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GREAT VERSUS TRULY EXCEPTIONAL SOMMELIERS

by Vedat Milor

February 9, 2007

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?

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© 2007 Vedat Milor.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. "Gastroville – A Refuge for Foodies" www.Gastroville.com

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