The New Kids in the Cellar
In an article exclusive to wineaccess.ca, Rachel Singh explores why sommeliers are getting younger and younger.
In Sommelier Secrets, wineaccess.ca shared some of Canada's wine professionals' favourite wines. Now, we follow-up with a look at trends in the wine industry and how young sommeliers are reaching out to potential wine drinkers.
Before you, two men; One is a refined gentleman, the other a cleanly-shaven, twenty-something youth. They're contemplating the wine list in an upscale restaurant.
"We're having the Korean barbecue short ribs. Which wine should we have?" asks one man to the other. A riesling is suggested as the best match, but a Gevery Chambertin, from Armand Rousseau, is a close contender; the tinge of sweetness from the pinot noir offers a nice juxtaposition to the spiciness of the short ribs.
After a few moments pause, the pinot is selected as the pairing for the evening's meal. The bottle is brought to the table and poured. After being encouraged to smell the wine, the elder man smiles at the younger one, pleased with the selection suggested to him by a sommelier just one year older than the glass of wine he is about to drink.
The wine industry is in a stage of rebirth with an explosion of twenty-something sommeliers taking command of the dining scene. While these professionals don't look or act the part of the stern, rigid sommelier of bygone days, they're just as serious (and as knowledgeable) in their charge of some of the largest and most prestigious wine lists in Canada. These fresh, young faces are the profession's next generation, intent on helping diners through the wine world's mountain of styles, jargon and history, using an approach that borders more on conversation than cold suggestion without explanation.
Just under 10 years ago, well-known food writer Amanda Hesser wrote an article titled, "Hey, is that Sommelier Old Enough to Drink?" which ran in the New York Times. She noted that these young sommeliers were being recruited because many restaurant owners felt their spontaneity, ability to encourage people to discover new things and eagerness to impart some of their knowledge to the customer left them with less boundaries than the older generation of the profession. They were, essentially, unlike their older counterparts, excited about guiding wine drinkers without baffling them.
Described Hesser: "This baby-faced generation is helping to bury the image of the snooty, aloof wine know-it-all and infusing life into a traditionally stodgy profession. They approach wine drinking like missionaries, determined to convert each and every diner into an open-minded wine drinker." Now, these twenty-something trendsetters are establishing firm footholds in the industry by bringing to life the picture Hesser painted: reinventing the profession's image into something more friendly and approachable.
These are not smooth talkers masquerading as wine experts, but serious students who are cracking the wine books, undergoing vigorous training and mentorship and travelling the world's wine regions to build the knowledge required for the demanding position. After all, they must face customers with many more years' tasting experience everyday, so they have to know what they're talking about.
Taking their knowledge back to the dining room, young professionals are trying to share some wine lessons with their customers and encouraging them to participate in discussions about wine. The next generation of sommeliers is making wine accessible by talking about wine in very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact terms.
When talking about a wine, "You don't have to go into super-fine detail like ‘roasted macadamia nuts on a Wednesday afternoon in summer.' You can say, ‘It seems nutty'," explains one young sommelier of his approach to wine. He goes on to say that when dealing with patrons wanting to delve into the world of wine, descriptions should be broad and use real language. "Wine language can really intimidate people starting out and getting into wine," he says. "When you get a bit more serious, you can use these long-winded descriptors, but as a starting point to get people into it, just keep it broad."
What really sets this new generation of sommeliers apart is their drive to make a statement with their wine selections. They're gently steering diners in new directions, creating unique and cohesive wine lists and taking on the responsibility of making risky and difficult decisions about purchasing wine for their restaurant for years to come.
They're like explorers, searching for wines in unexpected places and little-known vineyards. It's their lists, that read more like an invitation to travel the world than a tricky maze to negotiate, that are catching the attention of casual diners and wine professionals alike.
"While these sommeliers purchase only a small fraction of the wine bought in the nation each year, their choices play an important role in establishing industry trends for years to come," explains Hesser.
Whether a convert, ready to go on an adventure with one of the new generation as a guide, or a disbelieving skeptic, faithful to the tradition of older sommeliers, everyone will feel the change, because the wines that drinkers will be savouring five, 10, even 20 years from now will have been picked by these enological trendsetters.