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New York City
May 2002

So You Want To Be A Sommelier
By Sybil Maimin

Do you love wine, people, and the finer things in life? If so, the career of wine sommelier may be just right for you. Many roads lead to this career, but all involve learning as much as possible about wine and the food and beverage industries. Generally, working in a restaurant, taking courses, and attending wine tastings will get you started. Getting under the wing of a wine expert, or mentor, is an additional step. Reaching the exalted status of master sommelier, of which there are 100 in the world and five in New York City, is another matter.

Roger Dagorn, master sommelier at Chanterelle, perhaps New York City’s top restaurant, was born in France where he spent his youth working in his father’s restaurant. His family moved to New York in 1959, where his father became sommelier in an uncle’s restaurant and then opened his own establishment. Although he had a degree in geology, Dagorn always worked in the family business, immersing himself in the gastronomic world and especially in his father’s monthly wine-maker dinners (a first in New York) where the food and wine of particular regions were highlighted. Dagorn took professional wine courses and after the family business closed worked at other locations, including an eight-year stint as sommelier at the acclaimed Maurice Restaurant in the Parker-Meridien Hotel. To acquire certification as master sommelier, he passed a grueling series of exams including written and oral tests on wine theory, tasting, storage, decanting, and food. His warm and respectful manner toward customers further burnishes his master status.

National and international competitions for sommeliers allow the best to stand out. Thirty-six countries belong to The International Sommelier Association (ASI) and every three years enter their one top wine expert in a competition to determine the best in the world. Dagorn heads the contest committee. He recommends competitions on all levels for aspiring and working sommeliers as an excellent learning tool as well as a measure of competence.

The responsibilities of a sommelier are broad. Dagorn’s experiences at Chanterelle, where he has worked for nine years, are somewhat typical, but not universal. He is both beverage director and wine director and responsible for tasting and buying stock. He may taste up to 30 wines a day (he does not swallow) brought to him by distributors, wineries, and other “wine people.” He analyzes and chooses not only for quality, but also for appropriateness for the food, interests of his customers, and budget. He educates the staff about new purchases and makes recommendations to diners, usually following their lead but occasionally introducing new ideas, such as sake, a current interest. He interacts with the chef regularly and tastes all menu dishes to help determine appropriate pairings.

“The wine must complement the food and not the other way around,” he stresses. A sommelier must be skilled in all beverages, not just wine, and is responsible for stocking the bar and having all types of drinks served properly. He must keep up with new vintages and trends. Dagorn educates himself and others by teaching (he is adjunct professor in the Culinary Department at CUNY’s New York Technical College), giving lectures to private groups and wine societies, participating in frequent professional wine tasting, assuming leadership roles in industry activities, and acting as consultant to various entities including other restaurants. At Chanterelle he is also maitre d’ (common for sommeliers) and must oversee the dining room. He stresses that, at bottom, “this is a service industry, the hospitality industry,” and he and the staff must ensure that “every guest is happy.”

Mentoring is part of this master’s work and Dagorn currently has two apprentices, staff people with a special interest in and enthusiasm for wine, whom he advises, lectures, oversees, and judges for readiness, competitions and exams. He recommends courses and professional tastings. The American Sommelier Association gives a very professional nineteen-week, one day-a-week course with exams and tastings throughout. Many culinary schools, such as the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, teach about wine. He encourages participation in study groups, networks of aspiring sommeliers from different restaurants who get together to share knowledge and tastings. The field is growing as more and more people become interested in wine and want a knowledgeable person to serve them. Once a man’s world, women are increasingly being accepted. The hours are long (restaurant hours) and the work demanding, but the rewards for those who love wine and people can be great.

Some tips from the master: When serving several wines at a meal, the natural progression is white before red, dry before sweet, light before full-bodied, young before old, and good before great. Prosecco (a sparkling wine from Italy) is a current fad, and fine sake is served chilled or at room temperature. “Typicity” refers to the soil (including mineral content) and climatic conditions that produce a particular wine; a skilled sommelier will recognize typicity from tasting. #


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