Posts Tagged :

sommelier

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Wine & Warmth

These days, when you tell someone that you’re a wine sommelier, they inevitably register a look of awe: eyebrows raised, eyes wide, mouth gaping…

“You must be really smart,” is the opening line that invariably follows.

Thank you “Somm,” the 2013 documentary that follows four wine captains in their quest for the Master Sommelier certification.

And whilst a good sommelier indeed should know his/her wines, varietals, flavour profiles, terroirs, geology and geography, I believe the job of a good sommelier requires a few other qualifications: namely a hospitable nature, of which warmth is the most important ingredient; good instincts and some psychological insight that gives him/her the ability to read the table.

I am one who admittedly goes out to eat at restaurants a lot, and have worked in my fair share of them and therefore have come across many a sommelier…and the ones who remain indelibly etched in my mind are the ones who smiled when they greeted me, the ones that made me feel good about the wine I had chosen and gently waltzed around a few suggestions of their own, explaining in simple words why their choices might be more appealing. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I didn’t, but either way, we both ended up extremely pleased with the choice.

Years later, I may not remember much else, but I shall not easily forget Luis Garcia de la Navarra, the owner and Master Sommelier at his restaurant that carries his name on the Calle Montalban in Madrid.

Luis is tall for a Spaniard and handsome to boot. The first time I ate there, I had picked a simple Verdejo for lunch. It was a hot summer day and he applauded my choice and came back with:

“Perhaps the Senora would like to try a wine that just arrived in my cellar?”

Of course, I agreed.

That lunch, my friend Maria Jose and I ended up drinking the most delicious Godello…it was ‘As Sortes’ from Rafael Palacios, a honey-coloured liquid made from grapes that came from Palacios’ seven oldest plots. It wasn’t even that much more expensive than what we had originally picked, but it was so much more interesting than the Verdejo, and way more complex and layered.

And Luis suggested a simple plate of Pata Negra Jamon to start out with and rounds of juicy tomatoes drenched in a spicy green olive oil and warm bread to go with.

I must say it was probably one of the best lunches I’ve ever had.

And Luis…well, he won my confidence with his smile and twinkling eyes.

Then of course, there are the sommeliers who take themselves far too seriously and when they approach a table, they live up to their reputation of being unapproachable and borderline arrogant. Why? I’ve often wondered. Why be in the hospitality world if you’re not hospitable? Why can’t they smile. Why so stiff? In fact, I recently bumped into one who came off as quite rude. After all, it’s about the wine, not about them; and isn’t it all about the guest and helping their experience to be an unforgettable one?

Somm Time in New York City is a wine bar where a warm smile and hospitality go hand in hand with a spectacular wine list…the kind of list that wine aficionados might put up with a dour, dull sommelier, just for the pleasure of drinking the bottles curated so thoughtfully by Maria Rust. But in fact, you get it all at Somm Time: the warmth and the wine.

And with that combination, you just can’t lose.

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A Time To Wine

Back in the day, there was a bar on Greenwich Avenue called “The Bar.” It was truly a neighbourhood dive, with a great jukebox and a man called Johnny with a long ZZ Top-style beard behind the bar. Open until 4am, it attracted all kinds: nurses getting off their shifts, servers, other bartenders, writers, artists and the occasional lost soul.

I used to go in there for the odd dirty martini and put coin after coin in the jukebox, listening to The Cure and The Rolling Stones over and over.

I remember once asking Johnny for a glass of wine and he looked at me and raised a sardonic eyebrow.

“Lady, this is a bar,” he said.

That was in 1995.

A few years later, just as I had begun to gravitate towards the wine world, I happened to be at “The Bar” late one night and asked Johnny the same question.

“What color?” was the reply this time.

“White…” I said, shrugging slightly.

He bent down and pulled out a box, put some ice in a rocks glass and poured some of the golden liquid over the ice. “Here you go,” he pushed the glass towards me. “Wine.”

15 years later, after a particularly superb dinner of paella with Maria and Angie, two of my closest gal pals that included five bottles of vintage Burgundy and Bordeaux, I decided they needed to know about “The Bar.”

We piled into a cab and off we went downtown.

It was just as I remembered it. A real dive. Except that the jukebox now took debit cards and Johnny proudly served Pinot Grigio, Sancerre, Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

All this to say that wine is now a beverage of choice, and not just among aficionados and connoisseurs, but it is now accessible and available to all. And wine bars have cropped up all over the city. But they’re not all alike.

These days, I hang my hat at Somm Time, a wine bar par excellence, that is the brainchild of Maria Rust. A sommelier and wine maverick, she had always wanted a wine bar where wine was celebrated and enjoyed…and not for any particular reason, but just because.

When we worked together several years ago, we always said, we would have such a bar and lo and behold, now there is Somm Time.

Somm Time is a wine bar with a list that is extraordinary, filled with wines that appeal to everyone: from the sommelier and master of wine to the young law student who lives next door. But it’s not just about the wine: it’s also about the atmosphere, the ambiance and the sheer warmth that emanates when you walk in. People say it feels like their living room…and there may be some truth to that. But that is what we want. We want people to feel comfortable and happy…whilst they try new wines and teach their palate about something new.

None of us who work at Somm Time (and there are only three) preach about wine…it’s a conversation; we put people at ease with a smile and let them tell us what they want before we make gentle suggestions.

And for us, the greatest reward is when someone’s eyes genuinely light up when they take that first sip. That is what makes the very hard work we put into Some Time worthwhile.

Somm Time isn’t just any wine bar. It is a quintessential wine bar run by people who care not only about the wine but about the experience…because while the average person may or may not remember the wine, he or she will most certainly remember how we made them feel and hopefully come back again and again.

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The Wine of Memories

“Drink wine…Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life…” so said Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyyat in the 11th century.

Fast forward a thousand years:

I was about ten years old when I had my very first sip of red wine…it was a Chateau Margaux Grand Cru Classe, 1959.

I don’t remember the nose or the tasting notes on the palate…all I remember is that it felt like red velvet going down my throat.

That was the beginning of my love affair with wine, one that has lasted since…over 40 years I should say.

I went from being a neophyte to a connoisseur to a full-on sommelier, studying, smelling, tasting and writing about that delectable nectar.

Over the past several years, I’ve dipped in and out of the world of wine, dedicating myself mostly to writing, but now, I’m back in it full time, creating wine lists, going to tastings…and best of all, serving wine: talking to people about what they like and guiding them…perhaps to what may be a new discovery for them, or simply the ideal pairing with what they’ve decided to eat.

For me, there is nothing quite like watching their eyes light up as they taste, savour and simply enjoy that first sip I pour.

I had temporarily forgotten what it entails to be a sommelier: people seem truly impressed. “I’m just the sommelier,” someone mimicked the phrase back to me, “just the sommelier.“You must be really smart,” he added.

I don’t know about all that…perhaps he saw “Somm,” the documentary about the four wine stewards who decide to take the Master Sommelier exam.

Nonetheless, it appeared that he had a newfound respect for me. As do most others.

But wine, like writing, my other passion, is bloody hard.

Of course I still enjoy it…but when it becomes a profession, it takes on another dimension: people expect you to know more, look to you to educate them in the three minutes you spend talking to them about the wine as you serve it.

And frankly, I don’t take it all so seriously: wine has always been a celebration…of life, of love, of friends…all the stuff that matters.

For me, wine has always been part of my memories…just like the Pouilly Fume I had at Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris one recent beautiful Spring day…a day when I forgot all the mundanity of life and breathed and really smiled.