All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)
Expert sommeliers are a rare breed: Their field involves just as much mind-numbing study and memorization as many Ph.D. programs, yet they also have to drink a lot to know what the hell they’re recommending to other people.
To find out what it’s really like to be a sommelier, we asked Chad Walsh—beverage manager at Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch—to document a day in his wine-soaked life. FWF photographer Liz Barclay tagged along as he tackled a marathon Monday (which, in sommelier speak, is more like Sunday), revealing the run-and-gun nature of the wine-tasting circuit.
These industry gatherings give somms an opportunity to meet with top-notch producers and distributors, and sample bottles they might want to pour at their restaurants. But when you overbook your day with tastings, as is often the case, things can get a bit blurry—especially if, like Walsh, you supplement your intake of super-rare Chianti, Chablis, and Champagne with beers and negronis.
Without further ado, here’s Walsh’s diary of a sommelier. Get the Advil ready.
9:45am: Monday wake-up call
I awoke to the sound of my old radiator filling up for the first time. When you work on Saturday, Monday is more like your Sunday. The night before, I had been at Charlie Bird on a medium-awkward and fruitless date and now rolled around in bed—potentially still stoned—looking at Instagram and studying the biodynamic calendar and barometric pressure. Pascaline Lepeltier (the beverage director at Rouge Tomate) got me obsessing about that last part—why wouldn’t the pressure on your various passages, sacs, and vessels have a big impact on sensory perception?
Despite these minor annoyances, the day was looking good, provided I didn’t get a nosebleed from being dehumidified. Considering my profession, it’s ironic that I have such a delicate schnoz. One time during a private tasting with the winemaker of a prestigious second-growth vineyard in Bordeaux, a stream of blood straight-up exploded out of my nose into the glass. It was gross. I still have some magnums that I bought apologetically.
I cranked up Sir Michael Rocks’ Banco and took a shower. I don’t think any of my neighbors are ever around after 10am, but if so, they probably hate me.
SOBRIETY SCALE (1-10): -3 (slightly hungover; need coffee)
10:45am: Caffe Vita: Round I
Coffee at Caffe Vita. Small latte. When asked about how my weekend was, I let everybody know this is actually Day 2: “The Saga Continues.”
The coffee kicks in, and my mind starts to dart all over the place. I’m fairly certain that the little hole on coffee lids means that I’ve had the aroma of coffee on my nose for at least half of every tasting I’ve been to. Little things like this bug me. I’ve even thought about making a line of SommCream products that are completely odorless. I’m getting old, and I definitely need some fucking moisturizer in my life. But even the subtlest scents can overwhelm me. My Kiehl’s Under Eye Cream, which is not fragrant at all, made everything smell like guacamole one day.
SOBRIETY SCALE: -1
11:00am: The Lambs Club
I approach the maître d’, who has no idea about the private event I’ve come to attend, which is annoying because I was concerned about being on time. I can’t think of a group of people less punctual than New York sommeliers. I’m a five-minutes-late kind of guy, but fuck—who shows up 20-30 minutes after a seminar is supposed to start?
It’s always weird at these things. The first seat I tried was “already taken,” either by a ghost or by some ne’er-do-well that was too hungover to make it. I ended up sitting next to a retailer, which to some sommeliers is synonymous with a second-class citizen. Personally, I don’t care—if you pay the bills in a way that includes drinking Champagne before noon, you are doing just fine by me. I think she introduced herself just so I would tell her where I worked and why I was totally getting away with a cardigan instead of a jacket.
I ended up sitting next to a retailer, which to some sommeliers is synonymous with a second-class citizen. Personally, I don’t care—if you pay the bills in a way that includes drinking Champagne before noon, you are doing just fine by me.
Things were a bit angsty at first, mainly because the venue hadn’t exactly thrown up their A-team. (Confession: I’ve definitely been the wine director that doesn’t show up to the lunch event I organized, probably because I was at someone else’s wine lunch.) Knowing there were enticing magnums and jerobaums in the line-up, every single person in the room was cringing as our server poured the first 750mL with two hands. Imagine people who are highly qualified at pouring wine watch Barney open a champagne bottle for the first time, with his tiny little arms.
It might be fair to compare the first whiff of wine in the morning to your first line —it’s magical, but likely all downhill from there. Fortunately for me, as perfect as Henriot’s Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1998 is—a blend made only in the extra-best vintages—it was followed by examples from ’95, ’88, ’76, and ’64 (all peak years).
Leading the discussion was cellar master Laurent Fresnet, who had a perfectly innocent grasp of English (e.g., “burning bread” instead of “toast”) that made everything seem supremely objective. As good as the wines were, it wasn’t until sampling the ’88 bottle that my palate awoke, or perhaps I was finally able to tune out everybody else’s slurping and gargling. It smelled like a fort I built in the Northern Virginia woods from scrap plywood, on the steep bank of a slowly disappearing creek, only a few hours after it rained during autumn; and yet, in my mouth, it tasted like a lemon tart with blueberries that I used to get from the Bread Factory on Lexington Avenue. #sommboner
Old Champagne can be tough; I’ve had so many bottles that were poorly stored, or made without foresight. But the bottle of ’76 made me a believer again. This one was like Kent Narrows in the summer, full of bright sun, but not enough to overwhelm the smell of outboard boat engines. The acid was still there on the palate, but it was the finish that was so remarkable: It was like I had snorted fancy orange-blossom honey. It kind of ruined me for the rest of the day.
I spit about 75% and chowed down on some cookies before making my way to the Modern.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 0.5
12:45pm: The Modern
I had no idea how intense the door was at this restaurant (I usually show up at afternoon hours for midday drinks). After passing by 30 grumpy European tourists by the host stand, big-eyed auction-house girls at the bar, and hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman literally making deals at a banquette in the dining room, I finally arrived at the private room, just in time for the whole baby lamb. Claude Koeberle and his wife Elisabeth were pouring. The former is a French chef-turned-vigneron and is always entertaining. He gets super enthusiastic about nerdy things only sommeliers love, like Pinot Noir clones and cigar-shaped barrels. A disciple of the late Dider Dagueneau, Koeberle makes wines that are of the highest quality in California.
“When you use a spreadsheet you are making a beverage,” said Claude. He’s referring to a kind of winemaker that’s interested in data, preferring laboratory-like analysis. But making a beverage is not what Claude is interested in doing; he wants to make something transformative, something that requires alchemy and intuition. His Sauvignon Blanc will be on the list at The Dutch as long as he can keep making enough—they are intensely complex, and have the wild nature of good Burgundy.
Tasted nine wines and spit 80%. On the way to the train I got a nosebleed, as expected, and had to lift some napkins from the Rockefeller Center subway Starbucks.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 1
1:15pm: Back Label Wine Merchants
Unlike the other events, this one is a “portfolio tasting,” meaning that all the wines represented by the Grand Cru Selections would be opened. They had taken over the spacious Back Label Wine Merchants in Chelsea with a phalanx of tables—most of which had winemakers, not just brand representatives, behind them.
Grand Cru is definitely the cool kids portfolio. They take some Old World classics—like Roulot, hipster Champagne Savart, and Rhône superstar Jean-Louis Chave—and present them alongside one of the better domestic portfolios in the city. Robert Bohr, who I had literally seen the night before working the floor at Charlie Bird, was pouring Chablis beside Meursault star Jean-Marc Roulot. Liz Willette, who used to run her own company before merging it with Grand Cru, was sparkling as always; she’s like the popular pretty girl who is actually nice, holds the school record in the 400M, and gets straight As. One of her partners, Ned Benedict, was present. I can never tell if he remembers me, even though we once held the same job, a decade removed, at Aureole. I still have his copy of The Wine Lover’s Companion that I rescued from the somm-station when the restaurant relocated to Midtown. Wells Guthrie was there too. The man behind Copain, Guthrie has the best 1,000-yard stare in the business, which always make me wonder if he just gets way better weed than I do.
I first stopped at Stephen Bitterolf’s table. He runs a small company that specializes in German wines. The trouble with his wines is that they are of such high quality, but they barely sell. I could drink the Rieslings of Kartäuserhof and Peter Lauer every day, but they tend to languish in the wine cellar until I open them for friends (or straight up drink them myself).
The snacks from Stinky Bklyn were pretty good, and in a genius move, there was a back area where potato chips and beer were available to tasters in need of respite.
Spit rate: 90%. (I lingered around the Champagnes at the end, but tasted about 60 wines.)
SOBRIETY SCALE: 1.5
4pm: Pit stop
Took a bag of chips and walked downtown. I was in need of a restorative beer before my next appointment at 5pm, and I happened to be around the corner from The Dutch’s sister restaurant, Lafayette. I knew I’d see some familiar faces and could pick up a pint of Other Half IPA on draft. My biggest secret is that I might actually enjoy drinking beer more than wine—there’s just less money in it.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 2
5pm: Il Buco
I arrive at Il Buco during family meal. I help myself to another beer from Maine Brewing Co. and some breadsticks while I wait for email confirmation from the supplier. I forgot we’d be tasting Chianti instead of back vintage Brunello, but I actually enjoyed the wines. It was great to hear from Silvia Capplini of Castello Di Verrazano, a true Tuscan, about the state of winemaking in the region—things like weather of the current vintage (rainy, possibly the wettest ever); the constant changes to Italian wine law (“as often as they change their socks” I was once told); and even tidbits about the international amaro scene (Capplini hadn’t even heard of some of the cool Italian amari that New York bartenders have been obsessing over for years; in Tuscany, they only drink grappa after dinner).
SOBRIETY SCALE: 3.5
5:45pm Caffe Vita, Round II (5:45 pm)
Walk back down the Lower East Side for a macchiato at Caffe Vita, but stop home to pick up wines for dinner and have smoke blown in my face.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 4.5
6:35pm: Kuma Inn
Arrive at Kuma Inn. It’s a weird place I’ve been going to for years, located above what used to be known as the Bulgarian Bar on Ludlow Street. It’s ostensibly Filipino even though the food wanders in other directions. They never bothered to get a liquor license, which means you can bring as many wines as you want and the corkage fee will still be affordable. My other dates—we’ll call them the Austrian Ambassador of Good Times, the Transcontinental Cocktail Czar, and a fellow Chief Purveyor of Inebriants—were waiting.
Déjà vu. Server struggles to open a fancy bottle worth hundreds of dollars in front of four far more qualified people. Remember the next time you’re holding a wine-key: It’s okay to have a bit of teeth on the shaft, but no one ever likes it on the tip. I opened the ’96 Salon all by myself, and although I spilled a bit (literally a fraction of an ounce, but still potentially multiple dollars worth), it smelled like the freshly showered bottom of an overnight guest.
We discussed the merits of training bartenders like they are contestants on a game show. Day Two is sort of like Legends of the Hidden Temple: Find the ingredients to make four cocktails properly, within four minutes on my iPhone stopwatch, and you are money.
We grubbed on some epic pork buns, but apparently it was Frozen Fish Monday and the tuna tartare hadn’t fully defrosted. We discussed what makes a good somm: Changing light bulbs before anyone notices they went out; making sure that every single person on the team can answer serious questions about wines by the glass (a somm, after all, is only as good as his team); and, above all, making sure that a glass on a table is never empty.
We were noticeably hammered, but in a way that was endearing to both the servers and the smattering of other diners. The sense of pride I felt at not being perceived as a douchebag inspired me to accept the Ambassador’s completely predictable idea to get Negronis.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 7
10:00pm: 151 Rivington
This bar is underneath one of my favorite restaurants in the city, Yopparai. By this point, all the drinking had confused my timeline. I definitely thought it was at least 2am, and thus appropriate for late-night schemes: “If Taco Bell had craft beer, I would probably totally eat there. Like, right now.” We all made fun of the water because it came out of the soda gun and tasted slightly sweet and stale. It was a bummer because I was incredibly thirsty, and although I had smartly subbed a Pale Ale for a Negroni, I needed some H20 fast.
Trans-Continental and I discussed the merits of training bartenders like they are contestants on a game show. Day Two is sort of like Legends of the Hidden Temple: find the ingredients to make four cocktails properly, within four minutes on my iPhone stopwatch, and you are money.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 8.5
11:45 pm-ish?: Home
I’ve been home for a while—I think—but my shoes are still on and I’m lying in bed having totally asinine conversations on Tinder. Somehow I had sent an accidental selfie to the editor of a major food site. Thankfully, it was only my face, and I was ostensibly fully clothed. I was so confused that, at the time, I thought she had sent me a picture of a pumpkin. This journal entry will not be published on her site.
SOBRIETY SCALE: 9.5