You win somm, you lose somm


Earlier this year I went for dinner with good friends at a top class, three Michelin star, 50 best restaurant. I won’t reveal the name or location because this is not a restaurant blog (I will say that it wasn’t Can Roca or Mugaritz) but I wanted to share an anecdote about a rather egregious error by the sommelier that, without wanting to be overly dramatic, cast a bit of a shadow over the dinner in my memory.

Picture the scene: there I am, looking forward to a great dinner and I am asked if I would like anything as an aperitif. Of course I would, I say, and since it is a special occasion, I ask for a glass of La Panesa. A bottle of La Panesa is quickly produced, lightly chilled and freshly opened (green capsule, so a newish bottle too) and served in superb stemware  (the best stemware I have seen and one I am determined to acquire when I get around to it). The first sniff was perfect, the first sip an exhilarating mouthful of this magnificent sherry, a deep breath, a hearty toast with the afore mentioned good friends, and I am golden.

But then the sommelier, compelled by who knows what desire to walk on the wild side, feels the need to educate me about La Panesa, and he mangles it completely.

The shock makes it hard to remember the exact words, but he essentially told me La Panesa was a single vineyard wine, from a special, very old vine and that it was unusual because the producer was more well known for manzanilla.

I was a little surprised, to say the least, because (a) no, it isn’t (I mean, it is named after an old vineyard, but that is not where the age of this wine comes from) and (b) no, it isn’t. In fact (b) in particular was a shocking error given that both makers (Emilio Hidalgo, on the one hand, and Hidalgo, on the other) are well known. I was also surprised because, frankly, if someone comes into your restaurant (and not just any restaurant) and asks you for a specific wine by name (and not just any wine), surely you have to assume that they know what they are asking for, no? Even if not, why in the world would you decide to lecture them about it, in particular if you are going to wing it?

I was shaken, I must admit, but of course, the sunshine, the group of friends etc – on we go, and indeed, given the long tasting menu in prospect we entrust the choice of wines for the meal to the chap.

Unfortunately, my memories of what followed are not great either. The first wine he serves with dinner is a much lighter manzanilla which, after the massive, majestic fino I had just supped (and learned so much about – thanks boss) tasted like water by comparison. The next pairing was awful – really not great (in fact I would have switched wines one and two around) and I can honestly say none of the wines stood out for me until a Vin de Paille with the final dessert.

Being fair to the guy, it was a tricky menu to do the pairings for – lots of dishes and some of them very challenging. But nevertheless here I am, several months later, and the first thing I remember about the dinner was that the sommelier didn’t know what La Panesa is. It was a disappointing effort, and I can’t help feeling that a lot of the disenchantment with the pairings thereafter stemmed from that basic breakdown in trust.

I am spoilt. I am lucky enough to know some really top class sommeliers – Ana Losada, at the Chula de Chamberi, Luis Garcia de la Navarra, at the eponymous Restaurante Vinoteca, Oscar Marcos and Fran Ramirez at Alabaster, Marian and Mamen at Taberna Verdejo, Paqui at Palo Cortado – I really am very well looked after. I have also been fortunate enough to have had wines chosen for me with pairing menus by cracks like Guillermo Cruz at Mugaritz and the chaps at Can Roca. If I had to pick one set of pairings, it would be the night in Mugaritz – txacoli, fino, meursault, palo cortado, sake, garnatxa, bandol, … tremendous imagination and superb harmonies, but all these experts have the skill of making wine taste better – Ana and Luis in particular have hit me with some pairings (take this and this, for example) that were memorable.

And as the years go by it becomes increasingly clear to me how very lucky I am and how crucial the role of a sommelier is in any restaurant (or taberna). A wine lover mate of mine gave up drinking for a month last year and, as you might expect, lost weight, but he reckons the reason he lost weight was that he just didn’t enjoy eating as much without a glass of wine. I agree 100% with that and If I have learned anything from the incident above it is that without the right wine, you will not enjoy a meal as you ought to, and unless you can trust your sommelier, you may not enjoy the wine as you could do.

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7 thoughts on “You win somm, you lose somm

  1. I agree completely and can only confirm that People like Guillermo Cruz ( Mugaritz) and Pilar Cavero ( former Somm at Le cellar de con Roca) enhance and amplify the taste of a good Menu by giving you the right match and only as much Information as you might need.

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  2. Dead right – and your last point about information is spot on. I am not against a sommelier giving you an insight into what a wine is all about at all. Indeed, as I mentioned in my post on birdwatching, a little knowledge can really enhance enjoyment (as I have found with the Encrucijado this week). What I object to is the wrong information (obviously) and I also have a bit of a problem with “blarney” – the sommelier who trots out hackneyed old lines (something you get a lot when ordering palo cortado). Great to hear from you and many thanks for taking the time to comment!

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  3. Even though I agree a decent sommelier should do his homework or shut up about unknown wines, the Hidalgo thing is in fact very confusing. Hidalgo – La Gitana simply uses ‘Hidalgo’ on most of its wines (especially the better wines) and Emilio Hidalgo does the same. Do they even mind suggesting they’re made by the other? The bodegas should definitely pay more attention to this confusion.

    Now that I think of it, being a bit vague almost seems symptomatic for the whole sherry area…

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    1. Yes indeed confusion and informality appear to reign. Neither does it help when soleras and branda change hands – witness the Terry Maruja fino which I believe is no longer made, while the Pinero Maruja manzanilla is an almost identical label on (I assume) a different wine. In any event, many thanks for commenting and apologies for the delay in getting back to you!

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