There are very few truly specialist positions in the wine trade. Firstly, there is the viticulturist, an agronomist specializing in wine grapes. Then there is the winemaker, ‘the chef’, turning the precious grapes into even more precious wine. We should not forget the educators, buyers, writers and critics, each of whom has a measure of expertise. Finally, last but not least, there is the sommelier, a professional wine waiter and so much more, who is the front man when wine is opened and enjoyed.
In the wine business the winery owners or winemakers are the usual superstars. The people I most admire are the sommeliers, those that operate in the restaurant situation. In fact, this was my entry into the wine trade. The holy trinity of wine, food and company is essential if wine is truly enjoyed as it should be and the restaurant is where wine shows at its best. The sommelier is the expert that brings the aspects together in the theatre of the restaurant.
I suppose the Cup Bearer in the Biblical story of Joseph was the first recorded sommelier. King David had a wine cellar so extensive, he had person designated to manage it. This wine specialist did the job of a sommelier, but wine service really dates back to Greek and Roman times. The word ‘sommelier’ comes from the ‘sommier’, who was responsible for transporting goods on animals or ‘beasts of burden’ (Bete de Somme). Only later was the word sommelier associated with wine.
The concept of a restaurant first appeared at the end of the 18th century. During the 19th century it became more established, along with the idea of wine service. In the early days the sommelier was a failed chef, who ended with what was regarded as the more unsatisfactory position of tending the wines. The traditional view of a sommelier is an imposing figure, probably French, with a short black jacket, black apron, a large sommelier pin in the lapel, a silver tastevin (a shallow tasting cup) on a chain and a haughty, superior attitude.
The sommelier as a figure of respect came the fore in the second half of the 20th century. Fast forward to today, and the sommelier may be a superstar, no less famous than the chef. This is fed by the worship of celebrity, particularly in the United States, the importance of eating out in today’s culture and fascination with the aspirational nature of the world of wine.
The modern sommelier is usually more relaxed and informal and far more knowledgeable than the original model. He has to be involved with purchasing, storing and serving wine and beverages. He, or she, combines the abilities of a restaurant manager, wine waiter, barman, cellar-man and purchasing manager all in one. Many of the best are women. They will have immense wine knowledge, but will also have knowledge of spirits, cocktails, beer, water, soft drinks, coffee, tea, cigars and food. They will purchase wines at all price points, sometimes investing in incredibly expensive wines to be laid down for the future. They have to manage the cellar ensuring each wine is sold at its best. They have to compile a wine list which must be accurate, legally correct, consistent and informative. They will also set the standards of service, including looking after glassware and decanters, and dare I say it, will also be responsible for sales.
Many people seeing the SOMM film see sommeliers as wine tasting robots preparing for the Master Sommelier exams. I think it is a pity to shoebox the modern day sommelier only into this image. Also the great book ‘Cork Dork’ by Bianca Bosker, a fantastic read, outlines the obsessive nature of the profession and the adrenalin rush in getting the big sales. However a more balanced view is necessary.
Therefore, I was delighted to meet Serge Dubs, a French sommelier, who represents the best of the old school. He is a modern day sommelier set in traditional surroundings. He is sommelier of Auberge de L’Ille in Illhausern, Alsace. This is a restaurant that has held the exclusive three Michelin stars for fifty years! An incredible achievement. The current chef, Marc Haeberlin and sommelier started at the same time and became partners in maintaining and improving standards at this iconic restaurant. In the late 90’s the chef came to Israel to participate in Golan Vintage, the first really professional culinary festival in Israel, organized by the Golan Heights Winery.
I was at the winery at the time and met a gentle, kind, modest individual with the creativity and perfectionism, to carry on the family tradition.
The Israel connection continues until today. In 2017 the restaurant won the award of ‘Best Wine List in France’, and it warmed the cockles of my heart to see three Israeli wines were on this most prestigious wine list. For the record the wines are Yarden Chardonnay 2015, Yarden Syrah 2013 and Yarden 2T 2013. Furthermore, Gamla Chardonnay and Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon were on the special suggestions list.
Serge Dubbs was here to act as a judge in the “Pras Yarden” (The Yarden Award) competition and to conduct a workshop. He has is own record of excellence having won the coveted titles ‘Best Sommelier in France’, ‘Best Sommelier in Europe’ and ‘Best Sommelier in the World’!
He was fit, bronzed, well kept, trim and immaculately dressed. He was quiet, modest even charming, only becoming animated when trying to convey a message about service in restaurants. He has a grace and ease of movement that only those who excel in service have. I imagine he glides, rather than walks across the restaurant floor.
His hobbies are his job, the sommelier profession and the world of wines. No surprise here. With all wine professionals, wine becomes a bit of an obsession. If it isn’t, they are in the wrong business. However, he balances this by sport (he was a soccer player) including running, mountain biking and swimming. Suddenly I understood why he looked so fit!
He frowned on the old traditional, supercilious image of the French sommelier and has never used a tastevin. Dubs stressed that wine service is not to show off what the sommelier knows. I smiled at this. I believe many wine journalists here love to show off what they know rather than writing for the reader.
Dubbs said fifty percent of his job was service. He advised, never be pushy. The customer was king and he would do what was necessary to give the guest a good dining experience. If the customer asked for ice in his red wine, he would do it, even if was against his better instinct. Likewise, if a customer complained that a perfectly good wine was corky (off), he would not hesitate to change it. At the same time, he would try to lead the customers with gentle and tactful persuasion to a direction where they could enjoy the meal more, but the customer choice even if misguided always took preference to what was right. Dubs says: “Look, listen and try to understand the nuances.” He says he is selling happiness as much as wine. He advises young sommeliers not to talk too much. He talks about the ego of some guests that sometimes needs stroking. He admitted sometimes you have to match the wine to the person rather than a specific dish.
The importance of knowing what you have on the wine list is crucial, but it is also important to know what you have in the cellar. His wine list contains 1,000 wines and his wine cellar has 65,000 wines in it! Wow! Think of the logistics! He changes twenty five percent of the wines two or three times a year. “You must keep the wine list alive” he says.
“Never use your knowledge to show arrogance. Never be pushy. Use knowledge to help communicate.” He says. “I learn a lot from customers” he went on, “A sommelier who is arrogant is afraid and lacks culture. The guest must see the sommelier as someone he can trust. Always serve with finesse, elegance and balance.”
Other sommeliers endorse this. Andrea Immer wrote: “Great wine service is a restaurant that really cares. The bottom line is that great wine service means a sincere desire to make you really happy with your wine experience.” Iconic wine educator Kevin Zraly points out “the sommelier may be the one person who can enliven your meal. He has two advantages: he has tasted all the wines on the wine list and all dishes on the menu.” I also liked the quote by Derek Todd: “there is a magic space in that distance between the food and the wine. The ideal match fills that space.”
Dubs stressed that his heart sings every time a customer leaves the restaurant happy. Then he smiles wrily and admits that the sommelier, restaurant staff and kitchen staff also have to be happy. Even the restaurant owner has to be happy, he says!
Of course, the sommelier today may not only be in the restaurant. He may be in wine education, be a wine buyer, be in retail or manage the wine in a chain of restaurants. However the word sommelier indicates a certain knowledge and experience. I sometimes refer to them as ‘the wine professional outside the gates of the winery’, or as ‘a winemaker in a suit.’
I was pleased and moved to see the Pras Yarden competition take place this year to encourage wine service and wine knowledge. Wine service has always been a baby of mine. In the early 1990’s I organized the first ever sommelier course in Israel. Twenty-four years ago, I bought the concept of this competition to Israel. I had organized similar competitions in England, sponsored by Alexis Lichine, and I figured it was a good idea to encourage the pursuit of excellence in wine service in Israel. The first competition was held in 1994 and it was then an annual event. I continued to run it until I left the Golan Heights Winery in 2002.
The success of the competition may be gauged by the number of respected wine professionals who gave their career a kick start by winning this competition. Examples are the Avi Ben Ami, sommelier of Roshfeld Restaurant and Mul Yam, amongst other places, who now organizes wine competitions (Eshkol Hazahav, Best Value) and exhibitions (Sommelier Trade Show.). Lior Lacser became chief winemaker of Carmel Winery. Yael Sandler became a sommelier of Michelin star restaurants in London and winemaker of Binyamina and Ella Valley wineries. Aviram Katz, then sommelier of Toto Restaurant, was the winner the last time the competition was held and he later became a wine journalist.
The final was held at the Golan Heights Winery. Judges included Serge Dubs, winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, Aviram Katz, now from Basta Restaurant in Tel Aviv and sommelier Gal Zohar from IWSI, the official training representative of WSET in Israel. There were five stations: Wine Tasting, Wine knowledge, Viticulture & Winemaking, Wine Service and Sparkling & Dessert Wines.
The winner of ‘Pras Yarden 2018’ was Mor Bernstein, the ex-sommelier of Jaffa Tel Aviv, Toto and Claro Restaurants, and more recently involved at Nono. She is studying for the WSET Diploma, a level only five Israelis have reached up to now and is the best sommelier of her generation. She is sure of a successful career in wine if she wants it.
I asked Serge Dubbs, why after over 40 year as chef sommelier, is he still so involved with the restaurant scene? He says it is his home and family. He loves the interaction with people, the buzz of service and the theatre of the restaurant. He explains he has served three generations of some families, who still return because they feel part of the family. Finally he shrugs, as only a Frenchman can, and says: “Being a sommelier….it’s a way of life!”
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wine. He is the wine writer of the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com