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.
Ulises Barrios. México
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
After working as the Head Sommelier at the Presidente Intercontinental Puebla Hotel, I am now co-owner and Sommelier Director on Wine Machine that is a company dedicated to wine and food service training, from a practical perspective, funny, no formalities or archaic labels, and in the coming months will open a wine bar in the city under that concept. Now I’m a sommelier wearing shoes Converse.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
The city of Puebla is worldwide famous for its traditional cuisine, Mexico’s most representative dish is the ‘Chile en Nogada’, have you heard about it? It’s a great dish that was created over a hundred years ago! For this reason I am convinced that the only place where you can taste the dishes of the most extensive cuisine of Puebla is in the Mural of Poblanos otherwise you’d have to go to many different restaurants to try the representative dishes of each region. Good flavor, good price and good service in a nice place.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
At Puebla City there’s a restaurant called Toscalia which has a very good and extensive Italian wine selection in addition to good food and service. It’s an ideal place for Italian wine lovers in the town. Also it is not expensive.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
I have been at many great restaurants, but I know the best is yet to be discovered.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
Of course I have; I like intense flavors, acidic and spicy, but at the same time I am of simple tastes. I love gourmet luxurious restaurants, but I always prefer a good food, even if the place is not exactly the definition of elegance. There is a place called ‘Antigua Taqueria La Oriental’ that sells Tacos! It’s a fusion of Middle Eastern food with Mexican cuisine; they represent Puebla’s modern cuisine, as they were originated in that city. It is Shawarma fused with Tacos: pork, hot sauce and spices. If you visit Puebla you must try it! There are many places to eat tacos árabes but Antigua Taqueria La Oriental is the best of all.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
Although I don’t live in a coast town I love preparing ceviche. I’m a lover of fish and raw seafood: sashimi, carpaccio, Yaquis, and so on. When I want to forget about the gourmet food on weekends I cook fish ceviches with Mexican fruit (pineapple) and Asian (mango), chile habanero, red onion, black pepper, cilantro, cucumber, jicama, celery, etc… I try to vary the ingredients each time and I invite my friends over to enjoy a meal together. We accompany the dish with white wine or sparkling wine with good acidity or some craft beer of the region, but the spectacular pairing is with tequila (silver) or mezcal.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
Unfortunately, in Puebla City the Wine Bars are not good because everyone is trying to have the ‘bistro’ type business, with little choice of wine. So my favorite place was in Los Cabos, in a wine and liquor store called ‘The Europea’ where they had wine in front of the pier. Good atmosphere, good wine list and the peaceful sound of seabirds.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
Since about 6 years now, I have bought wine at Vinoteca because they have an excellent selection of labels, from simple well-selected wines to premium and iconic wines, they also have a very professional service and highly trained employees. On the other hand, in Mexico is not that common to find Italian wine, and because of that I also like buying at DOCITALIA that imports wines from Italian regions almost unknown in my country. I’ve been nicely surprised by trying out some of their labels.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
I’m drinking a wine called Rivero González Tinto a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. This wine is made in the oldest region of the American continent: Parras Coahuila, although the winery is relatively young. It is a wine aged in French oak: well balanced complex, elegant, unpretentious. When you taste it, it’s like a fusion of jazz and rock in your mouth, what I mean is that it is intense without losing elegance.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
I was very lucky to try some harvest of Vega Sicilia, just to mention some very expensive wines, but however if there is a wine that impresses me is Gaja Barbaresco. It was this one time when I was still working as the Head Sommelier of the Presidente Intercontinental Puebla hotel, that I had to open a bottle of Gaja Barbaresco 2005, so when I performed the ceremony of tasting the wine before the client I had to hide my smile of happiness because it tasted as if it was designed just for me! It was awesome! Too bad I could not taste it again minutes after, once the wine had already expressed its full potential.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Well, it was a Vigna dell’Angelo D.O.C. (Lacryma Christi Riserva), is a wine from Campania Italy made with Piedirosso grapes. It has an intense wine color, unusual and with a good balance in the mouth. I like Greco di Tufo and some Taurasi, but the truth is I had never tried a wine made with Piedirosso grapes before, and it really fascinated me.
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)
Although my interests are more focused on wines from France, Italy and the United States, there is one in particular that I like for its quality and price: Pétalos. It’s a Spanish wine from the Bierzo region made with Mencía. It is a wine that is not really expensive but it’s very well made. It is one of my favorite wines of Spain.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
There’s a traditional dish of southern Mexico called ‘Cochinita Pibil’, which is made with pork and many different condiments, besides being very spicy. When you make a pairing with rosé wine and that specific exotic dish, it makes a rare, but very good contrast because you inhibit the hot taste with the sweetness and can enjoy the food and the wine pretty well.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
I haven’t been able to go, but I hope I can visit soon the Piemonte in Italy: it motivates me to remain living as a sommelier, because I’m sure it’s a magical, delicious and colorful place, though Australia Barossa Valley and Stellenbosch in South Africa also interest me. I also dream a lot about visiting the Scottish Highlands though there’s no wine making there. I’m a full time dreamer, and that keeps me in love with what I do and inspired to keep doing it.
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.
Barrua Isole dei Nuraghi Agricola Punica – Sardinia Italia
Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira- Mendoza Argentina
Ícaro Bodega Sinergi- Valle de Guadalupe México
Zinfandel Caymus Vineyards –Napa Valley USA
Saint -Emilion Fortin Plaisance – Bordeaux France