Wine Talk

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ADAM MONTEFIORE

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. Fi­nally 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 who 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 to be truly en­joyed as it should be, and the restau­rant is where wine ap­pears at its best. The som­me­lier is the ex­pert who brings the as­pects to­gether.

I sup­pose the cup­bearer in the bib­li­cal story of Joseph was the first recorded som­me­lier. King David had a wine cel­lar so ex­ten­sive, he had a per­son des­ig­nated to man­age it, but wine ser­vice re­ally dates back to Greek and Ro­man times. The word “som­me­lier” comes from som­mier, one who was re­spon­si­ble for trans­port­ing goods on an­i­mals. Only later was the word “som­me­lier” as­so­ci­ated with wine.

In the early days the som­me­lier was a failed chef, who ended up 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 to 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.

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.

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’Ill in Ill­hausern, Al­sace. This is a restau­rant that has held the ex­clu­sive three Miche­lin stars for 50 years, an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment.

There is an Israel con­nec­tion 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.

Dubs was here to act as a judge in the Yar­den Award com­pe­ti­tion and to con­duct a work­shop. He has his 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 with sports (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 write for the reader.

Dubs said 50% of his job is ser­vice. He ad­vised, “never be pushy.” The cus­tomer is 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 it 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’s choice, even if mis­guided, al­ways took pref­er­ence to what was right.

Dubs said: “Look, lis­ten and try to un­der­stand the nu­ances.” He said 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 list con­tains 1,000 wines and his cel­lar has 65,000 wines in it. Think of the lo­gis­tics! He changes 25% of the wines two or three times a year. “You must keep the wine list alive,” he said.

“Never use your knowl­edge to show ar­ro­gance. Never be pushy. Use knowl­edge to help com­mu­ni­cate,” he said. “I learn a lot from cus­tomers. 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.”

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 smiled wryly and ad­mit­ted that the som­me­lier, restau­rant staff and kitchen staff also have to be happy. Even the restau­rant owner has to be happy, he said.

Of course, the som­me­lier to­day may not only be in the restau­rant. I some­times re­fer to him 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 Yar­den Award com­pe­ti­tion take place this year to en­cour­age wine ser­vice and wine knowl­edge. Wine ser­vice has al­ways been a baby of mine. In the early 1990s I or­ga­nized the first-ever som­me­lier course in Israel. Twenty-four years ago, I brought 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 then be­came an an­nual event. I con­tin­ued to run it un­til I left the Golan Heights Win­ery in 2002.

The fi­nal was held at the Golan Heights Win­ery. Judges in­cluded Dubs, wine­maker Vic­tor Schoen­feld, som­me­lier Avi­ram Katz, now of Basta restau­rant in Tel Aviv, and som­me­lier Gal Zo­har of 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 the Yar­den Award 2018 was Mor Bern­stein, the ex-som­me­lier of Tel Aviv’s 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. Bern­stein ex­hibits deep knowl­edge, style and ele­gance and is the best som­me­lier of her gen­er­a­tion. She is sure of a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in wine if she wants it.

I asked Dubs why, af­ter over 40 years as chef som­me­lier, does he still re­main in­fat­u­ated with the restau­rant scene? He said the restau­rant is his home and fam­ily. He loves the in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple, the buzz of ser­vice and the the­ater of the restau­rant. He ex­plained he has served three gen­er­a­tions of some fam­i­lies, who still re­turn of­ten to see him. Fi­nally, he shrugged, as only a French­man can, and said: “Any­way, be­ing a som­me­lier – it’s a way of life!”

(Photos: Cour­tesy)

SERGE DUBS rep­re­sents the best of the old school.

THE 2018 YAR­DEN award is pre­sented to som­me­lier Mor Bern­stein, flanked by (left) Yair Shapira, CEO of the Golan Heights Win­ery and Dubs, who helped judge the com­pe­ti­tion.


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