GREAT VERSUS TRULY EXCEPTIONAL
by Vedat Milor
When I think of a truly
exceptional sommelier, an image appears before my eyes. This is
the image of a man, dignified and handsome in his late middle
ages, literally shedding a few tear drops.
This gentleman’s name is Jean-Claude Jambon, sommelier of the
exceptional Faugeron restaurant on the chic 16th arrondissement
of Paris, on rue Lamennais. In mid to late 80s, I used to walk
past this restaurant many many times on my way to Jamin-Robuchon
to participate in the unfolding of one of the truly historic
moments in the culinary history of the 20th century. I am
speaking of the great Joël Robuchon’s restaurant of course which
was situated within a five minute walking distance from Faugeron.
Of course both Jamin-Robuchon and Faugeron are history today.
Admittedly, as exceptional as the cooking of Monsieur Faugeron
was, it was not on par with the cooking of Joël Robuchon, one of
the greatest Chefs of the century. This said, I derived as much
pleasure visiting Faugeron as I did visiting Robuchon. Why?
The unequivocal answer lies in the existence of a truly great
sommelier. In a nation which made the gift of this venerable
institution to the world, that is in France, which boasts so
many great sommeliers, Monsieur Jambon was among the greatest of
the great ones. The sheer mention of his name in the relevant
circles always produced a magic effect. His peers and students
held him at the highest esteem. So did his repeat clients. Why?
This is because, at least when continental cuisine is served,
the marriage between wine and food is so fundamental to the
whole experience that any mismatch can ruin the efforts of the
Chef. On the other hand, not unlike culinary appreciation, wine
appreciation is a skill which can be learned and nurtured, but
clearly is not evenly distributed among diners. As a result, an
exceptional sommelier always walks a tightrope. He/she should
tailor the selection of the wine(s) to the palate and budget of
the client without compromising the integrity of the dishes
created by the Chef. That is, it is not sufficient for a
sommelier to be familiar with the cooking of the Chef and to
have ideas about the best possible matches. He also has to be a
great judge, a psychologist, a diplomat, and, above all, a man
of integrity and unassailable ethics.
He has to be a great JUDGE, because, he has to appraise very
quickly the palate and the level of knowledge of the client. He
also has to understand the budgetary and other constraints
affecting the client. He has to be a smooth DIPLOMAT, because,
he has to carry out his judiciary function with restraint and
subtlety, asking very few questions and never seemingly
disagreeing with the client. A sommelier has to be a
PSYCHOLOGIST too, because, he should never let the client think
that he/she is put on trial. It is of utmost importance for the
client to feel relaxed and happy in order to enjoy the meal. If
the client feels stressed because he is being judged, or if he
(rightly or wrongly) feels that the sommelier is not approving
of the money he is willing to spend for the meal, the dining
experience will not be a happy one.
But an exceptional sommelier is not necessarily one who caters
to clients without any principles. The ETHICS of the profession
requires the sommelier to share his enthusiasm for his
discoveries and the fruits of his research with clients who
“value” the sommelier. This means that the sommelier should
speak his mind, warning the clients about the potential pitfalls of
his choices and encourage them to take some risks and make
new discoveries—obviously all within the limits of the
budgetary and health concerns alluded by the client.
I should say that my own interaction with and appreciation of
the sommeliers in France has, in general, been very very good.
Almost all of the sommeliers in the leading establishments
possess these qualities that I tried to enumerate, but to
different degrees of course. So one thing that separates an
exceptional sommelier like Monsieur Jambon from others is not
the presence or absence of these skills, but rather the degree
of perfection of these skills. People like him, or like Monsieur
Pierre LeMoullac, another exceptional sommelier who is also the
general manager of the venerable L’Ambroisie restaurant, have
perfected these skills over the years.
The time element is actually a crucial variable here. An
exceptional sommelier needs time to put together a list with
depth and character. The wine list should resonate well with the
Chef’s style and his cooking philosophy. So the sommelier and
the Chef should work together if the relationship between the
wine list and the menu is to be symbiotic.
And herein lies the root cause of the current problem. There are
more sommeliers today with an exceptional nose than there are
truly great sommeliers. It is not the sommelier’s fault though.
We are now living in the era of celebrity Chefs, super
consultant Chefs, trend setting and globe trotting, airline
miles’ record setting, Chefs. The counterpart of this phenomenon
is the itinerant sommelier, one year here, two years there, and,
if very successful, everywhere and nowhere!
Let’s go back to the “tears” shed by Monsieur Jambon now.
Faugeron was like his second home, and he related to his bottles
like “babies”. We had developed a relationship, and he had a
surprise in store for me and my wife: a 90 Henri Jayer Vosne
Romanee Cros Parentoux, a wine I have always chased, but have
never had, and a wine he knew would complement beautifully
Monsieur Faugeron’s “Quail Lucullus”. Well, he had the last
bottle, and it turned out to be corked. I asked for something
comparable. “No, no Monsieur Milor”, he said, “this was quite
unique, nothing is comparable”, softly caressing the bottle as
one caresses an injured loved child, while literally crying
before our mesmerized gaze.
I suppose having intense feelings for exceptional wines is
another hallmark of a truly great sommelier. Should we then call
them the last romantics?
© 2007 Vedat Milor. Used by
permission. All rights reserved. "Gastroville – A Refuge for Foodies"