A Turn of the Corkscrew

How American sommeliers put their French counterparts to shame.

To judge by all the reverence they are accorded, you’d think chefs were the most interesting people on the planet. In truth, they are sometimes not even the most interesting people in their own restaurants. Often, that distinction belongs to the sommelier. Not only are their life experiences frequently more varied than those of many chefs—wine cellars are crawling with academic overachievers and white-collar refugees—their motivations are also quite different. While high-end restaurant cooking in the United States is increasingly marked by the pursuit of celebrity and lucre, wine service is generally guided by another impulse: a desire to educate and enthuse. With their missionary zeal, America’s sommeliers have helped convert us from a nation of beer chuggers into a land of Riesling aficionados. Along the way, they have revolutionized their own profession, turning a dead-end, white-men-only métier into an exemplar of upward mobility and diversity.

Although the role of wine waiter did not originate in France—it apparently dates back to the Greeks and Romans—the job took its modern form there, which was good in some respects, not so good in others. On the plus side, the French invested the otherwise ho-hum business of opening and pouring wine with ceremony and élan. On the down side, they brought a pronounced hauteur to the task. Like most stereotypes, the image of the surly French sommelier contains a kernel of truth—more than a kernel, actually. Condescension and humorlessness have long been defining features of French wine service, which can probably be attributed to two factors: Many French sommeliers came to the job not by choice but by conscription, and the position has usually been a life sentence. In France, the sommelier was often someone who entered the restaurant trade as a barely pubescent teen with dreams of becoming a chef (and no prospect of attending university). Then, deemed unworthy of a place at the stove, our man (and it was always a man) got shunted off to the wine cellar, where he was condemned to spend the rest of his working days in the shadow of the egomaniacal prick who beat him out in the kitchen. This was not a recipe for service with a smile. The word sommelier is derived from an Old French term for “beast of burden,” and French sommeliers have tended to go about their work with an attitude befitting that etymology.

By contrast, professional wine service is a recent phenomenon in the United States (it only really started in the 1980s), and took root in very different fashion. The pioneering figures here—Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World), Daniel Johnnes (Montrachet), Larry Stone (Charlie Trotter’s, Rubicon)—were all college-educated and came to wine out of passion, not because they were frog-marched into the bottle room. They saw their role as mainly pedagogical, an outlook perfectly tailored to a time when Americans were developing an interest in wine. They made wine service educational, and they made it fun. They also brought an entrepreneurial spirit to the work; rather than let the role of sommelier define them, they defined it.

Consider, for instance, Johnnes, now (along with Stone) the dean of American sommeliers. In 1985, Drew Nieporent put him in charge of the wine service at Montrachet, a restaurant he was opening in Tribeca. Johnnes, taking his inspiration from the restaurant’s name—Montrachet is the grandest of grand cru white Burgundies—assembled a spectacular cellar, and he and the wine list became the restaurant’s star attractions (not that the food wasn’t also good). In the late ‘80s, Johnnes began bringing in some of the unknown wines that he had discovered on trips to France. Today, the 52-year-old New Yorker has a thriving import business with a roster full of impressive names, oversees wine operations for Daniel Boulud’s restaurant group, and has even become a winemaker himself: He is now producing a small amount of red Burgundy with the help of Frédéric Mugnier, one of the region’s most esteemed vignerons, and is also doing an Oregon pinot noir with the assistance the talented Eric Hamacher. He also hosts what is unquestionably the world’s greatest wine event, La Paulée de New York (a bacchanal modeled after the annual postharvest festival in Meursault) and has become Burgundy’s de facto American ambassador.

Younger sommeliers are following similar paths. Richard Betts, the 36-year-old wine boss at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., is a refugee from academia. He had just completed a masters in geology in 1996 and was heading off to law school when an epiphanic bottle of Italian wine persuaded him to abandon con law and torts before he’d even started and to pursue a career in gastronomy instead. Now, in addition to his day job at the highly acclaimed Little Nell, Betts is producing wine under his own label on three continents—in Napa Valley, in Australia’s Barossa Valley, and in France’s northern Rhône Valley, where he has the help of the brilliant young winemaker Jean-Louis Chave.

But no American sommelier has had greater success using the cellar door as a portal to other opportunities than Andrea Robinson (previously Andrea Immer). A former investment banker, Robinson began her wine career working for Zraly at Windows on the World. Today, she is America’s foremost wine personality and popularizer, with multiple books, DVDs, television shows, and industry gongs (including a master sommelier degree) to her credit. Encouraged by Robinson’s example, women have come flooding into restaurant wine service, to the point where it is becoming blessedly harder to find a top American table that doesn’t have at least one female sommelier. By contrast, I have personally seen only one woman wine steward in a French three-star restaurant, and she was an apprentice from Japan. The profession in France remains a fraternity in the truest sense of the term.

And it is not just in the realm of gender that America has changed the sommelier beat: Wine service in the United States is also multiethnic and multiracial. African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and many other hyphenated Americans are now pouring Cabernets and Chardonnays professionally. One of the country’s brightest young sommeliers is Indian-born Rajat Parr, who oversees wine for San Francisco chef Michael Mina’s restaurant conglomerate. Parr, 35, says he didn’t encounter any resistance when he was breaking into the sommelier trade and that the business is open to anyone with the knowledge and desire to hack it. “Just come and prove yourself,” he says. Here, too, the contrast with France is vast. France may be a multicultural country, but wine service there is still a strictly Caucasian affair, and the few exceptions are made to feel their exceptionalness. Hideya Ishizuka, a Japanese sommelier who spent a decade working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bordeaux and who now owns a restaurant in Paris, recently told me that many French clients simply refused to accept the idea that he had wine advice worth heeding.

Parr says that trips to France early in his career taught him valuable lessons in how not to be a sommelier, but he thinks things are beginning to change there, a point echoed by Betts. They both say that younger French wine waiters, encouraged by the examples being set here, are showing clients greater respect and are trying to make the experience more convivial. The American model has perhaps been too successful: Johnnes worries that many newer sommeliers nowadays are so ambitious and in such a rush to become stars that they aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to really master the craft. This, coupled with the fact that demand for skilled sommeliers is outstripping supply at the moment, suggests there may be problems ahead. On balance, though, these are good problems to have, and given a choice between American-style wine service and the traditional French approach, I’ll stick with ours, thanks.

Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that anyone would ever say that?