Learning to become a sommelier, or simply understanding what it takes to be one, can be a subject as dry as a Muscadet.
This simile proves apt for Secrets of the Sommeliers, which attempts, and largely succeeds, to outline the basic issues budding wine servers face. Although the book emphasizes the enormous investment required to buy great wines and run a restaurant wine program, author Jordan Mackay does in fact bring in as mundane and as food-oriented a wine as Muscadet—and Chenin Blanc.
For those who would love to have a career in restaurant wine, the book goes a long way in detailing how much work is involved in reaching the top of this odd profession—and how unlikely it is to achieve success without extraordinarily detailed study, travel to culinary centers around the world, massive expenditures to participate in tastings, and a lot of volunteered hours interning at some of world’s finest restaurants—that, and a huge amount of networking and probably good fortune.
As such, Secrets of the Sommeliers, which draws on the philosophy of Raj Parr of San Francisco restaurant sommelier fame, provides a detailed course in wine list selection, wine storage, dealing vinously with guests, and other minutiae of the business. In some ways, the book is also a glimpse at fine wine marketing and sommelier image-building, and so tends to be a little precious. Lurking behind the curtain here is the unspoken devil, snobbery.
Examples of which include the list of world’s best wines of various types in three subcategories: Iconic, Classic, and Value. This section may be a valuable guide for those already employed in the game, but it seems a bit premature for novices—it would be more appropriate perhaps in a “Secrets” sequel, if there is one. Indeed, the first word in the title of the book implies that there are a series of unknown tips that only the “soms” know. In reality, most of the book’s secrets are already well known in the profession, albeit not widely disseminated.
Two of the most enjoyable aspects of the book are the sections organized around anecdotes and monographs. The anecdotes are from sommeliers as well regarded as Larry Stone, John Ragan, Belinda Chang, Drew Nieporent (who wrote the preface), Heather Branch, Robert Bohr, and Parr himself. Their personal trials keep the text chatty and interesting. Also, the monographs on wine-buying tips and other suggestions may be put to use by even those who do not earn the sommelier title and are “merely” wine servers. Finally, the book offers a number of excellent suggestions for those who want to pursue the calling professionally, and it includes a brief but excellent wine bibliography and a list of important wine events to attend.
From a structural point of view, however, the book reads more like a newspaper article with far too many direct quotations from Parr, who is putatively the author of this work. The use of this style is a curious decision and a tad distracting to the reader.
On the whole though, Secrets of the Sommeliers is a fine, trailblazing work that answers a number of tyro queries in a nonthreatening manner.