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In search of the American sommelier

With a recent family loss and illness I hadn’t eaten at the Lake of the Pines Clubhouse for some time, but must concede I’m not much of a clubhouse diner, considering the food and service is only one step ahead of Denny’s.

I was advised things had improved immensely with a new menu and a new wine list with Nevada County wines, which before had only contained secondary-labeled wines from an out-of-county distributor. You either liked the wine or you didn’t. It was evident that the wine list was appalling. With frequent requests for local wines from dissatisfied customers – something had to be done.

The new list of county wines is a welcome addition. However, it’s pathetic compared to others’ wine lists, with merely three Nevada County wineries showcasing only six different wines among the 25 from other California counties.



Survey many other clubhouse and fine-dining restaurants in Grass Valley, Nevada City and Truckee and you soon realize many are want-ing in support of the local wine industry.

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Long before changes came in food and beverage service at the clubhouse, and long before the cuisine there was “haute” and sometimes “not so haute,” I phoned the dining room for pertinent wine information.

Bzzzz. The phone rang just once before a pleasant, efficient voice answered, “May I help you?”

“Yes I’d like to speak to your sommelier,” I said.

“Who?”

“Your sommelier please,” I repeated.

“Uuso Melay? I don’t think we have anyone here by that name,” the voice hesitated.

“Your SO-MMEL-IER,” I said, cringing. “The person who buys and sells wine.”

“This is a dining room, sir,” the voice informed me.

“I know that, for God’s sake, that’s where he or she should be.”

Brief silence filled the line. “Oh,” said the voice.

I’d like to tell you I made this up – I wish I had made it up – but no, this conversation was as real as rent. It took place when I set out to determine, once and for all, if sommeliers were a dying breed as part of the romance of the dining scene.

To tell the truth, the conversation would have been funny if it weren’t so pathetic. I wasn’t, after all, calling up some bar and grill in North San Juan.

This was the dining room of the private and inclusive Lake of the Pines Clubhouse – ideally located on a little private lake, lending itself to the ultimate dining experience if it wanted to.

But the tone of the conversation wasn’t what I expected, so I hung up. All I wanted to know is if they had a special bottle of a Nevada County wine to celebrate an upcoming anniversary. It’s the 21st century and this is wine country California, I thought.

Against this depressing feeling I wondered, where have all the sommeliers gone? I guess I’ve always thought of them as wine’s guardian angels, ready to sprinkle us with a magic potion that will render us forever more smitten with the juice of the vine.

What is the state of present-day sommeliers in this country anyway, I wondered?

After all, here is a beautiful restaurant with a view, a restaurant to set an example in the ultimate dining experience by having exceptional dishes prepared using local wines, a restaurant to tell old and new friends alike about.

A restaurant to brag about its seasonable changing cuisine, wine list and its efforts to bring forth inspired dining room service.

Are sommeliers disappearing? Yes and no.

The word “sommelier,” not part of the English language, has now become “wine waiter,” “wine captain,” or just a waiter of table service. Among sommeliers, this raises the touchy subject of image. As much as I hate to admit it, the image of the sommelier could use some dusting off.

Despite a whole new generation of “wait personnel” (sometimes so young you wonder how a person who has only started to shave could have a palate intimacy with wines older than himself), the sommeliers image still reminds many of a stuck-up image – a caricature of the guy with the big nose and red cheeks, who wears a silver tastevin across his chest and whose eyebrows arch like Gothic spires whenever anyone has the audacity to order a mere $22 bottle of wine.

Most wine restaurants provide “staff training.” That’s the buzz term when the subject of selling wine comes up.

But what about all those times when we’ve asked the trained waiter what the difference between cabernet X and cabernet Y is, only to have the poor guy’s expressive answer of “$5?”

A trained sommelier wine person is indispensable in today’s wine world. Even a two-page wine list could have 20 chardonnays. Somebody’s got to know the difference among the bottles – or it becomes a game of musical chairs of wine selection.

Modern-day food and beverage managers, restaurant owners, and maitre d’s know how to provide a situation that can help the novice make wine ordering easier. It’s safe to say that most of us would vote for dining experiences that gets better and better.

It’s also safe to say that the tourist, along with the local population, would enjoy wine more and buy more of it if there were additional people on restaurant floors ready to turn us on to great experiences by encouraging the consumer to drink local wines.

So given that, how many sommeliers are out there? No one knows. There are, of course, more knowledgeable wine people out there then we think, who merit the title of sommelier. The dining scene would be infinitely more pleasurable if there were even more.

This, then, is a plea. Give us more sommeliers. Give us better food and beverage managers. Give us gourmet cuisine that matches our wines. Give us the opportunity to enjoy the wines of Nevada County. Give us more trained wait personnel. Give us service without the take-it-or-leave-it approach, without arrogance. And give us the courage and openness to use them and let their talent show.

Some of us already know how to order a nice bottle of wine in a restaurant. What we need to learn is how much better it can be if we let an expert do it for us.

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Norman E. Gates can be reached at winegate@earthlink.net


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