Why American sommeliers are better than French ones.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 2 2008 8:05 AM

A Turn of the Corkscrew

How American sommeliers put their French counterparts to shame.

(Continued from Page 1)

But no American sommelier has had greater success using the cellar door as a portal to other opportunities than Andrea Robinson (previously Andrea Immer). A former investment banker, Robinson began her wine career working for Zraly at Windows on the World. Today, she is America's foremost wine personality and popularizer, with multiple books, DVDs, television shows, and industry gongs (including a master sommelier degree) to her credit. Encouraged by Robinson's example, women have come flooding into restaurant wine service, to the point where it is becoming blessedly harder to find a top American table that doesn't have at least one female sommelier. By contrast, I have personally seen only one woman wine steward in a French three-star restaurant, and she was an apprentice from Japan. The profession in France remains a fraternity in the truest sense of the term.

And it is not just in the realm of gender that America has changed the sommelier beat: Wine service in the United States is also multiethnic and multiracial. African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and many other hyphenated Americans are now pouring Cabernets and Chardonnays professionally. One of the country's brightest young sommeliers is Indian-born Rajat Parr, who oversees wine for San Francisco chef Michael Mina's restaurant conglomerate. Parr, 35, says he didn't encounter any resistance when he was breaking into the sommelier trade and that the business is open to anyone with the knowledge and desire to hack it. "Just come and prove yourself," he says. Here, too, the contrast with France is vast. France may be a multicultural country, but wine service there is still a strictly Caucasian affair, and the few exceptions are made to feel their exceptionalness. Hideya Ishizuka, a Japanese sommelier who spent a decade working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bordeaux and who now owns a restaurant in Paris, recently told me that many French clients simply refused to accept the idea that he had wine advice worth heeding.

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Parr says that trips to France early in his career taught him valuable lessons in how not to be a sommelier, but he thinks things are beginning to change there, a point echoed by Betts. They both say that younger French wine waiters, encouraged by the examples being set here, are showing clients greater respect and are trying to make the experience more convivial. The American model has perhaps been too successful: Johnnes worries that many newer sommeliers nowadays are so ambitious and in such a rush to become stars that they aren't willing to put in the time it takes to really master the craft. This, coupled with the fact that demand for skilled sommeliers is outstripping supply at the moment, suggests there may be problems ahead. On balance, though, these are good problems to have, and given a choice between American-style wine service and the traditional French approach, I'll stick with ours, thanks.

Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that anyone would ever say that?