Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals

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Release Date: 
October 18, 2010
Ten Speed Press
Reviewed by: 

There are basically three tracks that someone wishing to earn credentials in the world of wine can follow: The wine educator track, culminating in the Certified Wine Educator; the wine business track, culminating in the Master of Wine; and the sommelier track, culminating in the Master Sommelier.

All three tracks involve blind tasting, when glasses of wine are placed in front of the exam taker, who must determine what the wines are without seeing the labels. Of the ways in which blind tasting exams are conducted, the one for the Master Sommelier is probably the toughest. The pass rate for the Master Sommelier exam is quite low, and there are only 103 Master Sommeliers in the United States and 168 worldwide. Those who pass are really good at guessing a wine.

The job of the sommelier is to select the wines for his or her restaurant (or restaurants), to help a customer choose a wine from the list (when requested), and to serve the wine. Note that the job does not entail blind tasting, so one might wonder why that is such a crucial component of passing the exam. Blind tasting forces one to pay close attention to what one is drinking, seeking out nuances of aromas and flavors that one might not bother with if simply drinking the wine to decide whether it tastes good. This is a useful skill for selecting wines that would go particularly well with the dishes on the restaurant’s menu.

Secrets of the Sommeliers is an inside look at the sommeliers’ world. Written by Rajat Parr, a former Calcutta, India, native who is now the wine director of the Mina Group and its 17 restaurants, and the wine journalist Jordan Mackay, who is married to a sommelier himself, the book may be useful to someone who is, or hopes to be, a sommelier, or to someone who orders wine at restaurants, which is most of the rest of us. The book reads briskly, and we are introduced to a number of fascinating personalities in the world of wine, sommeliers as well as winemakers, making it an enjoyable read.

The book spends a fair amount of space discussing blind tasting. Although not himself a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Parr is well-known as someone who can totally nail a wine tasted blind. This places him in good stead in the world of sommeliers, whose idea of a good time is to get together after work to blind taste each other. In these settings, one must have both a competitive streak and a thick skin, because blind tasting is really difficult, and even the best guess wrong, often wildly wrong, a lot. Exact guesses are rare, and noted by all (the few times this reviewer has exactly guessed a wine get talked about for years). One can get better at it by constant training in controlled conditions, and the sommeliers profiled in this book are very good due at least in part to these friendly competitions.

Thus, one of the most useful sections of the book is on wine tasting. After providing the fundamentals of wine tasting, the authors discuss how to judge a wine, that is, to evaluate a wine’s quality in terms beyond simply whether one likes it. One should establish mental benchmarks of what each type of wine should taste like, based on the characteristics of wine from classic regions, that one can compare to other wines to note what is different. Then there is a handy discussion of how to blind taste for thirteen classic grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, etc.), and what to look for in each wine to try to figure out what it is. Even if one is usually not in a blind tasting situation, having a good sense of the different grape varieties in their different incarnations significantly enhances one’s appreciation of wine.

The next section, on buying and storing wine, concentrates on the issues facing sommeliers in particular, which may be of less interest to the rest of us, but the authors make an effort to tie the buying tips of sommeliers to buying wine in general. Still, the information is of more use to serious collectors than to people browsing a wine shop or the wine aisle of a supermarket.

The section on pairing wine with food covers the part of the sommelier’s job that most of us will encounter. There are whole books on wine and food pairing, but the twelve pages devoted to this topic are about as much as most of us will need, and provide nuances such as pairing wine with six different ways to prepare fish.

The section on serving and ordering wine provides information on the way to serve wine, including opening bottles, wine temperature, glassware, and decanting, that everyone who works in a restaurant that provides wine should be familiar with. The main use of the information to the rest of us is to be able to judge the quality of the wine service when we are guests at restaurants, although it may also be helpful if we often serve wine at home.

In the last section of the book, Parr abruptly shifts from the third person to the first person, presenting a highly personalized tour of his own favorite wines. He does not pretend that it is a comprehensive, balanced list. Of the 52 pages of text in this section, 42 are devoted to France. He devotes three and a half pages to one commune in Burgundy, Vosne-Romanée, and only a half page to all of Bordeaux. This is, in short, not the place to get an introduction to the wines of the world, but a Burgundy lover might find his views on these wines interesting.

At times, being a sommelier might seem like being a glorified waiter. He or she needs to deal with wine snob customers and others who feel absolutely entitled to be obnoxious because they are paying for dinner. Secrets of the Sommeliers reveals that there are many compensating upsides to the business. For one, sommeliers as a group probably drink more good wine than anyone on the planet. That is worth putting up with a lot.