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definition of Sommelier

Dan Brown of Bayona on StarChefs Dan Brown’s Tips for Enjoying Wine


1. German Wines 2002/2002:
2001 was a stellar year in Germany, so good that many reviewers are listing it as possibly the best German vintage in its history, and 2002 is close behind. Plus, it was a large vintage and the prices have been low and stable. The German reds, normally "so-so" due to their cold climate are shining in these great vintages. It is has never been a better time to buy, drink, or cellar German wines. Go whole hog!

2. Rhone Valley, Provence and Southern France:
The Rhone Valley is the last great traditional wine region of France to have extraordinary wines that are affordable. At one time, in the 19th century, Hermitage was the most expensive wine in France and its most sought after, and now one of its best and most affordable. Cote Rotie and Cornas are still my favorite appellations hands down and their wines are the most complex and sensuous wines in the world. I almost hate to tell anyone this because I'm afraid that when it gets discovered it won't be available anymore. The Provence and Southern France in general produce extraordinary wines at cheap prices, often under $10 a bottle. I have never picked up any bottle of wine from that region at any price that I thought was a rip-off. You cannot go wrong with Southern France wines. Try a bottle of Banyuls desert wine, if you dare.

3. Estate Grown Champagnes:
Discover the small family made vintage and nonvintage champagnes from the small estates in Champagne. Terry Thiese imports these wines through Michael Skurnick in New York, as do other negotiants. They are the absolute, without question, best Champagnes you will ever drink. The big name Champagne honchos have bought their tete-de-cuvee wines from these guys since forever to blend their $200/bottle plonk. Go to the mother lode yourself and pay $20-$25 per bottle for these heavenly wines. I have gotten hooked on this stuff sometimes and just can't drink anything else for a while. I keep one of these wines on my by-the-glass list and Susan Spicer has a glass every night before she goes home. OK, OK, sometimes two glasses.

4. Drink What You Like:
The reason most people are reading these recommendations right now is because they are experimental and curious and want to know what old, jaded, Sommeliers that have been drinking for 30 years recommend, but I find that many people unnecessarily question themselves and their tastes, often because they don't want to look dumb in front of their boss or worse, their underlings at a business dinner. Many people go so far as to often drink wines they don't like to appear cool. Experiment a little, find what you like and stick with it, if that's what you enjoy. Your tastes will probably change and then you can try new things. If you do find yourself at some snazzy restaurant and some overdressed punk that calls himself a Sommelier sneers at you and reminds you that Merlot does NOT go with snails, do drag his worthless fanny outside and mop the sidewalk with his two-toned, styled hair. I promise you it will be the best bottle of Merlot you ever drank.

5. Corks Versus Screw Caps:
Corks are an 18th century technology that often fails and we, meaning you, me and anyone that buys wine, has to literally pay for it. The cork industry has never, I repeat never, offered to reimburse anyone for their product when it goes bad so I think we need to go to synthetic corks. Do not listen to all the lies being told that synthetic corks make wine taste bad, etc. The cork has become an irreplaceable part of the presentation and ceremony of fine-wine service and fine dining so I don't want to see it go, so we need to go to synthetics or put a screw cap over small high quality corks and have your cake and eat it too. Using a screw cap only, is too reminiscent of the mad dog experience and the loss of all romance to technology. I like fast food too but I wouldn't propose to my wife over a screw cap wine or negotiate a business deal or celebrate the season. My God, is nothing sacred?

6. Chill Red Wines:
Most red wines taste better slightly chilled. That means put it in ice for 5-10 minutes maximum before serving. Room temperature means 65 degrees Fahrenheit and most US homes are 72 degrees plus, even in winter. The slight chill reduces the effect of the alcohol and tannins in young red wines. Don't get freaky and or obsessive-compulsive about this or it will drive your spouse and friends nuts and no one will want to invite you over and give you free wine. It's just a tip to add a little dimension to your presentation when you entertain, if you have the time.

7. Decant Young Red Wines:
There are very few instances in which decanting will not improve a young red wine. Notice I said "young". Nothing will kill a 1959 Red Burgundy faster than decanting for an hour, it's a near criminal act. When in doubt, don't decant, but nothing opens up a 1999 Cote Rotie better than 15-20 minutes of air. Plus you get to collect the cool decanters. My two favorite decanters are a circa 1790 decanter hand blown in the New England area and my great grandfather's circa 1910 martini pitcher. The martini pitcher works best.

8. Ask for the Sommelier:
Whenever you go to any dining establishment that has bottles on their list for over $25 they should have someone on hand to answer questions about those bottles and to help you unload some of your hard earned cash. If you get some smart aleck with a bad attitude, please review my recommendations in item #4 above as to how to handle the gentleman or mademoiselle. Quite frankly, I don't recommend patronizing fine dining restaurants that can't help you with wine questions. Restaurant wine is expensive and its purchase deserves service, good service. The good places will have it for you.

9. What to Look For in a Sommelier:
To me, a good Sommelier is someone that makes their customers feel comfortable, at ease, and welcome and helps their customers have a great time. It's not about knowing every obscure fact about every wine or region or matching wits with their customers or being an effete snob. Remember the great teacher that you had that didn't make you feel dumb when you asked questions and was more like a friend and mentor and respected your ideas and feelings and took your comments seriously and admitted when they were wrong or didn't know the answer? A good Sommelier will have many of those qualities plus the qualities of a great host and waiter mixed with a reasonable amount of wine knowledge and savvy. If you find yourself looking forward to your next great meal so you tell them the great wine you just discovered or to make you special event special, then you probably have found a good one. Don't tolerate bad service or arrogant wine snobs. If you care about the restaurant enough, contact the owner privately and ask for improvement or take your valuable business elsewhere.

10. Don't Watch TV.
People always ask me how I have time to be a Sommelier, get a Masters and a Ph.D., be a preservation contractor, collect antiques, and have a family life and I always tell them I don't watch TV. Take the time you sit in front of the boob tube and you can make a few more lives out of it. At the very least you can have wine for your hobby. Go to tastings, read wine books, host wine dinners, spend time with your friends and loved ones doing something. Don't be mistaken, I go to at least one movie a week but there is at least one other lifetime available in the time most people spend zoning out in front of the tube. Think of all the wine you could be drinking!

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