Posted on | February 23, 2012
Written by | Kit Camargo
In the everyday battle by the wine trade to pinpoint consumer desires, the sommelier is the person on the front lines, answering questions and satisfying tastes every week. Who better to ask about on-premise trends? But more and more often, the person on the front lines is a woman.
National statistics on the increasing number of female sommeliers are scant, but female enrollment in the Court of Master Sommeliers’ advanced course has risen to 30% or more for the past three years, up from 17% in 2003.
As the restaurant wine professional becomes more user-friendly and less stuffy (indeed, fewer and fewer are even called sommeliers), women are finding their place as sensitive, perceptive savants who bring differently tuned senses of smell and taste to dining.
We asked five prominent young “sommelières” for their observations on what their guests are asking for.
Finding New Flavors
Sommeliers around the country, at every level of dining, agree that consumer curiosity about wine is on the rise. Jill Zimorski, sommelier and wine director at Bryan Voltaggio’s seasonal fine-dining restaurant Volt, in Frederick, MD, attributes her guests’ desire to try new wines in part to the fact that she has “more access to more, different and better wines than ever before.”
She also sees guests using smartphones to find out more about wine, and laughs that this keeps the staff on their toes: “We have to know what we’re talking about.” And, Zimorski’s guests care less about wine scores than in the past. They’re showing a greater interest in letting wine speak for itself, which she believes many somms are applauding.
At Rouge Tomate, in midtown Manhattan, wine director Pascaline Lepeltier reports that diners in the age group 22 to 35, especially, are “super curious.” People are trying new grapes like Trousseau and Carignan, she observes. “I have a wine from Georgia on the list and I can sell it.”
At the more conservative Crown, on the city’s Upper East Side, wine director Jordan Salcito, who also appears on the PBS television show Vine Talk and as Rachael Ray’s “wine buddy” on eHow, finds that diners like to take small steps into the unknown. She has an “off the beaten path” section on the Crown wine list, but says it helps if some element of a wine is familiar. For example, people will try the Heitz Grignolino on the strength of the Heitz name.
Economy Spurs New Discoveries
Any trend toward adventurous ordering may reflect a greater caution about wine price, even on dining’s high end. Lepeltier reports that her guests are looking for value: “The more famous wines are just too expensive.” She hears what guests wish they could have, and is able to direct them to something similar, often something new or more interesting
Even at Crown, which Salcito feels is “a bubble,” guests are looking for the great producers’ second wines or “less hallowed” sites instead of the first-growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundies they ordered before 2Preview008.
Tailoring the Wine Experience
The new consumer curiosity seems to breed a greater comfort with sommelier recommendations and a desire to personalize the restaurant wine experience. Tara Gano is sommelier at Pizzaria Mozza (brought to us by Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich) in Los Angeles, and plans to open her own restaurant this year. Of her reception at the casual pizzaria, Gano says, “I find in general that [people are] relieved—they like individual attention to find what they like.”
June Rodil, beverage director at Congress and the more casual Second Bar + Kitchen, in Austin, TX, notices that more and more, on the fine dining side, guests want to pair their wine with their food rather than simply ordering a wine they like. Congress’s tasting menu with pairings is very popular, but aside from that, she says, “The first thing they’re asking me is, ‘This is what I’m eating today—what wine should I have?’” Rodil fields many requests that aren’t on the wine list but often will make a point of tasting those wines, and sometimes add them to the list. She maintains a database of guest preferences to further tailor the wine experience.
Shades of Green
The green and local movements are propelling a growing roster of new products and services around the country, but in on-premise wine, green may still be a niche movement, inspiring strong allegiances—or none at all.
Rouge Tomate is unique as a destination in that its farm-to-table cuisine is deliberately complemented by sustainable, organic and Biodynamic wines. Lepeltier includes each wine’s status on the list, and passionately believes in the “ecological, political and social choice” represented by these wines, the chance to promote diversity. An increased interest in sustainable and organic is the biggest trend Lepeltier notices at Rouge Tomate, since only a few years ago when organic wine still had a bad image because of quality issues. Eating locally also aligns with the restaurant’s purpose, and Lepeltier lists some 25 New York State wines.
Perhaps more typically, Rodil, in Austin, finds that guests in the casual restaurant, Second Bar + Kitchen, want green, but don’t necessarily distinguish between types of green. Many guests ask for Texas wines, but more out of regional pride or curiosity than a desire to eat and drink local.
The other somms surveyed cited very little guest interest in sustainable and organic wine.
Off-dry wines may be a growing trend in retail, but it’s one that doesn’t bear out with on-premise consumers, in spite of sommeliers’ best efforts. Lepeltier, for one, wishes guests would recognize that a little residual sugar (RS) can be great with certain foods, but Vouvray, Riesling—it doesn’t matter, they’re hard to sell. She mentions the Montinore Müller-Thurgau from Oregon on her list, which has, “maybe, 5% RS—but when people hear about it, they don’t want the sweetness.”
Zimorski doesn’t get a lot of requests for off-dry wines, either, but she’s hoping to get on board with Paul Grieco’s “Summer of Riesling” as it spreads beyond New York City. Having historically played a part in making the whole notion of “sweet” table wine unfashionable, perhaps Riesling can now stand for all that is good on both sides of the RS fence.
With trust in the sommelier on the upswing, somms may have the chance to create their own trends, revealing their secrets to a more receptive public. Given the power to influence the public palate, Salcito gives a broad call-out for terroir, or “wines that embody a sense of place,” and Lepeltier is already spreading the word about the advantages of sustainable and organic wines.
Both Rodil and Zimorski wish Champagne with dinner would take hold. When Rodil suggests this, “[people] look at me like I’m crazy”—consumers still think of it as an aperitif or a splurge for celebrations.
The rosé category may be more accessible, and Zimorski plans to add a number of rosés to her list this spring. She sees an end to the need to explain rosé’s bad rep (in terms of the wicked White Zin), and she hopes to help guests see how versatile it is for pairing. Gano sells lots of crisp, dry whites on her all-Italian list at Pizzaria Mozza and would weight it toward Ligurian wines if she could indulge her preferences.
Ideally, in the fine balance between pleasing consumer tastes and flexing the sommelier’s expertise, the common goal is for guests to leave satiated, with a sense of having discovered a greater knowledge of their own tastes.