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.
Christopher Leo, USA
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles and The Maritime Republic Imports, New Jersey
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
Sylvain, New Orleans.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Spoke Wine Bar, Boston, Massachusetts. Tiny nook in Boston’s Somerville. Fantastic service, but it was the carefully curated limited menus that impressed me most. I can only imagine the struggle of restraint the creative minds behind the lists must grapple with. Wine-wise there was a sense they had a cellar that ran much deeper than that which they chose to open up on a given day, feeling like the chef and sommelier worked hand in hand to find perfect pairings rather than inundate with options that strayed from purpose.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
Osteria Storica Morelli, Pergine Valsugana, Trentino, 45 minutes east of Trento at a trattoria in the Val dei Mocheni where the people still speak Mòcheno, a language related to Bavarian German. Here are some highlights of the all-local wine list: Majere, Negrara, Franconia, Pavana, Turca, Tintoria, Vanderbara, Veltliner Rosso…
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
The Wallace & EnjoEat, Culver City, California. I am a lover and believer in Los Angeles where there is an incredible dynamism surrounding food and beverage right now, but being an East Coast pedestrian at heart means I walk whenever I can — which one need not be reminded is limiting here. Luckily there are two new restaurants within walking distance from my home that transcend (or ignore) being overly concepty or movie-set feeling like so many others of this current wave succumb to. The banner across the homepage of The Wallace reads “serving seasonally inspired shared plates focusing on locally sourced and sustainable ingredients,” which I thought was the understood #hashtag requirement for every new restaurant opening this year, however they succeed and remind the diner why this is so important after all. EnjoEat is an unfortunately named no frills Italian restaurant run by a family from Emilia wherein the aforementioned banner is redundant by birth.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
At least one meal a day is cooked at my home by either myself or my wife. My “specialty” is a type of farinata di ceci wherein I fold it over like a French omelet to cover whatever soffritto I draped on top. Pair with a Gruner Veltliner or Trebbiano di Lugana.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
Osteria Infinito, Grottammare, Le Marche. A one man show focusing on natural wines from across Italy and France. Great Italian beer too!
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
Indie Wineries based in NY, but available throughout the States.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Vino di Anna’s 2010 “Jeudi 15” Nerello Mascalese
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
A 1980 Montepulciano by Emidio Pepe. It revealed a new trick every 15 minutes over the course of 5 hours.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Yann Chave. This is where my grasp of reason ends. Picked up a bottle of his 2011 Crozes Hermitage because I assumed it was a new Chave dynasty offshoot. It’s not, seems neither Yann nor his father Bernard have anything to do with Jean-Louis et al yet they didn’t let their more famous neighbor’s name dissuade them from sticking with the same surname. Ok, so the next default assumption would be that they’re pretenders to the thrown leeching off Jean-Louis’ reputation. Not true either. This in fact is a delicious Syrah that could come from nowhere other than the Northern Rhone.
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)
Mencia from Bierzo
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Pizzeria Mozza’s funghi misti pizza (portobello, button, shiitake; taleggio, fontina; thyme) with Monsecco’s Colline Novaresi Nebbiolo.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
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.
An Albariño by Santa Barbara County’s Martian Vineyards and a Riesling by Upstate New York’s Dr. Konstantin Frank
Since we know that the bulk of this journey of vinous discovery and enlightenment our traveller is about to embark on will lead him away from the New World, it’s important to begin here to prove that the elements for excellent wine do exist here as well, from coast to coast. Equally important, if the New World wants us to buy their quality wine they must sell us their quality wine. Both Martian and Dr. Konstantin Frank make noble wines that don’t cost three times what their European equivalents do.
“Pietra Rosa” Greco di Tufo 2010 by Di Prisco
From New World to one of the ancient world’s premier crus, a small 2010 harvest for Di Prisco meant limited but optimum grapes resulting in a very serious wine.
“Recantu’,” Pigato 2011 by Selvadolce
By this point our traveler is deep in and may need a reminder that wine does not exist in a vacuum. Take a break from drinking wine with wine people only, put the vines and grapes back into their larger context of plants with flowering fruit keep peeling back until…everything is all under the one same umbrella again. Aris Blancardi runs this biodynamic vineyard within a stone’s throw from Monaco on terraces leading to the sea surrounded by fields of flowers. Aris Blancardi is also a virtual teetotaler. His approach to wine is one dominated by the philosophical and spiritual, which to Aris runs tantamount with ambrosial.
La Gerla’s 2008 Brunello di Montalcino
A personal benchmark.
Sterling Vineyards’ 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is my birth year wine which, except for a few odd pockets, was a horrible year for wine. Ending this journey where we began in the New World because, though a love of wine is one that exists in all three tenses, it tends to err on the weight of the past. In returning to Napa at the apex of its heyday with the dark days of Prohibition only a generation before and the dark days of uniform plonk only a generation after we’re able to see one beautiful and succinct bell curve of both Apollonian and Dionysian pushes and pulls wherein nothing is static and everything returns.