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Who are the ‘super sommeliers’?

Elin McCoy picks the names to know...

Top sommeliers to know

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

Superstars of the day

We’ve covered the pioneers of the new-wave sommelier, including Gerard Basset MW MS OBE, Kevin Zraly, Daniel Johnnes and Paul Grieco. Below are some more of today’s stars.

Austria-born Aldo Sohm, master sommelier who plies his trade as ‘chef sommelier’ at Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York, shot to prominence after he won one of the two World’s Best Sommelier competitions in 2008. From there his reputation soared, bringing other opportunities that spread his name, including a collaboration with Zalto glassware, another with Laguiole on a signature corkscrew, and the launch of the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar just down the block from the restaurant.

The sheer difficulty of the competition for World’s Best Sommelier attracts global interest and media attention, which adds to the winner’s lustre. A 4,000-strong audience viewed Swiss-Italian Paolo Basso take the prize in Japan in 2013. Now he’s a wine consultant to luxury restaurants and Air France, an author, and is dabbling in making his own wine.

The most recent Best Somm is Sweden’s Arvid Rosengren, whose win in 2016 was live-streamed to the world. He’s the wine director at New York’s Charlie Bird, but says his new status has brought lucrative offers to host international dinners and tastings, and to help American Airlines make its selections. He’s also an example of the diverse, highly educated backgrounds of today’s somms: Rosengren studied nanotech engineering at university before being bitten by the wine bug. Rosengren’s counterpart at The NoMad, Thomas Pastuszak, majored in neurobiology at Cornell University, is a classically trained pianist, and planned to go into medicine before discovering wine. He’s one of the first people in New York city to champion the wines of New York state’s Finger Lakes region, and is even making his own wine.

Ronan Sayburn MS

A consistent route to success has been professional certification through the Master Sommelier programme offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, says super somm Ronan Sayburn, who is now head of wine at London’s new members’ wine club 67 Pall Mall, having previously served a long stint directing wine at the Gordon Ramsay group. Sayburn is a Master Sommelier himself and COO for the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe.

‘It gives people a clearly defined career path,’ he explains. ‘And it also gives somms credibility.’

Madeline Triffon, who left the Detroit restaurant world for retailer Plum Market a few years ago, became the second woman in the world to be awarded the MS back in 1987 and says it opened doors for her throughout her career. Only about 15% of Master Sommeliers are women, but as the number of somms in urban restaurants in the US is skyrocketing, that’s sure to change.

French-born Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate in New York’s Chelsea district, has created a huge buzz through being the leading sommelier champion of organic, biodynamic and natural wines. She has two MBAs and had intended to become a professor of philosophy, before turning her academic interests to obtaining the MS certification.

Another super somm route to recognition has been specialisation in specific wine regions. Jeff Porter made his name as the most important buyer of Italian wine in the US. He’s now wine director for Babbo, Del Posto and other Batali & Bastianich group restaurants, where he started the trend of offering rare, expensive wines by the glass, making use of the Coravin wine preservation system.

The media has glorified somms, explains Patrick Cappiello, co-mastermind of the downtown NYC wine hot-spot Rebelle, pointing to the power of annual lists of best new sommeliers in Food & Wine and Wine & Spirits magazines. His own career trajectory involved on-the-job training at places including Gilt, Tribeca Grill and Veritas, but he was one of the first to recognise the new fast-casual style of dining that included a great and well-priced wine list.

Highly social and a big networker, he gained notoriety as the food and wine host for Playboy magazine, also making videos that went viral.

restaurant complaints

Social media sommeliers

The advent and growing popularity of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been hugely important in establishing the influence of young sommeliers, explains importer Bartholomew Broadbent, who credits them with spreading the word about unusual wines in his portfolio such as Chateau Musar.

‘Sommelier wine endorsements are now more powerful than critics’ ratings,’ he claims. ‘They’re usually ahead of the curve.’ It’s worth noting, though, that major wine merchants still tend to quote recommendations from critics, and not those of somms, to help them sell their wines.

top sommeliers

Social media sites like Instagram give sommeliers more influence.

Still, there are 29,000 wine geeks who follow San Francisco super somm Rajat Parr, wine director for Michael Mina’s restaurant group, on Instagram, where he posts his under-the-radar discoveries.

And just as retailers promoted critics by citing their scores to sell wines, so too US importers and regional wine associations promote super somms by hiring them to host tastings. Wine Australia’s strategy for rebooting consumer interest in the country’s wines was to woo sommeliers with tastings and trips, to convince them there was more to Aussie wine than just bruiser Shiraz. One Master Sommelier, Michaël Engelmann, now wine director at The Modern NYC, has added dozens of new hot Aussie labels to the list.

Rajat Parr

The entrepreneurs

Super somm status has now become a major stepping stone to an entrepreneurial wine life beyond the traditional restaurant floor, enabling sommeliers to gain a different kind of influence over what we all drink.

Americans Ian Cauble and Dustin Wilson, Master Sommeliers who both starred in Somm, have recently gone the retail route, exploiting their previous restaurant insider access to pry out special wines rarely seen in stores for their new customers. Cauble co-founded cuttingedge wine club Somm Select, with daily email offers of unusual bottles, sometimes old vintages, such as an Olga Raffault, Chinon 1992, as well as monthly cases of six wines. Wilson left his high-profile job overseeing wine at Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park to found Verve Wine, a shop and e-commerce site that uses a questionnaire to discern your preferences in combination with customised algorithms, in order to recommend wines tailored to your taste profile.

Xavier Rousset

London-based Gearoid Devaney, a Master Sommelier who has also worked at Michelin Starred restaurants, is now director of Flint Wines, a merchant specialising in Burgundy and America’s west coast.

Then there are the somms who have become fully fledged restaurateurs, such as London’s Xavier Rousset, who became the youngest Master Sommelier in the world in 2002 (aged 23), later opening Texture, 28°-50° and Blandford Comptoir; and New York’s Laura Maniec, also a Master Sommelier, with several Corkbuzz wine bars.

Add to these the dozen or so super somms actually making wines that express their own strongly held taste preferences. One of the most celebrated is Rajat Parr. In 2011 he helped start In Pursuit of Balance, an influential organisation that championed a more restrained and elegant style of California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Its stance had an impact. And the two wineries he co-owns, Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte, are prime examples of that philosophy.

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