Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Misconceptions About Sommelier-dom

     I'm late posting this week because I spent the weekend studying and taking a test. A wine test. Many thoughts ran through my head as the hours of studying passed by:

A) I'm too old for this shit
B) Where, working in California, will I need an in-depth knowledge of Greek wines?
C) Am I doing this for myself or others?

SF Gate article "The Ultimate Test"
     I'm asked often at work "are you a sommelier?" This question irks me because it's like if I walked up to a bartender and said, "are you a bartender?" If he/she is serving drinks behind a bar, that's kinda the definition of the job. There are different levels of experience and expertise to any profession sure, but, by the book, a sommelier buys, stores, sells and serves wine in a restaurant. Which is what I do, and have been doing for the last few years.

     Of course the Court of Master Sommeliers have done a good job of claiming the term "sommelier" for themselves. This is a group that gives actual credentials for somms, ones that look shiny on a business card or résumé. As much as these are nice to have, anyone who has worked in the business for a whack of time knows that book learning is no substitution for hands-on knowledge. This is acknowledged by the Court of Master Sommeliers, I suppose, in the fact that you can't even apply for the advanced exam without five years in the wine/service industry.

     The holy grail of the sommelier study path is to get your MS, or Master Sommelier. Supposedly if you achieve this, kittens will start flying out of your backside, and you will suddenly start speaking perfect French. Or that's what I've heard.

     To me, my job is work: negotiating, dealing with sales people, unpacking bottle after bottle, and trying to read customers' minds. It seems so far removed from the hallowed grounds of the James Suckling-style "wine experts" out there, that as far as I'm concerned, the Court of Master Sommeliers can keep the term sommelier. I'm happy being just a wine buyer

     Soo, how did I get sucked into this test nonsense then? A year ago I figured I'd shut people up by getting some sort of credential, and looked into the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Their top credential, the MW, or Master of Wine, is equally respected and as famously difficult to achieve; There are 280 Masters of Wine as of 2010, and 186 Master Sommeliers as of 2011, according to the great Oz (Wikipedia). The main difference between the two credentials is that the MS is more service based, and the MW is more trade and business orientated.

     Because I like being different and I don't particularly enjoy the thought of farting kittens, I decided to go the MW route. The first place for me to jump in was taking the WSET level three certificate. This certificate is a prerequisite to taking a two-year "wine diploma" course (that costs 4,000 bucks or so); the diploma is considered the best way to possibly be granted entry into the MW program (which costs more than $10,000 to complete).

     Oh and the WSET Level 3 is available as a home study course, unlike the first sommelier level, which makes you sit through a two-day all-day-long lecture on beginning wine stuff. Blech.

     No one seems to have a clue why I'd want to take the WSET Level 3 vs. Sommelier 1. I've had some fun conversations like this:

     I'm talking to regular about how I've had to drink more wine instead of beer lately in preparation for my test. A slightly tipsy wine rep at the bar interrupts:

     "So you're going to be a sommelier?"

     "Well, not exactly, this test is a little different. It's more relevant to what I want to do."

     "Yeah and what's that?"

     "It's a bit more industry side of things which I like. I don't think I'll be taking the sommelier test."

     "But you should totally be a sommelier. You are so talented!"

     I had to walk away at this point before I felt compelled to knock my head into the wall next to the bar. I know that this conversation will repeat itself a hundred times, so I might as well get used to it.

     Thank you Samantha Sans Dosage, for bringing to my attention douche biscuit extraordinaire, Brad Newman and his Reviewer Card sham. I mustered up the energy this weekend to do a story about this on Wino on a Ramble, if anyone is curious.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Certain Percentage of Human

     The woman got up from her table to waylay me at the entrance of the back room. Uh oh, this was never a good sign.

       It was late and the restaurant was emptying out, the woman's party of twelve just finishing up. Since they were my last table of the evening, I was feeling relaxed.

     "We have some members of our group who would like to pay individually," she said. "I can help you figure out who is with who."

     "So you want separate checks?" I clarified.

     She looked at me like I'd said a dirty word. "Checks? I guess that's how you call it. We have people who would like to pay for their own items."

     I never figured I'd ever see anyone get touchy-feely over being referred to as a "check" vs. a person. I wondered if I should take the woman back to our computer terminal and introduce her: Computer, this guest would like to be recognized by her name, and not as check #432, got that?

     Instead I blinked and got to the more pressing matter at hand. "We can do separate checks here, but typically we ask that groups make this request in advance. If we know beforehand we can keep track of everything, otherwise it gets complicated."

     "I can help you..." she offered.

     "It's OK I still have my map." I actually had the table mostly memorized since it was one of my last, but I wanted her to see my map with my god-awful handwriting. "Alright, who is together?"

     She pointed out each person who would get a check, and who they were paying for. I made some more chicken scratches on my map to indicate this, then nodded and walked away, leaving her to cross her fingers as to the outcome of this exercise.

     I handed them six bills, which had each beverage, appetizer, salad, main and dessert perfectly accounted for. As this took a while, I didn't want to keep them waiting even longer by adding gratuity to each bill. Also, when couples pay separately they usually tip better (since they aren't subsidizing Uncle Bob's 30 dollar steak or whatever the case may be;) for this reason, I personally don't mind doing individual checks.

     I'd forgotten one thing however, which my boss pointed out when I came back with five credit cards and a cash payment: most of them were from out of town. Four of the six "checks" tipped 10%.

     Of the necessary transactions that take place in a restaurant day to day, it's almost always the tip line on a credit card slip that dehumanizes the most.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kid Karma

     One hundred dollars- I spend my life chasing these crisp, clean, underused measures of success, yet so many of my customers throw these bills around like they are nothing. For every person who enters our restaurant with a reverence for the ritual of spending money, 10 more are in jeans, in a hurry, and sit at their tables on their iPhones looking bored; They act like they are in their own living rooms, and are paying a hundred bucks for the privilege. I love our laid-back neighborhood vibe, but I have joked more than once, particularly when I'm being pressured for time, "Are we McDonald's for rich people?"

     We have a regular, a floppy-haired, mild-mannered guy, who comes around 8:30 or 9 pm, dressed in a suit coat and toting his hyper-active spawn. If you are a parent you understand the significance of this immediately: 9 pm should be time for bed, not for hanging out with dad at a fancy restaurant. Dad always has a 1/2 bottle of wine of something excessively expensive for the occasion, something French worth hundreds of dollars. Like our other "living room" regulars he does not pay corkage (Though at least he gives me a splash to try, and I can't really complain about a 20-40 dollar taste of wine.)

     Usually, floppy hair's child passes out as soon as he eats. I'll catch him stretched out in a banquette or across a few chairs pushed together in the main dining room. It's late enough that there are not too many other people around to witness this less-than-stellar example of parenting. Dad continues his meal, contently messing with his tablet or watching TV, enjoying his fabulously expensive Bordeaux.

     I didn't appreciate the method to this madness until floppy hair came in early one day. He was with the whole family‒wife, two older kids, and the little one‒coming in at 6 pm or so. The mini-member of the spawn was in full spaz. He couldn't sit still, messing with the table papers, getting into his dad's space, and I feared several times for his water glass. It was a special occasion, and the family was nicely dressed. Dad had brought in a half bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a 1st growth Bordeaux which costs roughly 800-1500 for a full bottle, to enjoy with mom.

     I poured the wine, eyeing the spastic minion distrustfully. Dad didn't seem to care, his method of dealing with the kid was "cope and ignore." My own small experience with children tells me I'd be a doormat of a parent as well, so I really can't judge; however, this child's lack of discipline came back to bite floppy hair. Towards the end of their meal, I walked past to see a stemmed glass down, with wine poured across an empty plate and surrounding table cloth.

     A couple hundred dollars worth of wine was soaking into the table cloth, but floppy hair seemed unfazed. He simply stood up and took junior for a walk outside. Perhaps he was simply happy his tan suit had been spared.

     I finally understood the 9 pm visits. The late hour plus rich food were a tranq dart for the minion, with our restaurant chairs serving as a containment unit. It's nice to know we can provide a service to our regulars beyond, you know, food and drink.

     For anyone who is curious, is the Lafite Rothschild worth ten crisp hundred dollar bills? Not even close‒ I've tried a few different vintages now and I'm always impressed by its polish and elegance; It kind of reminds of Anne Hathaway: glamorous, wholesome, neatly put together. But quirky tends to catch my interest more than perfect, and there are too many beautiful, intriguing wines under 50 bucks to ever make me throw my hundreds at any single bottle.