“I am a big fan of the Finger Lake Region in New York. Visiting in the fall when the leaves change colours is absolutely breath taking.” Sommelier Scott Zoccolillo
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.
Scott Zoccolillo, United States
Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I am the sommelier and front of the house manager at Nectar Restaurant in Berwyn, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia)
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I met a friend for drinks and a late night snack at Xilantro Restaurant in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Xilantro is an upscale Mexican Restaurant and Tequila bar, not like any other Mexican restaurant that I’ve ever been to. The restaurant breaks the stereotypes of Mexican food and decor, as well as the best tequila selection I’ve ever seen.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Il Pittore in Philadelphia is an Italian Restaurant with 100% of their wines on their list are Italian. Many off the wall varietals – pecorino, vitovska, pigato – that you cannot find anywhere else. The servers were all very knowledgeable with the wine selections.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
My wife and I went to Vetri in Philadelphia for our anniversary a few years ago. After reading all the accolades about Marc Vetri and the restaurant, we decided to try it for ourselves. Hands down the best service and some of the best food I’ve ever had. They offer a 6 course chef’s tasting menu with all Italian wines paired with each course, in an old brownstone with only 13 tables. Small, intimate, romantic. Everything about the experience was amazing.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
There is a small neighborhood restaurant and bar near my house that recently went through a renovation. Catch 202 in Wilmington, Delaware has become my favourite local bar and restaurant. The new owner, John, is doing a great job with the restaurant, food, service and re-establishing the restaurant in the community. It has a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere where I go to just enjoy myself and have a beer and a burger and step away from the fine dining scene for a while.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I like to try new dishes, recipes, ideas on my wife and four children. I’m not afraid to cook with a protein that I’ve never worked with before. But as far as perfecting a dish, that’s tough. What I enjoy most is barbequing and smoking meats on my back deck. There is nothing better than a plume of smoke, the smell of hickory and pork butt or baby back ribs on the smoker. I will invite neighbours and friends over to share in the meal, some good local beers and great wine, usually zinfandel or syrah to pair with the smoky meats.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
Ristorante Panorama at the Penns View Hotel in Philadelphia has 120 wines by the glass and great wine flights. They usually have some new and unique offerings by the glass. It gives everyone great exposure to varietals, regions and producers that they might not have the opportunity to try due to the cost and commitment of a whole bottle.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
Not necessarily a favourite wine merchant as much as I do sales reps that I enjoy working with more than others. Each merchant has their strengths in their portfolios, but the true strength of a company is their people. A good sales rep with a small portfolio is worth more than a great portfolio with a terrible rep.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
I’ve been drinking a lot of local Pennsylvania wines. Pennsylvania is not as known as California or even New York as far as wines coming from the United States, but there are surprising amounts of good to great wines that are grown locally. Many wine makers have established their own identity and are not trying to emulate California, New York or French wines. Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are thriving in this climate.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
I remember the exact bottle that made wine become an obsession instead of just an interest. It was a 1942 Cheval Blanc that was brought in by a guest. The story behind the wine changed me more than the wine itself. We had a regular that would bring in bottles from his cellar, and he brought in this 42 Cheval Blanc, he told me the story about how Nazi Germany was confiscating many of the French wines and destroying vineyards during the World War II. The fact that the French people cared so much for their wine to continue to grow the grapes and produce the wine during a time of war, as well as hide many of their bottles from the invading troops showed how much this “drink” meant to their history and culture. At that point, wine became more than just juice, it was history, geography, culture…it was life.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Swiss wines. Serge Roh’s Pinot Noir has become a bit of an obsession for me lately. Now that summer is coming up, Petite Arvine is drinking really nicely as well.
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)
Chile is still producing well above their price point, but I think that their prices will raise soon as more people are becoming aware of the quality of Chilean wines. South Africa could be the next area for great over delivering wines. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon are safe bets from South Africa. Pinotage is always a fun choice if you are willing to try something outside of the box.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
We recently had a wine dinner with Penfolds. We paired the Penfolds RWT Shiraz with Tea Smoked Venison. The smokiness of the venison, the jammy fruit and spiciness of the shiraz were amazing together.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
I am a big fan of the Finger Lake Region in New York. Visiting in the fall when the leaves change colours is absolutely breath taking. Wineries and Vineyards such as Konstantin Frank and Hermann Weiner have a great history that make the trip even more special.
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.
Inspiring wines should be affordable yet not inexpensive (not DRC or 1st Growth Bordeaux but not “house wine” quality either) and show true expression of varietal character, terrior.
Bollinger La Grande Annee, Champagne, France
Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, California
Domaine des Malandes, Les Clos, Chablis Grand Cru, France
Clouds Rest Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Molly Dooker Velvet Glove Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia
Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California