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Christopher S. Miller

During the high-flying, big-spending days of the late 1990s, I was a sommelier at the ‘21’ Club in Manhattan. As you can imagine, there were many memorable experiences during my tenure, including high-fives from Matt Dillon for choosing such a fine wine for him, and being told by Jon Bon Jovi that “of course” I must be an excellent sommelier, just “look at the size of your nose.”

I recall the firing of MTV executives who over-spent on wines. And there was the $19,000 dinner bill for seven gentlemen paid mostly in cash, $14,000 of which was for the wines I chose for them. I was there to serve wine when CitiCorp bought Travelers, and when AOL joined Time Warner. I was even there when Colin Powell and several other GOP dignitaries joked about Bob Dole and his Viagra commercials while waiting for him to show for dinner. It was a wonderful life, a great adventure and the most economical way to taste some of the greatest wines in the world.

The term “sommelier,” pronounced soh-muhl-YAY, goes back to the heady days when royalty truly ran Europe, and comes from the Old French term for a provisions manager, or sommerier. During that era the sommelier would have the keys to the wine cellar, manage the cellar and serve the wines. As the royal class shrank, the role of the sommelier was absorbed into restaurants.

Even though the Court of Master Sommeliers was established in London in 1977 and in the United States in 1986, sommeliers did not receive much attention in the American restaurant and wine scene until the early 1990s. But prior to that, in 1953, the Sommelier Society of America was established by “wine waiters” from the ’21’ Club. It seems that the wine waiters felt they were treated with less respect than other waiters, so they began the society as a support group.

Of course, things are quite different today. A sommelier position is highly coveted and respected, especially at a restaurant with a major wine list. There are also positions for good sommeliers in fine wine stores.

But what does that funny looking waitperson wearing the “ashtray,” or Tastevin (used for discreetly tasting a wine prior to serving) do, anyway? No, his job isn’t to make you feel like an ass for choosing an inexpensive wine, though some sommeliers certainly are capable of doing that with amazing ease. Depending on the size and scope of the restaurant and wine list, a sommelier can be the buyer, cellar steward and wine waiter (floor sommelier) all at once, or be any combination of wine waiter and the other two functions. All these functions are very important to the dining experience for the customer, but today the defining function of a sommelier is on the dining room floor.

A major issue for today’s sommeliers is who pays them, and how they make their money. Some restaurants pay the sommelier by a percent of the wine sales, other restaurants pay a fixed salary, or shift pay. Either way, the pay will affect how a sommelier treats a dinner guest. During the roaring days of the late 1990s, I was paid an hourly wage plus 5 percent of all my wine sales. It was a great time to be a sommelier in a venerable restaurant with such terms (remember that $14,000 wine tab – do the math).

Unfortunately, the sommelier’s lifestyle is not terribly family friendly, with the late nights, weekends and all that goes with restaurant life. So today I am a wine education consultant. In training future sommeliers, I try to impress upon them the importance of wine knowledge and tasting ability. But by far the most important thing I teach them is to have some humility. There is nothing that frightens a consumer more than a sommelier with a big mouth intent on proving to everyone how much he or she knows about wine. One of the most important lessons I learned while working at ‘21’ is that when a guest is sold the correct wine for his or her budget and palate, they drink more (two bottles instead of one), tip more, and everyone is happy, this last not being the least of the goals.

My life, though it still happily revolves around wine, is a little less stressful now than when I was stopped by the Israeli Secret Service for pulling a knife as I walked into the dining room to open and pour the Prime Minister’s wine (after they discovered the knife was attached to a corkscrew the Secret Service allowed me to continue my job). But I was there when Bill Cosby and Allan King launched into impromptu routines during a celebration lunch. How many people can put that on their resumes?