WHO IS A SOMMELIER AND WHAT DOES A SOMMELIER DO?
We are quite sure that you’ve more than once heard of the term sommelier, but do you know who sommeliers are and what is their role?
Sommelier is generally a person responsible for all aspects of wine service as well as food and wine pairing at a restaurant. This is no ordinary waiter, but a well trained and knowleadgeble wine professional with a lot of experience who has passed certification course for sommeliers. This is a profession much more demanding than of a regular waiters, so no wonder sommeliers of top restaurants enjoy a great reputation, matching reputations of their respective chefs.
What is exactly the role of a sommelier? Depending on the type of premises where one works (fine dining restaurant, “plain” restaurant, wine bar), sommelier duties vary. Sommelier may be responsible for creating a wine list as well as for education and training of other staff. Furthermore, a sommelier works closely with the kitchen in order to be fully prepared to give wine recommendations in accordance to food pairing to guests . This responsibility certainly requires a lot of experience in food and wine pairing techniques, as well as excellent knowing of restaurant’s menu and wine list. Finally, the sommelier is the one who stands at guests’ disposal. In direct contact with people, sommeliers must be able to recognize which way their customers want to go, to catch a subtle hint regarding budget limits and to recommend a specific wine which a guest will be satisifed with.
It is somewhat popular to be a sommelier today. Sommeliers can be found in restaurants and wine bars, which are growing in number in Croatia nowadays. Do not be shy to ask sommelier for advice – this is what they do.
How to become a sommelier? You do not necessarily need to be professionally related to the industry to sign up for a sommelier course. Simply contact the Croatian Sommelier Club where you’ll get all info on courses they offer.
1. Meet America’s Only Water Sommelier
German-born Riese has been fascinated with the different tastes of water since he was 4-years-old. His parents, who worked in the hospitality industry, would take him vacationing all over Europe, and the first thing he always did was try the tap water. To him, it tasted different everywhere he went, so he couldn’t understand why everyone always called it the same thing. Later, he would learn that he had been blessed with a very special palette that allows him to detect the subtle differences in the taste of different mineral waters. Luckily for him, there was actually a job that required just the kind of unique talent he had – water sommelier.
Martin admits that when people hear what he does for a living, they think he’s a little crazy, which he says is “totally normal”. First of all, he’s the only one with his job in the United States, and second, most people here are used to “purified water”, the kind that comes from a factory and tastes really bland. To them, all water tastes the same, but that’s only because they aren’t familiar with the many natural mineral waters available in different parts of the world. They really have their own unique tastes and properties, and as a water sommelier for the Patina Group in Los Angeles, he tries to show them what they are missing out on.
Martin Riese isn’t just a guy who claims to know a lot about water and what it tastes like. His talents have been recognized by the German Mineral Water Trade Association, which is also where he got his certification as a professional water sommelier, in 2010. Two years later, he traveled to the US on a O-1 visa—a special permit only given to “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement.” He has been working here ever since, and has actually made quite a name for himself, becoming the subject of several documentaries, special news reports and even landing an invitation on the Late Show with Conan O’Brien.
The work of a water sommelier is very similar that of a wine sommelier. They also chill the water to a certain temperature – in this case 59 degrees Fahrenheit is perfect – and offer clients a selection of different waters, while presenting them with all kinds of interesting information about them. Apart from its place of origin, he always focuses on the TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) level of the water. This is basically the mineral content, which can reach from very low (10 – 40) to very high (around 7000). The higher the TDS level of the water, the stronger its taste.
For example, VOSS is a Norwegian mineral water made from glacier water, which is very pure. It has a TDS level of only 40, about the same as most purified waters, so it’s very hard to identify its flavor profile until you’ve had a higher TDS water to compare it with. On the other hand, Iskilde, a mineral water from an artesian spring in a conservation area in Denmark, has a TDS level of 400, and has an earthy taste to it, when compared to VOSS. Having passed through 150 feet of alternating layers of quartz sand and clay, as well as an underground air-bubble full of 8,000-year-old oxygen, Iskilde has a very unique blend of minerals.
ROI, a special spring water from the Rogaška Spa and Health center in Slovenia, is on the extreme side of the TDS spectrum. It has a TDS level of 7,400, which Martin calls “insane”. He only has 10 bottle of it in his restaurant and uses it exclusively for tastings. It has the highest magnesium content of any natural water in the world, and has long been used as medication. In fact, the company that bottles it explicitly states that ROI is a health product and not intended to simply quench thirst. It has a strong, off-putting metallic taste, but it’s great after an alcohol-fueled night on the town. Its high mineral content quickly replenishes the nutrients lost while drinking, alleviating the symptoms of hangover.
These are just 3 of the 44 different natural waters that Martin Riese has on his water menu at Ray’s & Stark’s restaurant, and he can’t wait to tell you all about them while you take a sip. So if you’re interested in sampling some of the best still and sparkling waters on Earth and learning which one best compliments your favorite dishes, now you know who to ask.
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2. Yes, the World Now Has a ‘Milk Sommelier’
Granted, de Groot has lots of smart things to say about the taste of milk. But he and Riese and the Upper West Side’s short-lived mustard sommelier and anyone else who obtains certified mastery of something other than wine all risk mockery, at bare minimum. At worst, they chance neutering that word so it’s effectively meaningless for everybody. Luckily, de Groot’s website clarifies that he’s not at some restaurant pairing milks with a tasting menu for a $115 supplement. (Maybe because nobody’s invited him to yet?)
If he wants to teach people to appreciate the flavor notes in milk, he could impress them the way wine critic Robert “Million-Dollar Nose” Parker has for years — through blind tastings. De Groot’s trick, though, should be to fill one of the glasses with cockroach milk.
3. The Poison Sommelier
Fry, a zoologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, is obsessed with the world's most venomous animals, and he's not afraid to risk his life to study the evolution of their chemical weapons -including acting as landlord to hundreds of dangerous creatures. When the university ran out of space to house the animals, Fry built enclosures fort the lizards and snakes on his own property. After all, a monitor bite or two is nothing for a man who talks about venom and stings as easily as an oenophile describes wine.
The bite of a horned sea snake? That's "the feeling you get from an intense workout magnified a hundred times and lasting for a month." Getting stung by an estuary stingray? "Truly beyond belief, like hot metal dipped in acid." What about a Stephen's banded snake, whose venom depletes the body of fibrinogen, a protein that's essential for clotting? "There's nothing quite like bleeding out of your nose, mouth, and ass from an anticoagulant snakebite and being terrified that the same thing is happening in your brain," says Fry. "That's a unique experience that I don't recommend."
His daredevil approach may put his own life at risk, but he does it because it has the potential to save others. Venomous animals have a history of inspiring important medicines, including viper-derived treatments for high blood pressure and minor heart attacks. And Fry is proving that there's still much to learn from those creatures. Scientists used to believe that there were only two venomous lizards -the Gila monster and the Mexican bearded lizard- whose toxins evolved separately from those of snakes. But Fry has located venom glands and proteins in many supposedly nonvenomous species, including monitor lizards, Komodo dragons, and some frequently kept as pets, including bearded dragons and Asian rat snakes. His discovery, published in Nature in 2005, showed that an early ancestor of all snakes and some lizards was venomous. But over the years, the trait has been modified or lost in different lineages.
For Fry, the discovery was "a career maker," and he used the momentum to test more theories. Before long, he was sticking a Komodo dragon's head in a medical scanner, and the results were groundbreaking. Although it had been thought that the giant lizard's bite was simply bacteria-ridden, Fry discovered that it's also venomous. But Fry's contributions to the field hardly stop there. Since the Komodo discovery, he has found three new species of sea snake and traveled to Antarctica to study the freeze-resistant venom of deep-sea octopuses. And he's about to announce the discovery of a new neurotoxin in vampire bat saliva.
Of course, those breakthroughs didn't come easy. Along the way, Fry has been bitten by 26 venomous snakes and stung by stonefish, centipedes, scorpions, and box jellyfish. He maintains the physique of a former competitive swimmer, but his body is a walking inventory of injuries. He has no feeling in his right index finger after the monitor bite ("As if my handwriting wasn't bad enough!"). And three of his vertebrae are capped with metal, after a backbreaking fall from a termite mound caused by "a sudden gust of gravity."
But beneath the daredevil exterior and jovial tales of near-fatalities, Fry takes both safety and his research very seriously, railing against the "carnival" attitude of celebrity wranglers of dangerous animals, who often inadvertently terrify animals into defensive behavior. "These animals have killed countless people," he says, "but more lives have been saved than lost because of the drugs developed through their venom." As for whether the swashbuckling scientist will ever switch his research focus to something less dangerous, don't count on it. "Most conservation effort is targeted toward cute-and-cuddlies, but I've never seen a single useful compound that's come out of a panda."
4. What Does It Take To Be A Mustard Sommelier?
How did you come to be a mustard sommelier?
It was kind of a journey. I’ve always loved food; I’ve always loved to cook; I grew up in a very food-centric family. My mother loved Julia Child, so there was a lot of experimentation in my childhood. I was exposed to a lot of different ingredients, and Maille was something that she loved, so I grew up with it. In terms of me, I have a retail background, so I was very intrigued when I saw that they were hiring for this position and thought, “I can do that. I love to cook, and I love mustard.” Luckily enough, they picked me.
Was there a test you had to take, like a traditional sommelier?
Not a certification, not like what you find in terms of wine. We haven’t gone that far yet. We have mustard sommeliers for Maille when we open in a new region. For example, we have one in the U.K. and one in the United States. That’s a new territory where we’re really trying to drive the usage of the product. So we discussed mustard as less of a pairing and more of an ingredient, expanding beyond what you would think you would use for your mustards. I had a very in-depth training. Elsa [publicist for Maille] and I always laugh that I can taste the mustards blindfolded. You really have to know the product, and I think you really have to really love using it and be open to trying different things.
How long was the training process?
What was it like?
It was a lot of eating and a lot of food. I visited all the boutiques overseas as well as the manufacturing facilities. I also met with the gentlemen who develop our recipes and gave them my feedback, and again, went through a lot of different tastings. Then I did a lot of fun things. I had a picnic in the field where we grow the grapes for our vinegars, and it was harvest season, so I got to take them off the vine and taste them. I did everything from seeing the cornichons being bottled to wearing an apron at the Place de la Madeleine store [in Paris], helping customers and really knowing the brand internally.
It’s really part of my job to do the pairings and what helps to translate the product into an easy usage for customers at home. For example, truffle [-flavored mustard] is fantastic in a variety of ways. Some more traditional ways would be a pairing with a great piece of steak, mixed with panko bread crumbs on chicken breast and baked in the oven. It’s actually my secret ingredient for fantastic mashed potatoes because it adds a great deal of dimension, a nice smoky flavor of the truffles, but doesn’t necessarily discernibly taste like mustard. One of the more nontraditional uses is scrambled eggs. It’s fantastic in scrambled eggs or an omelet. When you taste it, you’ll see why. It’s got this really delicious, earthy, savory quality. That kind of modernizes any egg dish or any quiche.
Do you ever just eat mustard by the spoonful?
Yes. [Laughs.] Quite frequently. Sauternes is definitely one you can use as a dip. We also have a blue cheese mustard which is very, very addictive if you’re a fan of blue cheese. I cannot own that because I did take a jar home once, and what I did basically was [eat the whole thing] with a bag of pretzels. I can’t be trusted around it.
Moving on to the mustards on tap. Why have them on tap? Does it do anything special to the mustard?
There are a few things: One, it’s the base of the wine. Mustard can traditionally be based in vinegar, wine or verjuice. Using wines and particular vintages of wines, using a Chablis versus a Sauternes, makes an enormous difference in terms of how flavorful the base of the mustard is and how it tastes. So it really completely transforms what you’re tasting. In addition to that, they’re actually kept cold from the moment that they’re made to the moment they’re served to a customer. They’re put in a cold ship across the sea, in a cold storage unit, on a truck to the store that’s cold and refrigerated. And what that does is, it helps to retain the nuances of the recipes so that what you get from the moment you open the jar is what you taste at the end.
5. Tequila Sommeliers
As tequila sommelier and supervisor at La Hacienda, she manages all spirits, wine, and tequila offerings and creates special events like tastings, mixology classes, and Tequila 101 lessons.
6. Wine Has Sommeliers. Now, Beer Has Cicerones
A new program is working to bring this same level of knowledge to the world of malt and hops by turning out batches of certified beer experts known as Cicerones.
Ray Daniels, a Chicago brewer, started the Cicerone Certification Program five years ago. And he jokes that he did so for a fairly simple reason: bad beer.
"You'd go into a place that had a lot of taps, that you'd think might know their beer. And they really didn't," Daniels sighed. So Daniels came up with the Cicerone exam to standardize a canon of beery knowledge.
There are three levels of of Cicerones, starting out with Certified Beer Servers (an online exam), Certified Cicerones (an in-person test, complete with a tasting component), and the top level of Master Cicerone (an in-person exam lasting two days). The exams focus on five basic components: keeping and serving beer; beer styles; flavor and tasting; brewing process and ingredients; and beer and food pairing.
This may sound a bit complex. And it is: Only about a third of test takers pass (and the numbers are even lower for the Master Cicerone certification). But Daniels stresses that he's not trying to set up some elitist system. Enjoying a beer is a simple pleasure. It's just that beer itself isn't so simple.
"Beer is a fragile product," Daniels notes. "It can be ruined instantly by certain types of handling. So the people in the beer business — from the brewery all the way to the waiter or waitress — need to understand the complexity of beer."
So far, only seven people have achieved the top level of Master Cicerone. But about 900 have passed the regular exam, and an additional 27,000 have become Certified Beer Servers. And the beer world is taking notice.
Many breweries encourage employees — from brewers to servers to distributors — to study for the Cicerone exam. Portland-based craft brewer Widmer Brothers has gone a step further: It pays for exams and sets up study programs, and it will even require the basic level for certain employees by the end of the year.
Widmer's brewing manager, John Eaton, says it makes a lot of sense. "The last thing a brewer wants," he says, "is for a consumer's first interaction with your beer to be not the beer that you wanted them to interact with."
And that bad interaction can happen when there's something wrong with the beer — from dirty keg lines to brewing mishaps — which the Cicerone training will help employees identify. But Eaton says a bad interaction could also happen when someone just doesn't know how to give you the right beer. While wine has its own language, beer servers are often at a loss as to how best to match a drinker to the right beer.
"That's actually one of my biggest pet peeves," Eaton notes, "is people will say something like a dark beer is automatically heavy or bitter — neither of which is necessarily the case. All different colors of beer can be all different ranges of bitterness and can be all different ranges of density."
And when Cicerones study up so that they understand — and can communicate — these differences, there's a better chance that they can help get the right beer into customers' hands. And that's something that any beer lover can drink to.
7. Meet Brooklyn's first hot sauce sommelier
8. This Sake Sommelier Wants You to Stop Drinking Crappy Hot Sake
Sake is a spirit that's deeply misunderstood outside of Japan. While the traditional rice wine is flowing into craft cocktail recipes more often these days, it's still a drink that may never really go mainstream—mostly because people think it's got no place outside of sushi joints, or they've never really been exposed to the good stuff.
Just ask Motoko Watanabe, sake sommelier and co-restaurateur behind Zenkichi, a modern Japanese brasserie in New York City and Berlin. Despite being born and raised in Tokyo, Motoko didn't start enjoying sake until living in the US in her 20s. While studying biology and working as a research lab assistant at NYU, she became fascinated with discovering all the different tastes and variations at a doorbell-only sake speakeasy in the East Village.
Before that, Motoko only drank sake at weddings and funerals in Japan. Her first experience was at four years old, when her uncle forced her to take a gulp during a toast.
"I hated it! But I guess I didn't have an opportunity to dislike sake, even in Japan," she laughs. "It was much later that I started learning that premium sake is only a small percentage of what's distributed—kind of like table wine, only much, much lower."
According to the sommelier, figuring out the nuances of sake is no more difficult than learning the difference between an IPA and a lager or a Shiraz and merlot. We sat down with her to chat about some of the misconceptions behind Japanese rice wine, and how amateurs can get it right.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Motoko. What do you think the masses get wrong about sake? Motoko Watanabe: So many people get their perception from drinking the bad sake at Japanese restaurants. It's like going to a restaurant and ordering wine, but they don't have any options; it just says "wine" on the menu. If you only have one kind of sake to choose from, you almost always know it's coming from a 19-litre box in the back that's probably used for cooking and costs a euro. To put that into perspective, the sake we serve at Zenkichi starts at 15 euros a litre. If that's all you've had, of course you're going to hate it.
Well, that and the hangovers. That's because that sake is full of additives, flavouring, and preservatives, so naturally that's why you're getting a hangover. With high-quality, natural sake you won't feel that bad the next morning.
Can sake also have flavor notes like wine? The descriptions of sake are the same as those for wine. You may describe some wine to have juicy tropical fruits or red currant or even mushroom qualities. Sake is made with rice, rice mold, and water. There are about a hundred different kinds of brewing rice and dozens of rice mold. Fragrance characteristics are largely affected by the type of rice mold and flavored often by the rice.
I once had sake that even had a cotton candy aroma, called Kaguyahime Junmai by Yamamoto-Honke brewery in Kyoto. We used to carry it at Zenkichi in New York.
However, brewers tend to aim for a general profile of sake, such as fruity and highly fragrant or subtle and earthy; they don't specifically shoot for a particular scent like apple or cotton candy. It's subjective to the taster's opinion, and not intentional on the brewers' end.
What should drinkers know when it comes to temperature? Each kind of sake has its own ideal temperature, but it can also go according to the brewer or personal taste. Warming sake takes out its faults. That's why lots of restaurants serve boiling-hot sake. But if you heat up good sake, it actually breaks its character, flavour, and aromas. Sake should always be warmed to between 40 or 50 degrees [Celsius, or 104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit]. That's one way to tell the good from the bad.
How can you tell if sake should be warmed or chilled? If a brand of sake says nama, which means, "unpasteurized" [on the bottle], it is the brewer's intention for you to drink it cold. Usually junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo that have high fragrances that are very floral or fruity are better off when served cooled. Some junmai and junmai ginjo with robust rice aromas can also really blossom when gently warmed.
Some people say that sake shouldn't be eaten with sushi, because it's basically eating rice with rice. What do you think? Strange—I've heard some say that about wine and sushi, but never sake and sushi. Sake naturally and definitely goes well with sushi. Assuming that you are having sushi in a simple, traditional way—no crazy fried cheese and chicken rolls with spicy mayo—then I would start with a junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo with subtle aromas and light flavour, as the chef might start with lighter-flavoured items like sea bream or fluke or squid, then progress into a bit more bold junmai or junmai ginjo to be paired with stronger-flavoured items such as tuna or silver fish.
Does sake go with anything outside of Japanese food? Sake is incredibly versatile, in my opinion. There are some French restaurants that serve it, for example. I also find sake to go incredibly well with all seafood, including oysters, as well as fermented products such as cheese. Many people love to pair sake with seafood; however, red meats … or caramelized foie gras can pair extremely well with certain aged sake as well.
9. Jamie Rascone Has A Job You Can Only Fantasize In Your Wildest Dreams
Jamie started off as a DJ and a gig at Fiorella Companions (a brothel in Chile) landed him the job of a "Professional Prostitute Tester".
H is work involves selecting the best female escorts for VIP clients by... wait for it... sleeping with them.
The aspiring escorts, all in their early 20s, undergo a rigorous selection procedure that includes photo sessions, interviews and even a psychological test!
Only 6 lucky girls make the cut and proceed to the final stage... where they have sex with Jamie.
Jamie has sex with them, one after the other, carefully evaluating their every move.
The way they move, groove and moan... everything is meticulously judged so that only the best go through. So much for quality control!
His office boasts of a stripper pole and a suitcase that's filled with condoms.
He's allowed to bed these girls only once a month, doing 6 girls a night. 6 x 12 months = 72 happy girls a year. And one lucky man!
Jamie Rascone's calling card says 'Director Of Quality Control'. Trust me, it's just the designation that sounds boring.
To make you feel worse, in between all of this, he also manages a high-profile night club. Some guys have all the luck!
I hate my life!