The Beauty of a Sommelier

by Everett Hutt
February 26, 2008

The scene: an upscale restaurant with a serious wine list and a real sommelier (or at least a waiter/owner who knows his wines well). You have just spent a long time quizzing the waiter on the precise ingredients and preparation of each dish to make sure that you get exactly what you want.

When it comes time to select the wine, however, you confidently dismiss the sommelier and declare to your dinner companions: “I’ll choose.” Depending on your knowledge or luck, you might end up with a stunner. But you are just as likely to be disappointed by your choice.

Let’s face it. We’ve all been there. I am as guilty as the next person.

This paradox has long fascinated me. When it comes to food, we look intently at the menu and ask detailed questions, but when it comes to a wine list about which we may know next to nothing, we still insist on deciding.

If you really are a walking encyclopedia of wine knowledge, then you can, of course, look at the wine list and come up with a perfect pairing. Most of us, however, do not have that level of knowledge, yet we persist. Why? I suppose it is partly macho (if you are a man), partly embarrassment of not wanting to seem unsophisticated in front of friends, a date, or clients, and the biggest fear of all may be having little control over the sommelier ordering a wine that is too expensive for your budget.

One of my New Year’s resolutions last year was to give up this habit and trust in sommeliers. In the vast majority of cases, I have been very happy and even spent less than I otherwise would have.

The best example was a dinner last autumn at Pierre Gagnaire, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris (and my choice for the best restaurant in Paris). We were having a meal entirely focused on game meat, which I love, but which I do not eat often enough to have a perfect idea for pairings.

After lovingly admiring the telephone book-thick wine list for ten minutes, I simply asked the sommelier to “sélectionner un vin intéressant” to match our dinner. I did not even indicate a price (a fun, albeit risky venture considering there were many wines well over $1000 on the list). We were not disappointed.

The first wine was a 2004 Coteaux du Languedoc from Domaine de Montcalmès. This wine, made up of equal parts of the classic Rhône varietals — Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre — was a lovely lightly peppered wine. The tannins were extremely soft for such a young wine. It went beautifully with the assorted game starters, such as hare paté and pigeon livers. Best of all, it was fairly priced at $63.

The second wine was a 2003 Côtes du Rhône-Villages from Domaine Réméjeanne. Their “Les Églantiers” red was a big, muscular classic Rhône mix of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Due to the strong tannins, it was practically undrinkable alone, but when served with lièvre royal (hare stew), it matched the pungent flavors perfectly. But it did come with a hefty price tag of $91.

Of course, not everyone is dining at Michelin three-star establishments every day. But I have had a lot of success with smaller (and cheaper) eateries, too. Take Le Villaret, a lovely small bistro in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. It is a wonderful place for classic French bistro fare (lentil salad with goose gizzards, roasted leg of lamb with rosemary, etc.). The last time I went, the sommelier also favored a choice from Languedoc, a region whose wines have a high price quality ratio. The 2000 Coteaux du Languedoc Montpeyroux “L‘Ésprit de Font Claude” from Alain Chabanon boasted light mixed berry flavors. It went perfectly with our lamb, and it was only $65.

At one of the hottest new bistros in Paris, Afaria, I recently had a delicious multilayer blood sausage and potato cake with a mustard crust. I had no idea what to pair with it, but the waiter came to the rescue with a 2001 Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru “Ile des Vergelesses” de Louis Latour. This lovely Pinot Noir cut through the heavy (but delicious) blood sausage and, at $40.00 a bottle, it was light on the wallet, too.

Just in case you think sommeliers don’t know anything about white wines, dining at Gaya a few months ago, I was blown away by a pairing of a 2004 Côtes du Jura “Vigne des Voises” from Jean Rijckaert. This 100% Chardonnay Jura white cut the difference between the typically oxidized Jura wines and a more standard Chardonnay. It was perfect with the John Dory prepared with mountain herbs and root vegetables. And at $30 a bottle, the whole table walked away happy.

Despite my success with sommeliers, this does not mean you shouldn’t read the wine list. Indeed, I love to take the time to peruse a wine list. And if you have a real preference for red vs. white, Chardonnay vs. Sauvignon, new world vs. old world, you should definitely express it. Similarly, you can subtly suggest a price point to the sommelier. But the moral of the story is that if you are fortunate enough to find yourself dining in a restaurant of such high quality that it has a sommelier, leave the wine selection in his or her hands.

Pierre Gagnaire
6, rue de Balzac
75008 Paris

Le Villaret
13, Rue Ternaux
75011 Paris

15, rue Desnouettes
75015 Paris

Photograph at top of the page of sommelier, Adrien Falcon.

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