Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Oak Chips from the A.S.I.’s Woodchopper’s Ball

A profile of NYC Sommelier Aldo Sohm in a recent Washington Post serves to warn us of the upcoming International Association of Sommeliers bonspiel in Greece a few weeks from now. Sohm (who was judged “American Sommelier of the Year” by the American Sommelier Association), “clearly intends to win” in the breathless words of the Post’s Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Sohn’s Rocky-like training regimen is not half so unintentionally hilarious as the authors’ wide-eyed boosterism for it, but if you read between the lines, it brings out a lot of the contradictions in this upcoming sommelier’s bake-off.

At first blush, a Sommelier’s competition that’s staged like an athletic event or a competitive cultural occasion like a film festival seems completely wrong-headed; sort of like getting Margaret Atwood and Alice Monroe to face off with word-processors in front of the fans at BC Place. No matter how you stage the event, or what you require of the participants, you’re not in any meaningful way measuring what counts as excellence in their professions.

Virtually all the professional qualities that make a great sommelier are things that can’t be measured in a centralized contest. Just a few of those skills are
  • Knowing clientele: to be able to non-patronizingly tease out a customer’s tastes and preferences, and in a limited time, accurately judge what would make a customer happy
  • Knowing the menu: being intimately acquainted with the food that the restaurant serves; with what went into a dish; how the way it might have been cooked will affect the taste of the wine it’s paired with; and a hundred other local details
  • Knowing the chef: outstanding sommeliership is invariably a successful partnership with an excellent chef
  • Mastering the setting: putting it all together—the successful sommelier-chef partnership produces an outstanding unified experience matching wine, food, and a unique individual who walks through a restaurant’s front door

Competition instead measures a sommelier’s robot-like qualities, like identifying a wine blind—something that will never happen or be required in a sommelier’s job. Worst of all, a competition like the one coming up in Greece rips the sommelier out of context: If the International Sommelier’s Association honestly wants to find the world’s best sommeliers, then they should have a meal in the competing sommelier’s restaurants! Visit them on their home turf, like everybody else does.

But that wouldn’t be an Event. Taking the actual steps required to find the world’s best sommeliers would make the IAS’s central committee more like the authors of the Michelin Guide, than the blue-bloods of, say, the International Olympic Committee. And when you shine your flashlight down around the bottom of the competition’s barrel, it’s the capital-e nature of the Event that counts.

This Event exists not to find the best sommelier in the business—at least the best in the way we restaurant patrons would most benefit from—but to publicize the organization, feed the egos of the people running it and (only incidentally) to promote the profession of Sommelier itself. Publicly endorsing the people who do the best job matching wines to foods for the people who actually patronize the world’s restaurants—and pay the tab—is way down at the bottom of their menu. It’s a reminder that the virtues of the successful critic are selflessness and anonymity. But the vices of the successful competition organizer are egomania, privilege, and vanity.

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