sommelier to check the color and clarity of a wine before serving it to the King and his guests.
With a shrinking class of royals, today’s sommeliers are harder to find but can be discovered at many fine dining establishments, tasting at a vineyard, selecting wines at a specialty wine store, working at a resort, or running the wine department of a high end grocery store. The opportunities for sommeliers are as varied as the people who have chosen this intriguing profession. But, how do you become a sommelier and what exactly does a sommelier do?
The Art of the Sommelier
To find the answer to our question we visited with two Southlake Sommeliers, Bil Semon and Thomas Alexander, as they went about their day at Kirby’s Steakhouse. Thomas, who has been in the business for two and a half years, told us, “Some people learn through a series of job experiences and then become a sommelier and some people approach the book learning first, it depends on the person. I went the book learning route.” Bil has been in the sommelier profession for six years but has spent more than three decades in the restaurant world.
Both Bil and Thomas have studied and completed the Court of Master Sommeliers training and are Tier I Sommeliers, a highly regarded level of achievement. The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was established more than four decades ago as a way to encourage improved standards of training and ensure a consistent level of beverage knowledge and service. There are several institutions and organizations that offer courses for sommeliers but a designation from the CMS, an international group with branches in the United States and Great Britain, makes for a highly recruited sommelier.
In addition to passing written and service exams, part of becoming an established sommelier is to learn the art of blind tasting. To many of us there is our favorite red and our favorite white but there is so much more to it than that. A white wine can vary from straw to green-yellow, deep golden, to amber in color and a red wine is no different coming in varying shades from garnet to ruby red to deep purple. Many sommeliers have the ability to narrow a wine down to a specific vineyard by appearance, smell, and taste. According to Thomas, “You learn to identify the grape which can lead you to what type of climate that grape needs to grow to where the regions are located that grow that grape. For instance, grapes with a higher acidity are grown in a cooler climate.”
Bil agreed, “Tasting a certain flavor can assist you in identifying a wine as well. Sometimes we will both be testing and recognize a particular flavor that leads us to identifying the wine.” Thomas added, “There are so many descriptors and your “nose,” your ability to discern them, develops over time.” As trained sommeliers great minds can definitely think alike. Often one of them will have a flavor they taste but can’t identify and the other will say, “That’s wet moss,” earning a “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
Tasting the Fruit of the Vine
According to wine enthusiasts, swirling the wine in the glass doesn’t only look impressive, it adds to tasting the wine as well. The action of the moving glass stirs up the aromas and allows you to deeply inhale the scent. The human nose is capable of detecting as many as 10,000 different scents and wine is full of fascinating aromas. If you pick up the scent of vanilla and crème that can often point to the oak that was used in the wine’s maturation process. The fruity flavors of berries and citrus can be attributed to the grape variety used in the wine. Moving the wine up the side of the glass can also show you the “legs” of the wine, a characteristic of the viscosity of the wine. The more alcohol and sugar a wine contains the longer it stays on the side of the glass. An example would be a dessert wine which is very slow to slide back to the bowl of the glass.
Without a doubt, the best part of tasting a wine is actually sipping the fruit of the vine. When tasting, take a sip of the wine and swish it around in your mouth, pausing before swallowing. This action allows the wine to coat the inside of your mouth making a full appreciation of the flavors possible. Bil told us that at Kirby’s they taste every Thursday to explore new wines and continue to build their well-rounded wine list. At Kirby’s Thomas and Bil select the wines to be purchased by the bottle at the Southlake location but, as Bil told us, “Wine by the glass, is chosen more by a committee since our buying power can improve with the quantity purchased and we can offer better selections.” Part of the duties of a sommelier is to increase wine sales at their establishment adding to the overall profitably.
On the Job
In today’s society where more of us are becoming oenophiles (a lover of wine) every day it’s not unusual to see a sommelier at work at our favorite restaurants. “It’s a necessity to have a sommelier,” Bil said, “diners expect it and are going to ask the sommelier to visit their table.” Thomas starts a conversation with his diners trying to get a feel for what they are looking for flavor wise. “I ask them what they typically drink, and are they looking for something similar or would they like to try something new,” he said. Through conversation he can zoom in of what they are looking for which sometimes is a reflection of the food they want like a steak or fish with a particular sauce. Thomas shared with us, “Often people know what wine they would like for the evening, and they are looking for the food that would complement their selection. Conversely, if they came in with a certain dinner choice in mind I can help them pair the food to a particular wine.”
Besides working with the diners a good sommelier will collaborate with the staff, sharing knowledge about the available wines. Thomas said they regularly meet with the staff at Kirby’s, “We work with our servers so they have a comfortable feeling about their expertise in advising a diner.” The master sommelier is not only a wine expert, a qualified taster, and a salesperson. A true sommelier will have the ability to pass on their knowledge to colleagues and conduct a mini-course in wine for diners. With an improvement in wine service an establishment can not only see their wine sales profitably increase but the number of return customers will increase as well.
Beyond the proper education and qualifications a professional sommelier needs to have superior communication skills, great people skills, a winning personality, and a true passion for their profession. Sommeliers like our friends Bil Semon and Thomas Alexander are committed to the very highest standards of service and quality customer care, dedicated to helping others achieve a new level of excellence in their wine experience.
We asked Bil Semon what one of his favorite wines would be and he replied, “The Darioush Cabernet,” a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon full of depth and character. Sounds magnificent to us, we’ll have to sample a glass. Thomas chose a Sauvignon Blanc, “Illumination” which is crafted by a Chilean wine maker, Agustin Huneeus, at his Quintessa estate in the Napa Valley. This Californian white, according to both Thomas and Bil, is enjoyed by wine enthusiasts who typically select a chardonnay. We’re looking forward to a tasting soon so we can enjoy both of these libations. Next time you make a reservation to dine at your favorite restaurant be certain to ask for a tableside chat with the sommelier. Your sommelier will become your guide as you travel the wonderful world of wines. Salute.