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.
Karim Boulet – Located in Melbourne Australia 2 months out of the year, working and traveling around the globe the rest of the time. Otherwise, French native!
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
Luckily, I operate in several continents as a Head Sommelier for my consulting firm The Food and Wine Counselor; I also manage Ladera Resort’s beverage program in the West Indies. So I get to practice what I preach! I focus on remote locations around the world and family owned operations. I try to keep it simple, efficient and connected.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I recently went to Guy Savoy for lunch in Paris; I went for the 5 courses/ 5 wines. The service was immaculate and the exotic flair to each dishes made me want to book a ticket to Bali. It’s amazing how food and wine can transcend emotions and play with our imagination.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Maison Pic in Valence was an extraordinary experience as a whole, the service, the wine list, the hotel, the ambiance. I was trying to focus exclusively on food/wine/service, but I was completely swept away by the process of being there for 2 days. Perhaps, I should have only come for diner and left with a precise memory, instead I was taken on a culinary cloud! Sounds like I have to go back!
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
Difficult task to pinpoint a single one; Aziza in San Francisco comes to mind as the number one candidate. My ethnic background is French/ Moroccan, so the connection was profound and real. There was no fuss, no intimidation; just eloquent, classic Moroccan Cuisine. Mourad Lahlou is very generous and authentic; it really shows in his cuisine.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
While on travel, I like to go to both local restaurants to discover new flavours and ingredients and also French restaurants. Everybody has their own take on French ‘classics’, but when I strive for the ‘real thing’ I go to Thoumieux (Jean – Francois Piege) in Paris. It’s my ceremony, my sanctuary, where my palate feels at home!
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I went to culinary school in Paris and apprentice at Lasserre, so yes, I have been cooking since I am 16. It’s actually the food that led me to wine and it makes all the sense in the world. My favourite dish to cook is Osso Bucco; I use both white and red wine from the Veneto for the sauce (and to drink too, especially Giuseppe Quintarelli’s Amarone); I also add lemon and orange zest as well as a tea spoon of Millefiori’s honey. I serve fresh tagliatelle with crème fraiche. Sounds delicious, don’t you think?
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
When I was working for Massimo Bottura in Modena, the chefs introduced me to Wine Bar Athenaeum Enoteca. What really made it special was the fact that we could show up late at night and taste local Tortellini, Parma ham, Culatello di Zibello, Bussetto, extra aged balsamic vinegar. All matched with local or international ‘gem’ wines. A real treat after service!
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
My 2 favourite merchant are Hart Davis & Hart in Chicago and L’Intendant in Bordeaux.
My favorite wine importer is Terry Theise, not only for his selections and involvement, but his personal demeanour. He really knows how to blend expertise and comedy, he’s a riot!
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
As we speak, I have a Chateau Labegorce Zede, Margaux 1996 in the decanter and duck magret on the grill. Otherwise, I am a huge Gruner Veltliner consumer.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
Yes! I was working in Margaux at the time, and a table of Singaporean business men offered me a taste of their Chateau Margaux 1964. I had tasted Margaux on several occasions, but that evening it really spoke to me in many ways. The Maitre d’ Hotel was kind enough to allow me to ‘stay with the experience’ and observe the different stages within my palate. It was epic!
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
I came to appreciate Croatian wines while visiting the area, notably Plavac Mali from the villages of Mali Ston and Ponikve made by the Milos Family. It’s all coastal vineyards on a long stretch with mountainous background. The area has a sort of mystical and medieval flair to it.
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)
Austria always meet my expectations when it comes to quality, source, balance and versatility. It has never left me astray; you just have to stick with the right producers. Just to name a few, Prieler, Heidi Schrock, Glatzer, Schwartz, Ott, Nigl, Brundlmayer, Alzinger.
From $15 a bottle to $35, you can truly build your palate with amazing juice!
Also, Old Vines Cru du Beaujolais are an amazing value especially from the village of Morgon; follow the Producer.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
A Comtes Lafon Meursault ‘Clos de la Barre’ 2004 with a Blue Ink and Sea Urchin Risotto finished with a drop of Camargue Sea Salt and Extra Aged Parmesan Reggiano.
The connection was intense, powerful and yet retained all its charm. The sea line, the lees, the creaminess of the Arborio rice with a hint of resistance; the pungent yet almost sweetness of the cheese. All these aspects were displayed in the glass and the dish. Once again, food and wine allow you to travel in your mind in unexpected places, new and old. It’s like IMAX for the palate and the mind! The earth clashes with the ocean!
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
If you hadn’t added ‘good eating’, I would have picked Austria, particularly the Wachau! But I’m going to stay with the plan! The Beqaa Valley in east Lebanon is arguably the most tantalizing and thrilling wine region I ever visited. Beirut’s restaurant scene was amazing, from farm to table restaurant to gastro pub and fine dining waterfront restaurant. To seal the deal and jeopardize my weight, I slayed as many middle eastern pastries as I could despite my friends warning!
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.
Some of my meditation wines:
Larmandier–Bernier “Terre de Vertus” Brut Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Vertus Champagne France
Movia “Puro” [Pinot Nero] Vino Spumante Rose Brda Slovenia
Bret Brothers Pouilly – Vinzelles Climat “Les Quarts” Burgundy France
Nikolaihof Gruner Vetliner “Vinothek” Wachau Austria
Jacques – Frederic Mugnier Chambolle – Musigny “Les Amoureuses” Burgundy France
Bond Winery “Vecina” Red Blend Oakville Napa Valley CA USA