When I took my first sommelier exam 15 years ago (gasp!), it’s safe to say that most people didn’t know what a sommelier was. In fact, I once told someone I was a sommelier, and not being familiar with that word, he was convinced I was trying to tell him I was Somalian.
Fast-forward over the years, and we’ve seen the emergence of the foodie culture, the globalization of wine, and the idea of a sommelier going from obscurity to the mainstream. Hell, there’s even a movie that put this odd little profession of nerds in the Hollywood spotlight.
But even with sommeliers garnering more recognition and even a little notoriety, I can’t help but wonder if people really know what it is that we do. What does it mean to be a sommelier? Sometimes I think even people in our industry have forgotten what our purpose is.
For me, being a somm has always translated to wine education, and because I’ve made it my mission to get as many people drinking as much weird wine as possible, I always encourage questions at my tastings—and I get lots and lots of them. In my mind, they’re all valid (No, really!), because to me, there’s nothing worse than a self-proclaimed “wine expert” who won’t ask questions about what he doesn’t know, because he thinks he should already know. However, some questions are better than others. Dare I say … some are more intriguing than others?
At a recent wine dinner, I had the opportunity to answer one of my all-time-favorite questions. I was blabbing on and on about quality to value ratios, and seeking out great wines for the price, and finding “hidden gems” when I heard this:
So, do you think a wine like Screaming Eagle is worth its price?
I love these questions so much, because they really don’t have an answer. On one hand, yes, if you have the means and desire to spend $4,000 on a bottle of wine that you will probably never drink, because chances are, you’re looking at this as a collectible—much like someone buying a vintage car that they will never drive. It’s not about practicality or function; it’s about owning something very few people can lay claim to.
On the other hand … no way. The very idea is absurd, especially given that wine does, indeed, have a shelf life. The whole purpose of wine is enjoyment, and if you are purchasing a bottle of Screaming Eagle, and plan on pulling the cork and gleefully sipping it to your heart’s content, could it possibly bring you more joy than if the bottle cost you $400? Or $40? Many would argue … no.
But as far as a sommelier is concerned, the answer should be: “Who cares?” The truth is, wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan and Opus One bore me. There is no denying they are exceptional; they are rare, perfectly crafted, shining examples of what Napa is capable of, and anyone who buys a bottle should expect nothing less. If you’re spending $500 on a bottle of California cabernet, there’s no crap-shoot involved: You can pat yourself on the back and rest assured the wine you’ve purchased will be stellar. If I recommend a bottle of Cliff Lede’s Poetry, Dalla Valle’s Maya or Shafer’s Hillside Select, have I really done my job … or do these wines just make my job easy?
I like to think that a sommelier’s purpose is to do what the consumer cannot: We are the flavor-finders, the value-hunters, and the detective of wine secrets. We know how to identify a great bottle of wine, from a great producer, who’s using quality fruit under strict confidentiality from a famous vineyard. Maybe it’s a wine from a region that’s up and coming. Maybe it’s a varietal that is making a comeback or fell into obscurity. Maybe it’s a side project from a famous winemaker who started a new label just for the fun it. Our job is to find the wine that’s $20, but drinks like it’s a $75 bottle. Our job is to find your perfect bottle of wine.
The beauty is: Those wines are everywhere!
The Fortnight cabernet, made by Napa legend Charles Hendricks, which we featured at our wine dinner at Cooking With Class, is a perfect example. Charles has made wine everywhere from Viader to Regusci, and now makes this fun side project in Calistoga with his friends at T-Vine. It’s labeled “California,” because from one year to the next, the fruit sources will be different. The varietal blend will be different. But the outcome is consistent: It’s a wine less than $20 that is downright delicious and a crowd-pleaser.
The Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti is the best wine deal going at Costco as of this writing. I have a case of this in my “cellar” at all times. This is one of the most notable producers in Piedmont, Italy, and this Barbera is juicy and ripe, with the perfect amount of acidity, body and fruit. This is the epitome of the Tuesday-night-with-homemade-spaghetti wine. Did I mention it’s $8.99 a bottle?
How about a deliciously drinkable pinot noir from Macedonia? I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a wine from Macedonia before. I recently grabbed a bottle of the Macedon pinot noir from Whole Foods and spent $15. I went home and drank it with some prosciutto and a triple-cream brie. ’Nuff said.
One more insider tip: If you want the best bang for your buck, make a beeline right for the Spanish wines. Spain really is a revelation in the world of wine these days. If you are a fan of the more classic European style, look for a Rioja. The ones from CVNE (pronounced COO-nay) will never disappoint you. If you like more fruit-forward, ripe and bold styles, à la California, the grenaches from Priorat or a lovely mencia from Bierzo are right up your alley. The Palacios family is my go-to for both regions! Are you looking for light and crisp refreshing wines for a warm evening? You can’t go wrong with a fresh, peachy albariño from the Rias Baixas (REE-ahs By-shas), or a zippy, citrusy rueda made from Verdelho. And don’t even get me started on sparkling wine. Remind me again why everyone is drinking Italian prosecco when Spanish cava is better AND cheaper?
Being a sommelier is all about the love of wine. We’re here so the consumer doesn’t get ripped off (ideally). We are matchmakers. We find the right wine for the right person. We save you time, money and the frustration of another disappointing bottle. We offer up wildly new and exciting bottles from grapes you didn’t even know existed. And we will happily give you your security-blanket bottle of cabernet.
I am lucky. I love what I do. Now, sit back, relax … and just trust me.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she’s not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at email@example.com.