In Medieval Provençal times they were saumaliers, animal pack drivers who evolved during Middle French kingdom to become court officials charged with transportation of supplies. So what does a modern day Sommelier actually do? Well, Wikipedia outlines as such, “A sommelier or wine steward is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching. The most important work of a sommelier is in the areas of wine procurement, wine storage, wine cellar rotation, and expert service to wine consumers.”
A reasonably accurate job description although perhaps a little parched as our new-age sommelier has evolved to a higher learning with a wine Jedi cognizance and a seventh sense that can psychoanalyse a diner, marry the person, the dish and the wine in seconds. They are now the gateway to wine discovery equipped with clairvoyance in food and wine trends, inspiring thirst around the world.
Feared by winemakers, loathed by wine distributors as the arbiters’ of wine lists, the restaurant patron should embrace their knowledge, skills and talent as they are hopelessly and passionately obsessed with wine and will take you on journey of gastronomic enlightenment. And our new-age sommelier is no longer confined to fine dining and can be found in casual eateries, wine bars, gastro-pubs, winery restaurants, wine stores and you’ll even bump into an air-sommelier at 30,000ft these days. Some have hung up their waiters-friend and metamorphosed to the wine trade as brand ambassadors, distributors or consultants, but once a sommelier, always a sommelier.
This column explores the gustatory and olfactory manifestations of sommeliers all over this planet. We take a cross section of the sommelier’s stomach and intestines to reveal what and where they eat. And we dissect their taste buds and dopamine receptors as they relent to the Wandering Palate narcosynthesis and confess to their personal vinous pleasures and closely-held secrets – this is The Sommelier’s Palate.
Name: Beth Lieberman Country: USA
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I am the Beverage Director for Momofuku in New York City. This includes Noodle Bar, Ko, Ssäm Bar, and Má Pêche.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I am an unabashed fan of Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm www.torrisinyc.com. It is so hard to find deliciously executed brevity and focus in a restaurant. Folks too often go too far in one direction that they lose their original intent and vision—you either find too many ingredients in one dish, too many menu items so that there is no cohesive identity, or a beverage program or interior that does not speak to the menu. The Folks at Torrisi and Parm have managed to pull it all together and keep it that way: they work with geographic (American only beer and wine), spatial (those restaurants are TINY—even by NYC standards), and programmatic (Italian American) limitations to dramatic effect. You know what to expect when you walk into either restaurant, but you still feel that you are being offered the best experience possible that day. Nothing is ever rote, everything always tastes good, the service suits the venue, and like a set design, the space looks the part.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
I had a great time sitting at the bar at Bar Tartine www.bartartine.com in San Francisco recently. As a Beverage Director, I like to examine the whole beverage program when I dine out—I look at the beer list, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, as well as the wine—when you do that, sadly, you can often immediately see weaknesses in a program. Bar Tartine, however, had really interesting, impressive selections from each category. We had a delicious fermented apple and barley soda, a really successful bier de garde collaboration with local brewers Linden Street, and picked through a wine list that had a nicely pared down list of really well-priced, food friendly international options—a treat in SF, where so many restuarants focus only on West Coast domestic wines.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
It is always a truly memorable experience whenever I can dine out for pure pleasure, and not be critical of the service, food, or beverage program.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
Although half of New York City may say the same thing, I can’t bring myself to name another favorite regular restaurant than Diner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn http://dinernyc.com. The burger is excellent, of which I have to get a quarterly fix, at least. Their specials are always delicious in their seasonal simplicity, and I frequently get one or two of those with their not-to-be-missed french fries. Their wine list is focused, with most selections from natural producers in France, particularly the Loire, and they always have quirkily appropriate beer options, clearly selected with love.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I wouldn’t say perfected, but my husband and I are mean, home-pizzaiolis. We have at least a dozen different topping options laid out in front of us, and make an evening of mixing it up.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
It is hard to beat Terroir’s free (yes, I said “free”) happy hour sherry option, where I recently had Equipo Navazos “I Think” Manzanilla (!!!). http://restauranthearth.com/terrior/Terroir.html
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
I am so lucky to work in New York City, where we have direct access to some of the best importers around. It really makes our jobs so easy. Although there are many I have truly enjoyed working with over the years—from the big boys at Michael Skurnik to the smaller firms of Savio Soares and Zev Rovine—I would have to say, if only because of their extremely flexible ordering policies (how many times have I ordered from them at 11 pm for next day delivery?) if not their stellar Alpine wine options, Rosenthal may be my favorite.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
The first wine that really gripped me was “Cyncnus”, a Pigato from Poggio dei Gorleri in Liguria www.poggiodeigorleri.com. It tasted so strongly of the sea and the sun, I was instantly transported to the Riviera. That is the first time I was able to truly taste and understand the contribution of place, or terroir, in a wine.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
I wouldn’t say it’s a discovery, but I am always gripped by wines that are from areas that are culturally ambiguous—the Italian Alps, say, where they are culturally German, or Brda in Slovenia, where they share more with Friuli than with the rest of the country. I feel that producers there typically have less historic and market-driven weight on their shoulders to drive their styles, and therefore have the freedom to grow and produce truly exciting, unique wines.
Tell us what is your ultimate wine bargain discovery in terms of price/quality rapport? (i.e. does not have to be cheap but over-delivers in quality for the price)
As I have been saying for years, it’s got to be Cremant d’Alsace. Just as delicious as Champagne, but a fraction of the price. It’s my go-to for parties.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
That’s a tricky one. Good pairings are so much about context, and few sommeliers understand that, so it is hard for me to find inspiration. However, I am always impressed when folks break the rules, especially when pairing with foods like foie gras where the temptation to fall back on a traditional pairing is so strong.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
I had the opportunity to recently travel to Roussillon with the Court of Master Sommliers, and made a day-trip to Calce. It was picture perfect, of course, as are many small towns in the South of France, but there must also be magic in the air with so many excellent producers—Domaines Gauby, Matassa, l’Horizon—I could go on and on.
Select a six pack of wines that you think are absolutely outstanding and inspirational, and that will set people on a journey of vinous discovery and enlightenment.
I like to challenge people’s expectations, so I am always looking for wines that don’t fit the conventional wisdom of what they are supposed to taste like. With that in mind, I would put together the following:
Bow and Arrow “Rhinestones”, Portland, OR: From very new producers, this Pinot Noir and Gamay blend tastes more like an earthy, mineral driven, old-vine, Loire than anything I have ever tasted from Oregon. www.bowandarrowwines.com
Bisson “Glera”, Veneto: Changing the way folks think about Prosecco, this is an artfully crafted, dry option from a committed, Liguria-based producer. www.bissonvini.it
Bechtold, “Obere Hund” Pinot Noir, Alsace: Is it a classic Santenay, or an Alsatian Pinot Noir? www.domainebechtold.com
Marcel Deiss, “Schoffweg”, Alsace: Is it a rich, white Burgundy, or a crazy Alsatian field blend? www.marceldeiss.com/fr
Olivier Horiot, Rose des Riceys, Champagne: A barrel aged, savory and complex, still Pinot Noir rosé from a little known AOC in Champagne!??!? http://www.horiot.fr/?p=1
Bodegas Carballo, Listan Blanco, Canary Islands: A smokey, saline white from an often overlooked, but wonderfully productive and devoted wine producing island. www.bodegascarballo.com