Generally speaking, wine industry experts and amateur aficionados alike use a lot of fancy terms. While most people probably have a basic understanding of what sommeliers do, let's explore the word a bit. Borrowed from a Middle French word for "a butler," these days a sommelier is, technically, anyone who works with wine. Sure, sommeliers for whiskey, cigars, and even water exist these days. But few people need clarification that we're talking about wine when you mention a sommelier.
While anyone can label themselves a sommelier if they work with wine, a certified sommelier is a different story. Historically, a sommelier was an officer who had charge of provisions. They would have meted out bread and other rations as well as ensured the safe transport of those supplies. Indeed, the Latin origins of the word are from a word meaning "packsaddle." These days, a sommelier can best be described as a steward and a certified sommelier has studied wine enough to be a steward of a meaningful experience.
How does a sommelier do it?
Believe it or not, a sommelier's aim is not to sell you a more expensive wine. It's true that a certified sommelier (or somm for an easy-to-say alternative) knows the difference between a good value and a great one, but a good somm simply wants to delight you. If that means suggesting a Ram's Gate 2018 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast to go with your fish or a 2018 Pinot Noir, Ram's Gate Estate to pair with your mushroom risotto, the purpose is to pair the food with a wine that will complement the meal instead of detracting from it.
A certified sommelier is an expert, but to really assist you in a great wine selection, the somm could still use your help. How? By asking deliberately pointed questions. You're not trying to trip up your sommelier, but to get the most out of them, specificity will be your best tool. So, again, ask detailed questions based on your own experiences and watch the somm take a blank canvas and paint you something wonderful.
Here are some examples:
- Good evening, we are having the spicy paella tonight. We don't love white wines, but is there a red or even a rosé that you would suggest? You may be pleasantly surprised with a 2018 Syrah, Hyde Vineyard.
- Can you recommend a great wine that you personally love for less than n price?
- I recently had an amazing California cabernet sauvignon from Bush Crispo Vineyard. What can you recommend that is similar? With any luck, they may offer you the Ram's Gate 2018 Pinot Noir, Bush Crispo Vineyard.
You don't have to be fluent in wine terminology to get the most out of your sommelier. In fact, you should probably avoid using such words as "dry" or "sweet" unless you're okay with the sommelier's interpretations of the vocabulary you're using. A certified somm spent a lot of time refining his or her palate and may find subtleties in wines that you may not. But feel free to tell them what wines you have had and enjoy. Tell them what meal you're planning to have. Feel free to tell them if you prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate or blueberries to peaches.
These kinds of descriptors are music to sommeliers' ears. Depending on your preferences, the sommelier may advise a Sonoma Coast vineyard wine because the minerality will make the flavors of your seafood dish pop. Or, if you want to leave the work to the experts while you explore your preferences, visit us and let Executive Chef Stacey Combs wow you with a delightful Five-Course Wine & Food Pairing. Director of Winemaking Joe Nielsen has carefully curated five wines to highlight with the seasonal dishes prepared by the chef.