That's right. That man (or these days woman) you may fear -- the one who sometimes sports an intimidating traditional outfit complete with ceremonial regalia -- can make a much better wine match for your food than you are ever likely to.
Witness this scene at Citronelle, chef Michel Richard's elegant restaurant in Georgetown. It's 7:30 on a midweek evening and, wine list in hand, sommelier Mark Slater is helping a couple in their early forties -- regular guests -- decide on a wine to go with their meal.
"Did you find something appealing?" he asks.
"We trust you," says the couple. "Pick out something nice for us."
But the couple hasn't made it easy. He is starting with a roulade of roasted Japanese eel, followed by filet mignon in a Pinot Noir sauce. She wants the roasted artichoke terrine in basil aspic, followed by the lobster medallion in a sauce made with a very dry wine from eastern France. That's a lot of different flavors. What to do?
Slater suggests individual glasses of wine to accompany the very different appetizers: a grand cru Alsatian Riesling for the terrine ("It has good structure and good acid, and can stand up to the dish without falling apart," he explains) and a Sancerre for the eel.
But they'd like to share a bottle of wine for their entrees. Slater thinks a red wine, but not an overpowering one, and flips to the Burgundy page of the wine list. He points to three possibilities at different prices: a 1995 Santenay for $45 ("It's a good vintage," he says), a 1996 Aloxe-Corton for $75 ("It's not a terribly heavy Pinot Noir and it won't overpower the lobster") and a 1995 Volnay for $90. ("It's a light enough Pinot Noir for the lobster, but it packs a lot of flavor, and the beef is made in a Pinot sauce.")
The Volnay wins, and everybody's happy.
Sure, an experienced waiter could have helped them. And sure, many guests want to match the wine and food themselves. But few could make as seamless a match as an educated sommelier.
The sommelier is the wine expert in many higher-priced restaurants who is there to assist guests with choosing wines. He knows the menu well -- its ingredients, sauces and flavors -- and can suggest wines that enhance the food rather than conflict or overwhelm it. He can talk about the vintage, share information about the winemaker. He also is often responsible for selecting and buying the restaurant's wine, caring for its wine cellar, its physical environment, contents, storage and sales. In many cases, he provides wine training for the restaurant's wait staff.
"Fine wine is such a diverse subject, so likely to be misconstrued or misunderstood," says Michael Flynn, the sommelier at chef Bob Kinkead's restaurants in downtown Washington and Tysons Corner. "Any kind of wine guidance in the dining experience is going to be an enhancement. And while I go to great pains to ensure that the wait staff has adequate training to make appropriate recommendations for Kinkead's cuisine, I'm the one who's picked the wines -- every single one -- so I'm the ultimate resource."
The whole setup, after all, is designed to make the diner's meal more memorable. "There's definitely an advantage to working with a sommelier or wine steward," says Burke Owens, associate curator of wines at Copia, the cultural center for American wine, food and the arts in Napa, Calif. "If you're going to a restaurant with an extensive wine list, it's likely that many of the customers will not be very familiar with all the wines -- part of the sommelier's job is to have an interesting list with wines of quality and character not usually available at smaller restaurants or a local store. So part of the job is explaining the wine list and helping the consumer make an appropriate choice."
Yet diners often resist asking for help. "Sometimes people are daunted by the traditional image of the sommelier in the tuxedo," says Flynn, who wears a business suit. "Sometimes ego plays into it, and they get the misguided impression that they'll look better if they select the wine. Or sometimes they're afraid I'll try to push too expensive a bottle. But if they're operating within a budget, all they have to do is make that plain, and they're likely to get the best possible wine for the money. And sommeliers become very well trained at following the customer's finger [up and down] the prices on the wine list."
How have they learned so much? Traditionally, the knowledge and care of fine wines were nurtured and required only by the rich and, usually, titled, who sometimes collected wines and needed knowledgeable caretakers.
In today's world, however, wines and the subculture that accompanies them are accessible to anyone who's interested: Books and magazines specializing in wine are plentiful, wine societies offer specialized courses, and wine tastings and festivals abound.
Studying theory and reading about wine, however, goes only so far. Nothing compares to tasting thousands of wines and developing a palate sensitive enough to remember those tastes.
Working at a restaurant with a fine wine cellar has usually been a crucial professional step. "The palate is a muscle," says Vincent Feraud, the sommelier at Maestro in the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in McLean. "You have to use it and memorize what you taste."
Working for someone with expert knowledge can also be critical. "Mostly you learn in an apprentice format, working for someone who knows much more," says Andrea Immer, master sommelier and dean of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York.
Feraud, for example, originally trained in France with three different wine masters. (The wine masters came from different regions of France, and therefore had different specialized bodies of knowledge.) Rising from apprentice to assistant sommelier, he took exams to acquire a diploma in wine service before coming to this country.
Slater began learning about wine as a waiter, then a captain, then a manager in charge of buying wine first at local hotels, then at fine restaurants. Flynn also learned by tasting wines in the restaurants where he worked as a waiter, and studying on his own. Javier Diez-Regato, the sommelier at Taberna del Alabardero in downtown Washington, studied at a culinary institute in Spain before coming to this country.
But no specific training or credential is required to call yourself a sommelier in the United States. Indeed, many sommeliers are self-taught -- driven by a passion for wine and the challenges of making wonderful marriages of wine and food.
"In this country you can be superb and not be credentialed," says Larry Stone, the widely respected sommelier at Rubicon in San Francisco.
Even so, internationally recognized credentials do exist, primarily through two prestigious programs based in London: the Master of Wine (MW) degree and the Court of Master Sommeliers (MS). Both demand successful completion of rigorous exams. And not many people are able to pass -- there are currently 19 masters of wine in the United States and 51 master sommeliers.
Stone is one of them -- he was the 10th person in America to become a master sommelier. "To me, it was a matter of joining a group of people recognized as expert and knowledgeable in the field," he says. "Charlatanism is rampant."
Immer, who is also a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, agrees. "I think that the term 'sommelier' is sometimes used too loosely by people whose knowledge and qualifications are not what they should be," she says.
To combat that image, many wine professionals all over the country spend years studying and tasting wines to achieve one of these degrees. (Though there are crossovers, people in the wine industry tend to go for the Master of Wine degree and people working with customers in restaurants covet the Master Sommeliers degree.)
Last month, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena in the Napa Valley, initiated another professional wine studies program -- one they hope will raise the level of wine education in American and will provide another accreditation option.
Why now? "We saw this big gap out there," says Karen MacNeil, chair of the CIA's new program. "Restaurants in America have become so good and so polished, we realized being self-taught about wine and knowing more than any other waiter on the floor isn't good enough anymore. There is a legitimate body of knowledge a sommelier should reasonably be expected to possess."
These days, however, sommeliers are much less likely to display a formal, intimidating demeanor. Says Stone, "Thanks to the Court saying, 'Don't be a snob, be informative, help people find good matches for their taste, the menu and their budget,' there's a new generation of sommeliers."
"We really try to instill the idea that becoming a master sommelier is not a rite of godhood," says Fred Dame, worldwide president of the Court of Master Sommeliers. "When the customer gets up after the meal, he shouldn't be thinking, 'Boy, does that guy know a lot.' The sommelier's primary responsibility is still to help someone have an incredible dining experience."
At a time when there are fewer and fewer formal restaurants, the future of the sommelier in America is an open question. It's expensive to pay one person to concentrate all his time and energy on wine. And some restaurants don't want to convey the elitist image that can go along with having a sommelier.
Many upscale restaurants have a wine director on the staff rather than a sommelier, someone who usually buys the wine, educates members of the wait staff about wine and food, provides customers with serious but accessible wine lists and may also have other responsibilities.
At Taberna del Alabardero, responsibility for the wine is shared by assistant general manager David Bueno and sommelier Diez-Regato, who take care to familiarize the wait staff with wines they add to their list. "With Spanish wines, which are not as well known, we have to have a person who specializes in them to lead people," says Bueno.
At downtown Washington's Zola and Red Sage, the wine program is run by wine director Ralph Rosenberg. The Zola program is the hottest in the area, and the one specifically structured to (painlessly) educate the customer.
Its extensive wine list arrives with jargon-free tasting notes. Its large selection of wines by the glass is arrayed on a rosewood wine island in the middle of each dining room, complete with open bottles and appropriate glasses, and guests are encouraged to taste their selections first. Daily wine flights give the customer a chance to compare similar wines from different areas or vintage years. And, to make good wine and food matches, Zola's servers have tasted at least 60 percent of the wine list.
"I like to make wine accessible," says Rosenberg. "The less pomp and circumstance there is, the more people are open to trying new things."
In some cases, restaurants go without sommeliers because the chefs have strong opinions about the wines that go well with their food and want to be part of the equation. At Galileo downtown, where wine stewards are scattered throughout the dining room, the wine program is run by general manager Michael Nayeri. But many of the food and wine matches suggested to customers come from the top -- chef-owner Roberto Donna. To that end, Donna and Nayeri are also currently giving a series of wine-tasting classes to the staff.
In one form or another, more and more restaurants are energetically finding ways to help customers decipher wine lists -- at upscale places and less expensive ones as well. The signature and specialty restaurants at Disney World have lists with 75 to 100 wines and extensive offerings of wines by the glass. They are working on a program that would bring wines by the glass to their food courts. Even the Olive Garden chain has an intensive wine program for its servers. "Ultimately, it's more practical to train people," says Immer, who has worked as a consultant on the Olive Garden program.
"Whether it's through good sommeliers or their wait staffs, restaurants have to provide more than minimal knowledge because the public demands it," says Stone. "Now people are drinking Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, even Riesling regularly. They're more diverse in their tastes too. They've got it now, they know some good wines and they're ready to try other things.
"But they still need a little guidance."