On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Charlie Bird's Grant Reynolds shares his thoughts on working as a young sommelier in New York right now.
For some diners, my age alone discredits my potential for being knowledgeable about wine. Just the other night, a young lady, probably about my age, was so surprised by my appearance that she felt the need to pepper me with a series of questions just to reaffirm that I was in fact supposed to be there. "You're the sommelier." "Yes, I am." "Like, the wine guy?" "Yup." "But you're so young." "I am 25." "Then how are you the sommelier?" That one I had to leave unanswered. However, it gave me pause about what it actually takes to be a sommelier and how that role has changed.
I've always said, the best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Personally, my first memorably enjoyable experience with wine was at a motorcycle race in a small town in Italy. I was 16, and drinking grocery store Barbera with abandon. It was the Italian equivalent to slugging warm Bud Light and watching Nascar - and it was great. Perfect for an American high school kid who'd just landed in northern Italy for a year abroad, surrounded by welcoming strangers. Recently, I was back, this time in a different Italian bar, drinking one of the greatest bottles I've ever tried — 1958 Bartolo Mascarello — at a different pace but with an equally rowdy group of friends.
Over the span of those nine or so years, I've gone full speed into the industry and I've had a lot wine along the way. If you do some simple math, there's no way I could possibly have had the same tasting experience that someone twice my age might have. But, I'm very lucky to say that I've had some of the great wines of the century in my recent years. However, unlike my mentors, I haven't had them over the span of the last 25 years and been able to see how they've evolved. That experience should be declared as one of the few great things about getting old. It's also a body of knowledge that is invaluable for anyone interested in wine. There's a few things that we as the younger guard in this industry do to try and play catch up.
Personally, I've worked for free on endless occasions in various parts of the world simply to learn about and taste wines that I wouldn't otherwise have access to. It's a hunting game of sorts in which the commonly titled "unicorn wines" are your prey. I've been lucky to work side by side with legends like Robert Bohr (Charlie Bird), and Bobby Stuckey and Matthew Mather (Frasca Food and Wine). Collectively, these industry leaders have an infinite amount of knowledge on wines of all degrees — but something, perhaps greater, that I've learned from them is that it takes more than that to be a successful sommelier in today's world. My principle role at Charlie Bird is to help procure a list and ensure you get the best bottle of wine for your experience. Part of that is tasting it in order to make sure it's not flawed, and serving it in a clean glass at the right temperature. Depending on how fast you drink, you may see me more than once during your meal. These are the basics of wine service. As Danny Meyer might say these mechanics are only "49 percent" of the whole experience, the remainder of which is hospitality.
Back to what I've learned: being a hospitable sommelier trumps any amount of knowledge about a specific wine, vintage, whatever that someone may be able to recall. Sometimes it can mean clearing tables, expediting food, or taking lashings from an unhappy guest. Essentially, doing whatever to make sure the ship doesn't sink. Also paramount is knowing what not to do at the right moments too. We've all had experiences where a server or sommelier takes their five minutes of fame to plow you with as much information about the farm your parsley came from or tell you about the importance of the phase of the moon on the day these grapes were picked. Interesting? Debatably. Hospitable? No. For me, the most essential quality of a great sommelier is understanding not only a table's taste for wine but also their desire for information and your presence. You must have all the goods in your pocket but be able to judge when it's right and how to deliver. Otherwise, if you end up sounding like this guy it may be time to retire.
— Grant Reynolds
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