Posted On: 01/08/2008
Want some info on the beer in your bottle or the spirits on your shelf? Wonder about the water you just paid $2.50 for, or do you want a cigar recommendation for your Uncle Deepockets’ birthday gift? Ask a sommelier.
Ha, and you thought they only knew wine.
“A sommelier is the person who brings you the beverages. And that would be any and all beverages, not just the adult beverages, and not just the wine. … It is also soft drinks,” said Stephen Gitto, certified sommelier at Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill. “So you can use that as a working definition, but then who is actually working as a sommelier?”
There are wine experts working in hip lounges and restaurants, as consultants and appraisers, and in retail, but those in the industry estimate that there are only 20 to 30 certified sommeliers living in the Gateway area, and report that just two have earned the advanced designation from the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international examining body for beverage service. At the moment, there are no master sommeliers – the highest level of certification – in the St. Louis area; there are only 87 in the U.S.
Sommeliers know stuff about everything from fermenting to distillation, heat, hops, obscure production regions, and what’s in, what’s out, and what’s coming to our wine, beer and water lists. “We’re not on a mission to sell people wines and cocktails; we’re on a mission to have people enjoy their [drink] experience,” Gitto said.
It is a super-simplification, but spirits, liquor, liqueurs and brandy are distilled rather than fermented, thus setting them apart from wine. So although advanced sommelier Chris Hoel may not be responsible for blind-taste recognition while taking his certification exams, he must know the ingredients used to give the grain-, fruit- or vegetable-based stuff some taste.
“You blind-smell spirits. You’ll have six small glasses with a brown spirit poured in it and they all look about the same color but when you smell them, one is bourbon, one is scotch, one is rum, etc.,” said Hoel, partner of Bottles Inc., a consulting and appraising business based in St. Louis. Scheduled to take the master sommelier exam in February, he practices blind-tasting as a game of sorts, sometimes at Busch’s Grove in Ladue, where his Bottles Inc. partner, certified sommelier Darin Link, will set up the spirits and walk away, leaving Hoel to puzzle over the four or five glasses in front of him. Hoel has mastered scotch recognition but is now working on identifying its many brands.
Jeff Callahan, certified sommelier at Porter’s Steakhouse in Collinsville, sees the popularity of cocktails dwindling, in fact, as the health benefits of wine become more publicized. Conversely, Hoel sees the cocktail making a comeback. But that is the nature of trends; just as they fade, they’re dragged back to be reinvented.
Joe Public is ordering froufrou martinis, Captain and Coke, and the effervescent gin and tonic. “But to craft a good cocktail takes a lot of skill; to know mixtures and flavors is a skill,” Hoel said. People are trying to invent different cocktails all the time. Make room for rum, aged rum, pastis and Chartreuse, with the latter two rapidly gaining popularity.
“We’re so focused on sweets in this country,” Link said. There are a lot of classic drinks that may require a retraining of the palate. He pointed out that few people enjoy bitter Campari the first time. Give it a second and third try for a worthwhile change of heart. For those who don’t favor sweet desserts, he recommended a Rusty Nail, made with scotch and Drambuie, a scotch liqueur. “It’s like putting on a suit coat and matching trousers.”
Though the Cosmopolitan is over, vodka continues to rule with its ever-expanding arsenal of flavors. For best dollar value to quality drink ratio, step outside the norm, the sommeliers agreed. This is true in wine and true in spirits, but true in water?
Who started the fancy water fad anyway? The Scandinavians. No, the French. No, it may have been Mr. Nestlé, a Swiss, in 1863. Regardless, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York, Americans guzzled 8.2 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006, averaging 28 gallons per person; a near 10 percent increase is expected when the 2007 statistics are tallied.
Callahan noted that most Porter’s customers ask for tap water, though San Pellegrino and Evian are on the menu. So professionally, “you should at least know the basics of water,” Link said. Busch’s Grove offers two San Pellegrinos, Evian, Perrier, Icelandic Glacial and Fiji, whose popularity is attributed partly to its reputation as the purest water in the world but also its square bottle.
Open to good taste or no taste in water, Link named Voss as a cool brand. “The packaging is brilliant,” though he confessed restaurant storage is problematic because the glass bottle is top-heavy; he implored people to at least buy water in glass containers. However, bottled water is not a must in the U.S., “where we have such strict laws about purification. You’re usually just as well off drinking water out of the tap. Though it lacks taste, it’s not unpleasant.”
Sommeliers are not wine snobs. “Beer is a quencher,” said advanced sommelier and wine educator Patricia Wamhoff. “If you’re in a brew pub or a place known for beer, don’t waste time on wine. Most likely it’s been open too long. Go for the beer. They are complementary to food, as well; beers have nuances.”
Tom Mansfield, a certified sommelier with his own shop, Vineyards Wine & Spirits in Chesterfield, has an in-store beer cooler. He wishes it were bigger. He rotates the stock and his distributors keep him au courant on the malty, wheaty, yeasty stuff. So the cooler may get bigger as Mansfield aims – not for another level of sommelier designation – but for store expansion.
Hoel understood: “People are surprised to find me drinking beer and not wine. You can taste wine all day long and you can burn out. So to relax, you will open a beer, maybe a microbrew. … There are upwards of 4,000 microbrews in the United States.”
Beer geeks will tell you beer is more intricate than wine. Hoel’s favorites: Anchor Steam and Grolsch “because I like that skunky flavor.”
Specialty beers at Porter’s Steakhouse aren’t big sellers. Callahan’s customers go for the lights, Miller and Bud. Heineken and Guinness are often overlooked as good beers, he added. “I think the specialty beers do better among clientele on Washington Avenue than in the middle of a horseradish field in Collinsville.”
Link can talk up a storm about the Lambic beers he experienced on a recent trip to Belgium: “At first I thought they were flawed. I tried all these weird beers; they smelled like crap.” It was then he discovered that wild yeast is used in the beer-making process rather than cultivated yeast. It has Old World character. Left out of control, however, wild yeast will cause a barnyard aroma.
Sometimes when fielding a beer question (but more often he gets questions on single-malt scotches), Link ends up expounding on beer’s ability to complement food. “The craft beers have so many different flavors. … The fruit-flavored beers taste delightful with salads. A strawberry beer or a Belgian is good with spinach salad and blue cheese.”
Because she’s only tried a cigar or two, Wamhoff depends on what others say for information, but she knows how to pair them, especially regarding Cognacs, sherries and ports. “I love the aroma without lighting it. And I love how they’re made.” Cigar expertise, she pointed out, is far more fluent in European countries.
Nevertheless, cigars are part of what the sommelier needs to know. “I don’t think that will change – cigars are popular,” Gitto said. “Let’s say you work at a cigar bar where scotches, bourbons and cigars go hand in hand. Cigar knowledge will then be a major part of your job.” And if that happens, we’re quite certain the sommeliers will adapt.
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