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.
Jörn Kleinhans, independent sommelier/owner of The Wine Elite Sommelier Company, Orange County, California, USA
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I am a Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine and own The Wine Elite Sommelier Company, http://www.WineElite.org
Our vast team of sommeliers and wine educators consult with top restaurants and hotels nationwide. Our monthly sommelier-moderated tastings are a highlight in the Southern California wine appreciation scene. We also handle high-end corporate events and destination management projects that centre on wine and spirits. Strong business partnerships with the best names in the hospitality industry position us well in this space. We also enjoy receiving expertise requests from serious private collectors.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I recommend two excellent culinary highlights in Orange County; Back Bay Bistro in Newport Beach and Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa. Both have excellent wine programs that we support. Orange County is currently undergoing a significant comeback on the front of attractive wine and dining opportunities, and we are involved in leading that effort.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
The above two restaurants are my current recommendations. I wouldn’t recommend a restaurant without a great selection of wines from around the world. Many restaurants in California are very heavy on California wines, which makes perfect sense for visitors who travel the region. For the local wine connoisseur, however, we believe that a solid representation of European classics must be the core of a serious wine list.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
The most memorable meal I recently had was at a renowned Las Vegas wine restaurant. It was memorable because it was a bad experience. Tons of wine are on display, and a giant wine list is presented on a tablet device. The restaurant has a great reputation in the wine world and won “Top 10 in America” several times. Our experience was terrible. All steaks in my party were cooked incorrectly, and the waiters put all orders in front of the wrong person, sometimes loudly asking guests what they ordered. The service team was inattentive, unpolished and unqualified to address questions on wines and food. And, we never saw the same waiter twice. This is a reflection of compromising service quality as long as enough guests are coming in, and it represents just one example of the disappointments a serious wine gourmet will experience on the side of wine expertise, food or service.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
The Back Bay Bistro and Pinot Provence in Orange County are truly among our ongoing favourites these days. Ask for the sommelier, and you likely won’t be charged a corkage fee when you bring in your own wine.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
We usually cook at home to match the Italian wines we study continuously. Focus is on cuisine of Tuscany and Piemonte, of course.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
No. Most wine bars with a really wide selection of wines by the glass have the problem that they serve wine that has been sitting in an opened bottle for some time. No wine survives more than 24 hours in an opened bottle. There are new machines available in some bars that avoid the oxygen exposure, but the selection is then very limited.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Mostly Barolo, Rioja Gran Reserva, or left-bank Bordeaux. I believe that these 3 are the most fascinating quality red wine regions that can hold my attention over the years.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
Yes, that was and is Barolo, the king of wines for good reason.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa can be very beautiful. Just like Carmenere from Chile, it is the current amazing value in the wine world.
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)
Rioja Gran Reserva represents the best of Spain. You can get some starting at $20, and still get the full cigar box and leather attributes that make oak-aged Rioja so iconic. I think Gran Reservas are the most affordable noble wines.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Truffle and Barolo just belong together like Asparagus and Sauvignon Blanc.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
Tuscany would probably be my top selection — but if you want real drama, you should inspect the nearly vertical vineyards of the Mosel.
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.
Besides Barolo, Bordeaux and Rioja, there are a few more fascinating wines that are useful to study for everyone who wants to systematically explore the most essential wine styles in the world. The following six can be of great quality, but are not widely known in the New World.
1. Viognier from Condrieu, Northern Rhone Valley, France
2. Syrah from Cornas, Northern Rhone Valley, France
3. Malbec from Cahors, South-Western France
4. Aglianico from Campania, Italy
5. Zinfandel, Baja California, Mexico
6. Tannat from Uruguay