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Rise of the super sommeliers

Faster than a speeding bullet? Perhaps not, but the top modern proponents of what was once a staid profession have shot to prominence in ways that go far beyond the confines of the restaurant walls. Elin McCoy reports on this change...

Originally published in the July 2017 issue of Decanter magazine and edited for Decanter.com by Ellie Douglas.

The shift in sommeliers

Today’s ‘super somms’ belong to a very different breed than those haughty, pompous French guys in black (it was always a man) with a silver tastevin chained around their neck, who once held sway in fancy French restaurants.

The 21st-century version is anti-stuffy: some somms sport tattoos and have thousands of Instagram followers, and more than a few like to stand on tables to sabre the top off Champagne bottles for late-night customers. And, by the way, their numbers now include plenty of women.

The sommelier boom of the past decade has resulted in the emergence of literally dozens of super somms in the US and the UK.

After the economic crisis, the dining scene shifted, becoming more casual, and somms joined wine critics as essential sources of information on bottles from new regions, grapes and producers, at first in a restaurant context. There are a number who have become highly influential, and their routes to success have been greatly varied.

Their heightened status reflects today’s fast-evolving wine culture and the growing importance of wine in restaurants.

‘Sommeliers have become the wine counterpart to celebrity chefs.’

In the US, it’s been hugely boosted by the 2013 cult-hit documentary Somm, which follows four sommeliers studying for the tough MS (Master Sommelier) exam. The film’s sequel, and the subsequent TV series Uncorked, fanned the flames, while the recently published and highly entertaining book Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker (Penguin Books) elevates them to the hot rock stars of the taste world.

Somm into the bottle, wine film

Somm: Into the bottle

Sommeliers have become the wine counterpart to celebrity chefs.

The pioneers

I peg the rise of the super somm to a handful of pioneers who redefined the role, shifting its image and creating a new restaurant wine consciousness in the process.

In the US, Kevin Zraly presided over one of the biggest wine lists in the world at New York’s Windows on the World in the 1970s, and has educated a generation of wine lovers through his popular classes and books. Daniel Johnnes championed the vino-centric restaurant in the 1980s, ignited popular interest in Burgundy, gained an international reputation with his annual wine events such as La Paulée, and even became an importer.

Goateed Paul Grieco, the Canadian behind New York’s Terroir wine bar, shaped the image of sommelier as hipster-advocate for esoteric wines with a manifesto-like, on-trend wine list that inspired the next generation.

In the UK, Gerard Basset boosted his career further through winning the Best Sommelier of the World competition in 2010, having earlier passed both the gruelling MS and MW (Master of Wine) exams. He leveraged those credentials, as well as a wine MBA, first into sommelier jobs then into the founding of the Hotel du Vin chain, while also becoming co-chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards. Along the way, all of them magnified their reach by mentoring dozens of now-famous young somms – but also through astute and shameless self-promotion.

‘A sommelier can introduce a new wine to hundreds of people with a recommendation and then pour it,’ explains Peter Wasserman, who handles east coast sales in the US for Burgundy-based Becky Wasserman & Co.

‘They’re crucial to launching a new small domaine. A restaurant list is a showcase of what’s new and about to become trendy.’

Every night, somms are educating drinkers in three-minute soundbites. And, of course, they have the power of the purse.

So, are we at peak somm yet? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think so. Maybe mainstream TV is next…

See more of today’s super sommeliers

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