8 Secrets of a Sommelier

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Find yourself getting flustered when it's time to put in your drink order? Throwing a dinner party, but not quite sure how to please a crowd? We spoke with Ceri Smith—Wine Director at April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman’s Tosca and one of Food & Wine magazine’s 2014 Sommeliers of the Year—about why the rules about reds and whites don't always apply, how to settle on the right beverage for your favorite dish, and how much you should really be spending on a bottle of vino when you hit your local wine shop.

1. Want to learn about wine? Take it slow.

Really slow. Smith stresses that pros who have been in the business for decades are still constantly learning and being exposed to new things.

To kick start your own education, Smith, who also owns San Francisco's Biondivino wine boutique, suggests honing in on a region. Then comes the fun part. “Taste as much as you possibly can, and expose yourself to the point until you get bored,” she says. “Then pick another region. Don’t try to bite off everything. You’re not going to learn all of Tuscany, or Campania, in six months.” Overload on information, and you’ll likely forget everything when it comes time to put your newfound knowledge to use.

2. There's no need to sign up for one of those fancy classes.

Sommelier certification courses are a source of controversy in the industry. There are no uniform requirements for becoming a sommelier. In fact, a number of sommeliers working on the floors of some of the country’s most prestigious restaurants didn’t receive this kind of exam-oriented wine education. For those who choose to go that route, the culmination of all that coursework is certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers. This is pretty rarefied air, as there are just 147 Master Sommeliers in North America. Even more comprehensive is a Master of Wine certification, which covers all aspects of the wine business, from production to tasting to importing and distribution. (There are only 372 Masters of Wine worldwide.)

Smith, for her part, is largely self-taught. Early in her career, she worked for a wine importer. “He’d have two Barberas, for instance, from two different producers in two different regions, and I would sit down at the end of the day and taste them,” she recalls. “I would take all of my books, and I would read anything I could find, starting with the most complicated book and moving to the most simplistic definitions, to really reinforce the information.”

Today, she continues her education by reading anything and everything she can. Smith counts David Lynch ("his Vino Italiano was kind of like my Bible"), Matt Kramer, Kerin O'Keefe, and Hugh Johnson among her favorite authors.

3. Think outside the region.

If you're cooking for a group, the easiest way to ensure that your wine complements your menu is to stick to one region. "That's a really simple way to look at it," says Smith. "If it's a Northern Italian dish, generally the wine from that area will pair with what you're serving."

But there are plenty of ways to get more creative. If you're dishing out something that isn't specific to a given region, the sommelier suggests taking into consideration how you plan to season your meal. "I put olive oil and lemon on everything," Smith says. "If you finish with lemon, that probably means you like acidity, and any kind of acidic wine is going to pair better than something fruity or heavy."

The most important thing is to make sure your selection doesn't overwhelm your main course. "It's like balancing colors," Smith notes. "You want to give the same weight to your food and your wine."

Serving a rich cut of meat? "If you have steak, I like serving a Sangiovese, because it's got acidity. It kind of cuts through the fattiness of the steak. On the other hand, you would never pair a heavy, oaky Chardonnay with a light salmon."

Spicy foods present their own challenges but, as a general rule, Smith says heavier picks work best. "I'm not a huge Primitivo fan, but I love it with big, spicy ribs. They just fit together."

4. Don't get hung up on what you think you know about reds and whites.

Smith concedes that the old rule about red and white wines—that reds balance out heavier dishes while whites work best with lighter fare—generally holds true. But there are plenty of exceptions to said rule, especially when you take into account the weight of your meal (see above.) "There are a lot of fresh, light red wines that would be beautiful with tuna, swordfish, or any kind of meatier fish," explains Smith. Conversely, "There's a grape from Piedmont called Timorasso, and it's got so much complexity and richness and texture to it without being oak aged, and it's beautiful with a pork chop."

Looking for something completely different? "Orange wines pair beautifully across the board with everything," Smith raves. "It's a white grape made like a red wine, so you get all of the structure and all of the flavors, but it's more savory in a sense. It's really fun."

5. Don’t like something? Speak up.

The sip you're given after you've committed to a bottle is really about "checking for correctness," Smith explains—that the wine hasn't oxidized, or there aren't bits of cork floating around your glass. But if everything checks out and you still can't get into it, you don't have to finish the bottle. "If the guest says, 'No, I really hate this,' I always think it's the role of the sommelier to correct it, make them happy, and ask questions," she says. "A good sommelier should never make the guest feel intimidated, or like they don't know anything about wine, or that the sommelier is always right. The guest is always right because the guest is the one who has to enjoy the pick, you know?"

6. Wine terminology isn't everything.

Smith has no patience for fellow experts who hide behind fancy wine terms. “Nobody wants a sommelier who walks up to the table and says, ‘Oh, excellent choice. The truffleness and the blah blah blah of the such and such...’ Wine is supposed to be fun!”

When she talks to customers, Smith makes an effort to describe a wine’s flavor profiles in a way even the least experienced wine drinker can understand, and she makes sure to ask lots of follow-ups. "I tend to ask really basic questions. 'Do you like light or brighter, richer or fuller, deeper or darker?' If they give me a blank look then I say, 'Okay, imagine you're standing in front of a fruit stand, and there are a bunch of plums in front of you. Do you want the red ones or the black ones?' If they say red, that means they want something lighter with more acidity. If they say black, that tells me they want something darker and juicier." A good sommelier, says Smith, will lean on "easily translated" visuals like those.

7. You can drink well on a budget. (But maybe avoid those $5 bottles …)

“You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good bottle of wine,” Smith insists. The most important marker of quality isn’t price point, but the size of the producer behind a bottle. The smaller the operation, Smith says, the easier it is for them to focus on quality control. “I liken it to baking bread,” she explains. “You can bake one loaf of bread beautifully. You can extend that same recipe to five loaves, maybe up to 15, 25, or even 100, but when you start making 5,000 loaves, that recipe is going to lose something.” To compensate, larger producers will introduce chemicals or blend their products for a more homogenous flavor. “People are always like, ‘I get headaches from red wine,’” Smith says. “It’s like, no, you get headaches from the chemicals that have been added to your $5 bottle of grocery store wine.”

Of course, patronizing the little guys means paying (slightly) higher prices. Still, Smith says there are plenty of high quality products put out by smaller wineries available for around $15.

8. Don’t write anything off.

Convinced you don’t like Cab? Give it another shot, says Smith. It could be that you just didn’t like that particular producer’s Cabernet, or the way the grapes taste when they’re grown in a given region. “It’s important not to generalize,” she says. “Always have an open mind. If when you're ordering you say, ‘I’m open to trying different things,' then you’ll have a much better experience than saying, ‘I’ll have your...’ or ‘Give me your...” In other words, the more specific your knowledge, the easier it will be to settle on something great the next time you’re out to eat or browsing the selection at your local shop.

In order to figure out what you do and don't like, "the best way to learn is to taste and try things as much as possible,” Smith says. “If you go out with a friend and they order one glass, you order a different one. That way you can taste both!”

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