Sommeliers

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Sommeliers

Postby Jenise » Wed Sep 05, 2012 1:34 pm

A friend's husband would like to become a sommelier. They live in a moderate sized town in the south with a disproportionate population of retirees and have no plans to move to what would be a major market for such professionals like NY or Vegas.

Discussing the pros and cons of such a choice with the wife got me wondering how viable a career-choice this is for anyone. More people are far more sophisticated about wine than ever before, suggesting that not only are there more people qualified for the available sommelier jobs, more diners than ever before can make qualified decisions by themselves--either by personal/anecdotal knowledge or with the help of an iPhone app. On the other hand, maybe wine's increasing popularity means that more restaurants are trying to have a fine wine program and therefore the need for someone to secure and manage those inventories is greater. Even if that's the case, would think this applies only to larger independent restaurants, though, because chain restaurants manage everything through volume buying at the corporate level and smaller restaurants wouldn't have the turnover for a full-time staffer.

Anyone with any opinions about which way it's going?
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Wed Sep 05, 2012 3:48 pm

Wow. Amazing that you should bring this up today, Jenise. In an hour I leave for a local restaurant to begin what I hope will be a fulfilling Sommelier apprenticeship. Therefore, regarding your question, I lean toward your second option that wine's increasing popularity means that more restaurants are trying to have wine programs. Further, I think your considering larger independent restaurants and staff turnover is also important. Add to that the area I live in, greater Wash DC, and I feel, and am indeed betting on, more room for Sommeliers, not less. I hope I'm right.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Bill Spohn » Wed Sep 05, 2012 4:25 pm

Clearly less need for sommeliers right now given the economy (sorry, Jon). The average price of a bottle sold has lowered considerably and your existing sommeliers better get used to unscrewing, rather than uncorking, a bottle.

Speaking of corks, the average quality of existing sommeliers sucks big time. I have come across several that were bone ignorant about wine, and several that had high TCA tolerances and some of whom managed to pair the latter with a very poor attitude to customers asking to replace a corked bottle.

Not exactly a ringing encomium for the choice of sommelier as a career choice right now, although obviously competent ones should never go hungry for long, as there are so many incompetent ones without any, or with inadequate training.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Dave Erickson » Wed Sep 05, 2012 8:45 pm

I recommend reading the "Fear" chapter in Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw." Wine sales, and the margins on wine sales, contributed a lot to restaurant profits in the fat years. Now that we are in the lean years, not so much. Restaurants are a business, and the person who contributes the most to the bottom line has a lot of clout. At the high end, that still may be true. But otherwise, probably not. The days of customers blowing tens of thousands of dollars on wine appear to be over, except at the very top end of the market.

That said, a good sommelier is still a great asset, because there are still many more people who are intimidated by wine lists than not, and even a customer with good wine knowledge will want help with pairing wines with what's on the menu. In any event, I'd say the advent of the iPhone is a greater threat to sommeliers than anything else, in that the cute little wine app gives the illusion of dispassionate selection.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Dale Williams » Thu Sep 06, 2012 12:22 pm

I think there is steady demand for good sommeliers in markets like NYC, DC, SF, LA, Chicago, etc. I think there has to be (a) a wine culture (b) have enough of a business community to have some expense account activity & (c) have some significant upper end/international tourism. Obviously any large city is going to have a few top end restaurants that have/need sommeliers, but for wider opportunities I think you need some place with a vibrant dining scene. No matter what, not much market at your casual neighborhood spot.

But beyond practicalities of finding employment. I think one should be aware of :
extremely long and late hours
dealing with sometimes difficult customers
dealing with sometimes difficult bosses/owners

I know some guys who have worked as sommeliers at places like Babbo and Gotham Grill, it is NOT show up at 5 PM, polish a few glasses, spend a few hours giving sage advice to rapt customers, and heading home at 11.

Lots of sommeliers (or shall we say the people who restaurants call sommeliers) suck, but good ones are treasures.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Mark Lipton » Thu Sep 06, 2012 5:08 pm

Dale Williams wrote:
I know some guys who have worked as sommeliers at places like Babbo and Gotham Grill, it is NOT show up at 5 PM, polish a few glasses, spend a few hours giving sage advice to rapt customers, and heading home at 11.

Lots of sommeliers (or shall we say the people who restaurants call sommeliers) suck, but good ones are treasures.


Apropos of that:
http://www.soyouwanttobeasommelier.blogspot.com/

from the incomparable Levi Dalton.

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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Bill Spohn » Thu Sep 06, 2012 5:31 pm

An increasing number of restaurants have been economizing in tough times and that often means that unless the 'sommelier' (I put that in quotes as there are many calling themselves such with zero academic support for it) happens to be an owner of the restaurant, they often 'make do' with a waiter with a talent/interest in wines, and save themselves the higher salary a real sommelier would demand.

Only the better equipped establishments with deeper pockets are able to afford to hire or to keep a really qualified wine specialist, and even they are trying to liquidate expensive holdings of special wines these days.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Fri Sep 07, 2012 8:47 am

Dale Williams wrote:I think there is steady demand for good sommeliers in markets like NYC, DC, SF, LA, Chicago, etc. I think there has to be (a) a wine culture (b) have enough of a business community to have some expense account activity & (c) have some significant upper end/international tourism. Obviously any large city is going to have a few top end restaurants that have/need sommeliers, but for wider opportunities I think you need some place with a vibrant dining scene. No matter what, not much market at your casual neighborhood spot.

But beyond practicalities of finding employment. I think one should be aware of :
extremely long and late hours
dealing with sometimes difficult customers
dealing with sometimes difficult bosses/owners

I know some guys who have worked as sommeliers at places like Babbo and Gotham Grill, it is NOT show up at 5 PM, polish a few glasses, spend a few hours giving sage advice to rapt customers, and heading home at 11.

Lots of sommeliers (or shall we say the people who restaurants call sommeliers) suck, but good ones are treasures.


All true Dale and I think the DC area will always have room for someone to pour wine whatever their title.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jenise » Fri Sep 07, 2012 9:59 am

Dale Williams wrote:

But beyond practicalities of finding employment. I think one should be aware of :
extremely long and late hours


I've cautioned my friend about that one. It's a lifestyle choice (evenings, weekends), and just loving or understanding a lot about wine is maybe the least of the considerations.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jenise » Fri Sep 07, 2012 10:01 am

Jon Peterson wrote:Wow. Amazing that you should bring this up today, Jenise. In an hour I leave for a local restaurant to begin what I hope will be a fulfilling Sommelier apprenticeship. Therefore, regarding your question, I lean toward your second option that wine's increasing popularity means that more restaurants are trying to have wine programs. Further, I think your considering larger independent restaurants and staff turnover is also important. Add to that the area I live in, greater Wash DC, and I feel, and am indeed betting on, more room for Sommeliers, not less. I hope I'm right.


Jon, how cool! I love that you retired and are taking on all these other adventures. Are you still working at Total Wine as well?
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Fri Sep 07, 2012 1:51 pm

Yes, Jenise, still at Total Wine. About a sommelier's hours, I,ve gotten used to them since, at Total, I often work until 11 PM or after. If I am fortunate enough to land some type of somm job, it would only be part time, at least at the outset.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Joy Lindholm » Sat Sep 08, 2012 2:26 pm

This is a great discussion! I am a wine director/sommelier in a medium sized market (Omaha, NE) and we are seeing the need for good sommeliers increase, as restaurant wine programs strive to be more serious and unique. At the restaurant I am at, our wine list is driven by very small production, family-owned wineries. The most common comment I receive is, "I don't recognize any of these wines; can you offer a suggestion?". This being as most of our list cannot be found in retail wine shops in our market, and certainly not on grocery store end-caps. I would agree with some of the previous comments about less need for knowledgeable wine staff - if the list were full of big brands and popular labels. That takes much of the guess work out of it for the guest. But if the restaurant seeks to create a unique wine program to match a top-notch food program, the need for sommeliers is a must.

I do believe there is a "new breed" of sommeliers rising; hopefully soon will be gone the days of old where stuffy, snooty, condescending somms who make customers feel inferior in their wine knowledge and choices. In our market (as well as others I have seen in the midwest, such as Kansas City), there are plenty of enthusiastic, 20-30something somms who are passionate about wine, and relaxed and laid back enough to keep the guest free of intimidation. Whether it be forgoing the traditional suit for more casual wear (perhaps even jeans - gasp! :) ) or simply engaging the guest in discussion at their comfort level and enhancing their overall dining experience, these are sommeliers that are much needed.

Roughly 10% of restaurant goers who order wine fall into the "wine geek" category (people who are passionate about wine and devote a great deal of time to learn, taste and understand the world wine, and post here 8) ). The rest fall into a broad range from those who enjoy wine frequently and are fairly knowledgeable to those who know nothing about wine and simply want to enjoy a glass with dinner to have the full experience. The value of a great sommelier is the intuition and flexibility it takes to interact with the whole spectrum of guests and engage them in a comfortable way at whatever level they fall in. From introducing someone who "hates Riesling" (because they think they are all sweet) into a mind-blowing dry Riesling and opening them up to a whole new side of wine (we are doing Summer of Riesling now, so this is a big one for us), or simply turning a guest on to a wine they have never tried before, based on their preferences, and having them love it and want to come back again to try new things; that is why we are in this. We do it for the love of wine, but also for the love of interacting with people and giving them a wonderful overall experience.

Bill Spohn wrote:Clearly less need for sommeliers right now given the economy (sorry, Jon). The average price of a bottle sold has lowered considerably and your existing sommeliers better get used to unscrewing, rather than uncorking, a bottle.


I know every market is different, but I couldn't disagree more in our area. Our wine sales have grown over the last year (we have only been open 21 months), as well as our average bottle price sold. When wine sales account for over 25% of a restaurant's revenue (as is our case), an owner would be foolish to not employ knowledgeable sommeliers to run the program and train the staff. Otherwise, who is doing the training? You aren't going to have great wine service from the servers if they don't have good training from a wine professional. I have seen a lot of bad service at places that don't take their wine programs seriously, and that is a shame.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Bill Spohn » Sat Sep 08, 2012 2:46 pm

Joy, we experience brutal mark ups by the provincial liquor board before the wines get to the restaurants and then their mark ups compound the offence. Net result in times like these is that 95% of wine sales consist of bottom end wines and the stocks of premium wines are sitting there unsold. I am told that we don't see any high rollers (the 1990 Latour customers) these days (used to be rich American businessmen).

Glad your market is doing better, wish ours were too.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Joy Lindholm » Sat Sep 08, 2012 2:56 pm

That's too bad, Bill. Hope things turn around for you all soon!
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Sun Sep 09, 2012 10:36 am

Joy Lindholm wrote:...we are seeing the need for good sommeliers increase, as restaurant wine programs strive to be more serious and unique.


Joy, I agree with you. Over the past four years, I have seen first hand how one restaurant in a small town has caused a major upgrade in several other restaurants in that town. Liz and I walked into a "bar & grill" for dinner and were served amuse bouche and sorbet palate cleansers between courses and had great wine service - all this in reaction to the one restaurant in town that started the trend.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jenise » Sun Sep 09, 2012 2:46 pm

Jon Peterson wrote:Joy, I agree with you. Over the past four years, I have seen first hand how one restaurant in a small town has caused a major upgrade in several other restaurants in that town. Liz and I walked into a "bar & grill" for dinner and were served amuse bouche and sorbet palate cleansers between courses and had great wine service - all this in reaction to the one restaurant in town that started the trend.


And would that be Voltaggio?

Thanks for describing your employment situation, Jon. Sounds like fun--you seem re-invigorated about life in general since leaving the court system and it's lovely to see.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Mon Sep 10, 2012 8:29 am

Yes, Jenise, Chef Voltaggio or Chef/Ambassador Voltaggio as the State Department calls him now. And I do feel reinvigorated and seeing restaurants from the other side of the table has been quite interesting. While I am happy and fortunate to have retired, I have no intention of sitting around.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jenise » Mon Sep 10, 2012 10:43 am

That is SO cool, Jon, congratulations. You're now the 3rd member of your family to be working there?
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jenise » Mon Sep 10, 2012 11:29 am

Joy Lindholm wrote:I do believe there is a "new breed" of sommeliers rising; hopefully soon will be gone the days of old where stuffy, snooty, condescending somms who make customers feel inferior in their wine knowledge and choices. In our market (as well as others I have seen in the midwest, such as Kansas City), there are plenty of enthusiastic, 20-30something somms who are passionate about wine, and relaxed and laid back enough to keep the guest free of intimidation.


Thanks for your input, Joy. I've not been to Omaha, but if things are as good there as I found them in Kansas City when I was there a few months ago, well then I understand. I was truly blown away by the wine lists/programs at most of the restaurants I visited, from the selection of affordable French wines at a little nose-to-tail restaurant (where they actually knew to lightly chill a Beaujolais) to geeky stuff like Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc, Huet Petillant and Pichler Gruner Veltliner at The Rieger--the list wasn't huge but it covered bases others don't go near and each selection was a best in class kind of wine. I don't see lists like that in Seattle!
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby JC (NC) » Mon Sep 10, 2012 1:01 pm

As the old song says "Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City." I was thrilled to discover a restaurant there that had great food and a large wines by the glass list including a number of Port choices. When we had a conference there several years ago, I ate at JJ's twice. It's a more traditional restaurant--not trying to be ultramodern and chic but more the relaxing, clubby atmosphere of restaurant/lounge. I didn't get to Omaha on my recent trip to my high school reunion in Lincoln, NE but would like to check out the dining scene there sometime.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Bill Spohn » Mon Sep 10, 2012 1:17 pm

I'd be interested to know to what degree other areas suffer from the 'fake sommellier' syndrome. Hang a tastevin around the neck of the waiter that knows the most labels and can choose the right glass 8 times out of 10, regardless of whether he'd know TCA if he was dipped in it and call him your sommellier.

Next time you are out in a restaurant, try calling the somm over and say "I've always been interested in being a sommelier - what training did you have to take to become one?" and see if they tray to avoid giving a straight answer.

I know that well established restaurants are likely to have well trained wine specialists , but that isn't a slam dunk either - we've hit amazing levels of ignorance (which they often try and disguise with amazing levels of snobbery) in some new and well reviewed eateries.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Mon Sep 10, 2012 3:56 pm

Jenise wrote:That is SO cool, Jon, congratulations. You're now the 3rd member of your family to be working there?


Technically, as a Stagiaire, I am not working or getting paid but that is the option I am exploring and the Stagiaire or "stage" is the method of exploration. If employed, I'd be the fourth in the family.
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Joy Lindholm » Tue Sep 11, 2012 1:16 am

Jenise wrote:Thanks for your input, Joy. I've not been to Omaha, but if things are as good there as I found them in Kansas City when I was there a few months ago, well then I understand. I was truly blown away by the wine lists/programs at most of the restaurants I visited, from the selection of affordable French wines at a little nose-to-tail restaurant (where they actually knew to lightly chill a Beaujolais) to geeky stuff like Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc, Huet Petillant and Pichler Gruner Veltliner at The Rieger--the list wasn't huge but it covered bases others don't go near and each selection was a best in class kind of wine. I don't see lists like that in Seattle!


Yes! I love getting to Kansas City whenever I can slip away for a couple of days. It is about double the size of Omaha, with at least that many great restaurants. We really enjoyed the Rieger (especially their basement speakeasy "Manifesto" - the best cocktails in the Midwest I've had outside Chicago), but found other little gems with great wine programs like the Farmhouse and Tannin Wine Bar. Where else did you dine?
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Re: Sommeliers

Postby Jon Peterson » Tue Sep 11, 2012 9:28 am

Bill Spohn wrote:I'd be interested to know to what degree other areas suffer from the 'fake sommellier' syndrome. Hang a tastevin around the neck of the waiter that knows the most labels and can choose the right glass 8 times out of 10, regardless of whether he'd know TCA if he was dipped in it and call him your sommellier.

Next time you are out in a restaurant, try calling the somm over and say "I've always been interested in being a sommelier - what training did you have to take to become one?" and see if they tray to avoid giving a straight answer.

I know that well established restaurants are likely to have well trained wine specialists , but that isn't a slam dunk either - we've hit amazing levels of ignorance (which they often try and disguise with amazing levels of snobbery) in some new and well reviewed eateries.


At Volt, Bill, no less than 10 waiters and captains have at least an intro level sommelier certification and one has the advanced certification, one step away from a Master Sommelier.
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