There was a time, not so long ago, when the most feared man in a restaurant was not an imperious chef but a snooty sommelier. Invariably played by male actors in movies, Hollywood’s sommelier was an effete salesman determined to prove the customer was always wrong. I can tell you, after 20 years as a restaurant critic (and a lot more years as an eater!), that image may once have been pretty accurate but it is totally out of place now. Of the sommeliers (or wine waiters, wine servers, wine geeks – they use a lot of terms now) I meet, half are women and 90% of the good wine people are completely free of pretension. They are in the business because they have a passion for wine, a passion they want to share. Best of all, most you encounter will probably be just as glad to hear about what you like as to sell you what they like.
This past weekend, VeritageMiami staged our fourth Best in Glass Wine Challenge – 16 of South Florida’s top sommeliers got together to taste through 300 wines and vote for their favorites. They tasted the wines blind (they didn’t know what they were, only grape variety and in some cases where the wine was from) and they had rousing discussions about the relative merits and demerits of each wine. By the end of the two days of tasting, 300 wines yielded 50 gold and 88 silver medals.
The gold medal wines and many of the silvers will be featured at area restaurants during Best in Glass Month (March 10 to April 9), leading up to VeritageMiami.
I enjoyed eavesdropping on the deliberations in large part because they proved there is always something new, and there is always something new to learn. Here’s the takeaway: these 16 sommeliers are among the most influential wine buyers in South Florida, and they represent all manner of properties, including fancy hotels like Eau Resort and Spa in Palm Beach and high-end restaurants like Lippi in Miami, J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour and Timo in Sunny Isles. We had wine directors from the Pubbelly Group on Miami Beach and stand-alone spots like d.b.a./café in Fort Lauderdale and the high quality family restaurant Il Mercato in Hallandale. Each of these restaurants, and the others too, appeal to a varied clientele and so each of the judges was looking at wine from a slightly different perspective. What this meant was spirited discussions and the realization that there is no “right” way for Sauvignon Blanc to taste, no failsafe aroma for Cabernet Sauvignon, and no wide experience with grapes like Prensal, Monte Negre and Graciano. Even among experts, only rarely was there unanimity on whether a wine was “a classic.”
I’m excited to think that over the next few months I’ll have a chance to taste many of these wines with food at favorite restaurants around the region. I’ll agree with some of the sommeliers and disagree with others. In fact, I’ll probably disagree with each sommelier on one wine or another, and agree with the same somms on others. That’s the wine adventure. Next time you go to a restaurant that cares enough about wine to have an employee dedicated to creating and maintaining a wine list, take a moment to ask that sommelier (or wine waiter or geek) what has excited them recently, what wine caught their imagination, what did they just have to add to their wine list. I guarantee you’ll have a great wine experience, and you’ll probably make a new friend in the process.
In the next few days we’ll post the list of all the Best in Glass winners here on the VeritageMiami website. In my post this weekend, I’ll let you know which ones wowed the most sommeliers. I’ll even throw in a few comments on each of them. You can then try them on your own, see which ones you like . . . and of course, you should feel free to disagree!