Wine: French Twist

In France, the role of sommeliers is more limited than in the United States, where they play a bigger, more important part

Probably no other term in the language of wine connotes France or French wine superiority than “sommelier.”

So it was interesting that, in a conversation in California recently, a French-trained sommelier I’ve known for 20 years said he doesn’t think his counterparts in France are as diverse and knowledgeable as American-trained sommeliers.

“They don’t know as much, and their skill level is relatively low compared to here,” he said. “Here, a sommelier needs to know much more.”

How could this be true? Was he right?

My French friend is French-trained, but has worked most of his professional life in this country. Today, he’s the wine buyer and sommelier at a posh, private establishment in Los Angeles. He’s also a well-known judge on the wine-competition circuit.

He explained that he came to this realization several years ago, but that it was particularly reinforced one year recently when he was recruited to return to France. Three Parisian restaurants, including the world-renowned Taillevent, generally considered among the top five or 10 worldwide, expressed interest in talking to him.

He and his American wife flew to Paris anticipating the possibility of moving there and working at a world-class restaurant. But the excitement soon began to fade when he interviewed for the jobs.

Initially, neither restaurant owners nor chefs had much knowledge about, or comfort with, wine and pairing it with food.

Coming from the American system, my friend was anxious to impress the owners of the Paris restaurants with his skill, knowledge, and what he could do for them. Before arriving, he obtained and analyzed their wine lists and menus and was prepared to address where he might improve their offerings and expand their cellars to add even more appeal. He felt this would be particularly important, since each had a very large American client base it wanted to keep happy.

He was surprised that the restaurant lists had no Australian or California reds or whites. No Heitz Cellars, no Penfolds Grange, no Staglin, Screaming Eagle, or any of the great Barossa shirazes. No Barolos or super-Tuscans or Spanish riojas, either. Only bordeaux and burgundy. What an opportunity to open up these wine lists, he thought.

As his interviews progressed, he presented his ideas to the owners and occasionally the chefs, only to be rebuffed each time with, “No, we don’t do that here. That’s not your job.”

The task of deciding what to buy was that of the owner. Deciding what went with the food was generally the job of the chef and the owner in concert. The sommelier was cut out of that part and was there only there to sell the wine to the customer. He came to learn that this was generally true in France.

By comparison, in this country — where American cuisine did not begin to be known internationally until the 1980s through Chez Panisse and others — the sommelier has played a much wider role.

Initially, neither restaurant owners nor chefs had much knowledge about, or comfort with, wine and pairing it with food. Thus, the sommelier entered the picture in the United States to fill that gap. He or she seeks out and buys wine and glassware and participates in pairing with foods. In France, the same job remains far more restricted.

As for my French-sommelier friend, by the third time he was told, “We don’t do it that way here,” he went back to the hotel and told his wife: “Well, I don’t do it their way, either.” They flew back to Los Angeles, where he’s very happy and feels far more needed and respected than his French counterparts are in their world.

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