The International Somm: A How-To Guide

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
June 2014

Biography

Restaurant

Going abroad sounds romantic, but the reality tends to involve stuff like language barriers, logistical snafus, and the many bodily surprises of new microbial environments. So when Sommelier Gregory Smith left his 13-year professional hometown of Atlanta for Lima, Peru, he wasn’t just taking an Eat-Pray-Love-leap into new beginnings. Even if it kind of seems that way.

“I’ve always had the self-confidence to do bold things,” says Smith, who’s been in the industry since he was 17. And while he made the move to Peru with less of an intention to work than “the belief that something good would come to me,” what Smith humbly omits is the major skillset underlying his leap-taking.


Central

Central

Smith’s story may be a lesson for any sommelier looking to move abroad: do so, but be qualified to handle whatever comes your way. For his part, Smith had an established talent, a good name, and connections, all of which he developed at home—even the contacts. “I‘d met several Peruvians in Atlanta who were doing internships at a hotel,” he says. “I realized that I’d have some support base, if I indeed did make the move.”

Once in Peru, Smith didn’t even have to go looking for work; it found him. “I was contacted by a wine club to help manage their wine program, and then later on Virgilio Martínez contacted me to revamp Central.”

A successful globetrotter, professional or otherwise, is able to endure the thrilling new-ness of his destination. And for Smith the Sommelier, going to Peru was nothing, if not new. “It was a steep learning curve at the beginning,” he recalls. “When I arrived in Peru, the market was dominated by Argentina and Chile, followed by Spain. And there were very few wines from elsewhere, so I had to learn a lot of names and styles.” A challenge? Sure. But nothing beyond the natural inclination of most sommeliers. Harder was learning new descriptors. “Your counterpart might not smell the gooseberry in a Sauvignon Blanc that you do, and you might not pick up the yellow chile pepper that they do.” 

But even that wasn’t as challenging as the business side of things, which, one might imagine, can vary widely abroad. In Peru, the challenge was “sifting through the sheer number of importers for quality wines. In Atlanta I worked with maybe twelve distributors,” says Smith. “Here I currently work with 34. And there are many more, some importing only one or two wineries.”

The issue isn’t just keeping track of importers. It’s their influence, what Smith calls the “major problem” of “importers or distributors actually paying for placements on a restaurant’s wine list.” Coming from a world where he was relatively free to make selections based on considerations like cuisine, cost, etc., Smith found himself answering to people who were used to paying a wine’s way in. “In one particularly notorious case,” says Smith, “an importer had drawn a diagram of a restaurant’s wine cellar, indicating exactly where in the cellar the wines would be placed.”

It isn’t just a matter of pushiness, or even legality, for that matter. The industry actually suffers, with a system that “obligates restaurants to carry wines of the importers who pay the most, limiting many to carry only the major brands—effectively negating any possibility of any small producer having representation on the list.”

But before any would-be traveling somms unpack their bags, it should be known the situation is changing, precisely because people like Smith are traveling, and the wine world is getting both smaller and smarter. “Forward-thinking chefs and sommeliers are realizing that wine enhances the restaurant experience,” he says, which seems obvious to some, but in a relatively young wine culture like Peru, begs repeated emphasis.

With guys like Smith working alongside chefs like Virgilio Martinez at Central, local wine culture has no choice but to grow up. “New importers have sprung up, importing wines from quality producers in faraway places like Austria and New Zealand.” (Just a few years ago, says Smith, “most would have shaken their head and said ‘not possible, not profitable, the public won’t accept it.’”)

And isn’t that the great payoff of going abroad: being a part of something new? Or maybe the bigger payoff, the Eat Pray Love kind of lesson, is finding renewed enlightenment within. For Smith, and for Peru and Central, it’s a mutual benefit. While he learns to discern notes of yellow chile pepper, his guests are sampling food and wine pairings that earned ranking on the San Pellegrino 50 Best list. Smith’s guests are treading far beyond the Chilean Tetra Paks and Argentinian Malbecs that sparked their love of wine.

“The wine drinking culture is a relatively new phenomenon” in Peru, says Smith. He’s just lucky enough to be at the helm of it.

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