Monday, July 15, 2024

The Wine World Is Over the Terms “Somm” and “Sommelier”

“Are you a somm?” 

Most people know me as the person serving them wine at the restaurant, so, ostensibly, yes. But to be honest, I don’t fucking think so.

About 10 years ago, the word “sommelier” was in the middle of both a PR glow-up and an identity crisis. Before 2012, the sommelier was fairly straightforward to define. He (and it was generally a cis white hetero man) oversaw the “shoulds” of wine service, serviette in hand: giving the wine list to the man at the table, pouring for the ladies first. He probably wore a suit or a fancy apron and was deemed a “sommelier” by way of Eurocentric, pay-to-play certification programs. He probably earned his keep in a fine dining room that lauded the correctness of pairings and had access to a deep cellar of wines that contributed to his education. 

Then things got complicated. Wine culture was slowly inching its way into mass media, most notably with 2004’s Sideways, which illustrated that there wasn’t much of a divide between the connoisseurs and those who just wanted to get drunk, and later, in 2012, with SOMM, which documented the industry’s bookish pursuit of perfection. The latter helped introduce the word “somm” to the public, and cement a new image of the “somm” as someone who partied like an honors student—who kept up with the grades but knew how to throw down, a loose tie and an open bottle on their person any old Thursday night.

At the same time, the then-exploding natural wine movement, which wanted to clearly cleave from that fine dining world, developed its own attitude toward the word. Patrick Cappiello, whose career spans stints at Tribeca Grill, Veritas and Gilt, would become the poster child for this shift when he opened Pearl & Ash. He eschewed the suit for a Black Flag T-shirt and jeans and often wielded a saber, which he’d dispatch to open bottles of sparkling wine atop the bar for whoever asked. His wine list was over 80 pages and featured many of the same wines that were considered “fine and rare,” but he also wasn’t afraid to put them in a porrón and pour them directly into a customer’s mouth. He went on to become the face of Playboy’s Food + Wine section, a move that further cemented the sommelier’s drift from the crusty, point-driven annals of Wine Spectator to an analogue of the bad-boy chef. 

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Whether stodgy trad bro or trendy natty dad, whether “sommelier” or “somm,” the groups and their audiences were predominantly white, male and resource-rich, and had no problem keeping the gates closed. “It became two frats in the same college,” says Jirka Jireh, formerly of Olmsted in Brooklyn and Ordinaire in Oakland. “They just met in the middle when it came to things like overconsumption and gatekeeping.” The nuance, as Cappiello says, was that sommeliers were “stuck in a rut,” whereas a somm was somebody who is “making wine more approachable.” 

But the nuance proved to be much, much subtler. The somm, who became increasingly linked to natural wine, became burdened with what The New Yorker called “virtuous consumption,” while the party took its toll on the most marginalized in the group. The scene was exuding a purportedly more laid-back, welcoming and less classist outlook on who could embody the role, while behind the scenes, blatant drug use, rampant racism, ableism and allegations of sexual assault and harassment piled up. If you wanted to locate the “somm” crew talking about skin-contact wines while shirtless at a natural wine bar, just follow the cocaine. This tangle of binge drinking and drug use had become a boon for misogyny and, ultimately, violence. And, while it probably goes without saying, it didn’t actually widen the network of wine professionals; it continued to exclude, losing sight of mentorship in favor of a bigger party.

It became two frats in the same college. They just met in the middle when it came to things like overconsumption and gatekeeping.

Meanwhile, the “sommelier” could suddenly be found picking up gigs in water, mustard and olive oil, muddying that term’s meaning, and the job associated, ever further. It’s no wonder that today, more and more people in wine service call themselves something other than “sommelier” or “somm”—whether it’s a job distinction, such as “beverage ops” or “wine director,” or a distancing from the Frenchness of the term, like “wine person” or “wine steward,” or going even further and just going all-out esoteric, like “curator of vibes” or “wine jockey.” 

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Alpana Singh, former master sommelier and now proprietor of Alpana in Chicago’s Gold Coast, has a clear relationship with what the word means to her now. “As a BIPOC female, [it was obvious to me that] we needed the title,” she says. Singh was the first woman of color—and at the time, the youngest woman—to receive the master sommelier title, and one of three women to, in November 2020, renounce that title, alongside Laura Maniec Fiorvanti and Pascaline Lepeltier. Singh realized that the title defined her in a harmful way. “I started studying for the exam when I was 18, and up until I was 43 it was a really big part of my identity,” she says. “It wasn’t the healthiest relationship for me personally.” 

2020 was a flashpoint for all of these terms colliding, remixing and redefining themselves. The obvious culprit was COVID-19, in that the very nature of the profession became existential in its wake; restaurants had to reevaluate staffing, favoring those in management with wine experience over wine specialists, and recontextualize what a sommelier was as these businesses pivoted to takeout and retail. “The pandemic shifted things in different directions,” Cappiello says. “People who were in mentorship positions were forced to go do something else; everyone got time to think about quality of life. If this was something you loved, you kept doing it.”

The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder was another culprit. After an infamous cheating scandal, a racist incident involving two teachers who insisted on being called “master” and a sexual harassment case with the Court of Master Sommeliers, it was clear that the industry needed self-reflection (ahem, still does), and a critical reset about who gets to be part of the wine world. 

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Now, with more distance and experience, I hasten to further myself from those crunchy cultural attachments that come with the word. I’ve never been particularly attached to “sommelier” and while at one point in my career I willed my hardest to embody what it meant to be a “somm”—playing the try-hard in wine certification classes, gleefully parading the words I needed to know during tastings, looking the part—I know better now. Currently, I call myself the wine director, Singh calls herself the proprietor of her business, Cappiello has eschewed the term to make wine and Jireh calls herself a Wine Gyal. 

In this more complex, colorful, multiversal era of wine, where thoughtful guidance is the point, Singh believes it is much less about the title and more about your intent. “I’ve lived more of my life attached to the Court than not, but it’s nice after a few years to not. I wanted to see who I was without the title,” she says, “and it’s very freeing when we shed labels.” So go ahead, sommelier, wine person, wine enthusiast, wine DJ, whatever you want to call yourself—if wine’s on the table, someone’s got to open it. Might just be you.

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