All the recent buzz surrounding SOMM—the 2012 documentary high-lighting the particular form of obsessive, flashcard-induced torture that students face each year while preparing for the Master Sommelier exam—makes one thing clear: We've officially entered the Age of the Sommelier.
Not unlike the earlier ascendancy of the “celebrity chef,” wine pros have emerged as the latest personalities and tastemakers to enter the culinary spotlight. Now, thanks to a handful of podcasts and video projects by current and ex-somms, they’re expanding their reach even further.
Sommeliers are natural entertainers. Equal parts salespeople, mind readers and vaudeville performers, they’re tasked with translating an infinitely complex subject into terms each customer—the toughest audience—can understand. In this way, the decision to swap a waiter’s knife for a microphone seems like a natural extension of what they’re already doing all night on the floor.
But the trend also speaks to a cultural shift within the industry itself. According to Geoff Kruth, MS, wine director of The Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in the Russian River Valley, authoritarian views on wine are passé.“People have started to understand that wine is subjective, just like film, art and music,” he says. “Sommeliers represent a group whose job it is to taste and sell a lot of different wine, so I think they appeal to people who are looking for more diverse perspectives.”
True as this may be, Kruth estimates that the audience for his own podcast at the Guild of Sommeliers consists mostly of fellow professionals. This comes as no surprise, since the series specifically targets members of the Guild. But even at a time when the average drinker is more curious than ever, is the general public ready to join the conversation?
Restaurant veteran Levi Dalton has no illusions about reaching “billions of people” with his trade-focused podcast, “I’ll Drink to That.” Executed with a depth of knowledge that the typical wine blog lacks, the series features a wide range of professionals, from retailers, writers and importers to critics, winemakers and somms. “I felt that there were really interesting stories out there,” Dalton says, “but people weren’t getting the right platform. They were just getting asked, ‘What’s your favorite wine to pair with chocolate?’” Although he initially dabbled with video content, he realized that audio is not only cheaper, but more conducive to the detailed, long-form discussions he curates. He now gets over 800 downloads per episode, and hopes the series will both promote further dialogue within the business and demystify it for beginners eager to “break in.”
Equal parts salespeople, mind readers and vaudeville performers, sommeliers are tasked with translating a complex subject into terms each customer can understand.
By becoming media-makers, somms gain valuable exposure as public voices within a newly emerging arena, while granting “backstage” access to a world that listeners might not otherwise encounter. “People are becoming more interested in the restaurant industry,” says Joe Campanale, partner and beverage director at Manhattan’s L’Artusi, dell’anima, Anfora and L’Apicio. At the Heritage Radio Network, he hosts “In the Drink,” a weekly series starring his most accomplished friends and colleagues as they tackle “some of the most pressing subjects in wine.” Recent episodes find him talking to journalist Alice Feiring about “natural” wine, and Bar Boulud’s Michael Madrigale about Beaujolais (“It’s like the methadone of wine,” Madrigale says). This “shop talk” can get lofty, but Campanale strives to remain accessible: “My hope is that people who aren’t in the industry will listen as well.”
To that end, the short video format behind “A Drink with Friends,” created by sommelier Josiah Baldivino (of the Michael Mina Group) and his wine-obsessed wife, Stevie Stacionis, immediately pulls viewers in. Inspired by personalities like Gary Vaynerchuk and Anthony Bourdain, they noticed a lack of exciting wine-related video content online. The two now invite quirky individuals—for example, Rob the Beekeeper, Marta the Pet Psychic and David the Drag Queen—to share their vocations with viewers, which they thematically link to some aspect of wine. Despite its unpretentious approach, the series manages to incorporate some serious education, like a detailed introduction to botrytis while talking about beekeeping.
Reaching consumers involves a fine line between rigor and relatability—one that somms, if anyone, should know how to straddle. “At the end of the day,” Stacionis declares, “we’re still two everyday people who are thirsty.”
The statement holds true for just about anyone who cares to tune in, whether industry professionals or avid fans. ■
This article first appeared in W&S October 2013.