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Producers, importers and marketers have a common strategy for launching an unknown wine: Call in the Sommeliers.

No longer are sommeliers the men hovering around customers scanning the wine list with brows knitted in confusion.

While they’re more than happy to pour diners that special Cabernet Sauvignon they splurge on every time they order the porterhouse, the job of the sommelier has evolved into something more glamorous yet more challenging than pouring wine with an air of ceremony and making the typical by-the-glass recommendations. Today’s adventurous palate wants exciting food and naturally, unconventional wines to drink with it. It is the sommelier, an informed, open-minded gastronome, who decides what those wines are. Simply, he or she is the gatekeeper.

“There is always a lot of new stuff out there,” says Brian Larky, director of Dalla Terra, a winery direct company representing Italian producers, “and the sommeliers are in the front line. Without them, nothing will happen.”

Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler Importing started his business with a portfolio of small Burgundy producers, but later tapped into Austria’s accessible Gruner Veltliner pipeline. “When I select a wine, I’m always thinking about food,” he says, “and that clicks with sommeliers. Too often, retailers are only interested in wine scores.”

American sommeliers are known for their encyclopedic knowledge and love of wines – particularly of the new and exotic – and as a result, are increasingly being looked upon by producers, importers, distributors and communications agencies as the new gatekeepers for launching unknown wines from unknown grapes from unknown regions.

While some producers and distributors have always emphasized on-premise sales over retail sales, it was once the domain of the specialty retailer alone who courted an adventurous clientele eager to try unusual wines. But now, as distributors and producers are attesting, sommeliers are taking on leadership roles as early adopters for non-traditional wines.

With this rising influence, and the power to turn customers and retailers alike on to wines made from on-the-rise grapes such as Tannat, Carmenere and Pinot Blanc, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of people entering the profession. Likewise, restaurant owners realize the value of having a knowledgeable, motivated sommelier with both buying and selling responsibilities on staff: it often results in increased wine sales and profitability.

Doug Frost, one of a handful of Americans who has earned the title of Master of Wine, estimates today there are at least 10,000 people with the work title of sommelier and that more than 3,000 have passed basic certification. The International Wine Center in New York, which is the U.S. representative of the British-based WSET (The Wine & Spirit Education Trust), has about 3,000 students annually taking classes in twenty-five centers around the U.S. Other sommelier-accrediting organizations, such as the International Sommelier Society, also sponsor classes in many cities.

Katrin Naelapaa, director of the Wines from Spain promotional organization, has worked with sommeliers for almost two decades to introduce such Spanish wines as Ribero del Duero, Toro and Albariño to the American market. “The sommeliers’ rise came in tandem with the rise of chefs as celebrities,” she says. “For a while, being a sommelier was an almost forgotten profession. The second part of that story is that during this same time the American wine consumer began drinking more, drinking better and drinking with more variety.”

In addition to Wines from Spain (WFS) courting retailers and wine writers – the two traditional avenues for educating consumers about new wines entering the market – Naelapaa saw an additional hurdle with her wines that French and Italian producers didn’t have. “We have very few Spanish restaurants in the country who would naturally be interested in Spanish wines,” she says. “We knew we had to work closely with chefs and sommeliers if we were to ever increase sales.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, Wines from Spain enlisted the help of sommeliers such as Frost and Steve Olson to help spread the message, whether it was in organizing producer tours, conducting special tastings, participating in trips to vineyards in Spain or by just plain word of mouth. Perhaps the biggest WFS success story has been Albariño, which Naelapaa helped introduce with a small campaign in 1994. By 2001, 240,000 liters were being imported into the U.S. Last year, that had increased more than seven times to 1.7 million liters coming from more than fifty producers.

While Naelapaa also credits the enthusiastic support from writers and selected retailers, she thinks sommeliers made the true difference. Similarly, Weygandt, who now represents twelve producers of Grüner Veltliner, says he continues to get push-back from retailers. “They tell me it’s a ‘sommelier wine,’” he says.

The Courtship

Others in the trade have similar stories– and strategies – to Naelapaa’s. “I get invitations every week to tastings,” says veteran sommelier Sergio Caceres, who is helping launch the new SHO Shaun Hergatt restaurant in New York City this fall. “Because sommeliers have different hours,” Caceras explains, “I attended this one tasting last winter at Café Gray where we started at one a.m. Last weekend, I was at a Sunday Ruinart Champagne event – lunch and a tasting – at this castle on Long Island. We all dressed in white and played croquet.”

Similarly, another Champagne giant, Pommery, last October hosted a large, but select, group of New York sommeliers at Le Bernardin to have lunch, hobnob with winery officials and drink Cuvée Louise. At the same time, further downtown, Ruffino was conducting a Sangiovese seminar at Del Posto mainly for wine writers.

Some of these events are for the trade in general, but increasingly they are specifically targeting sommeliers, keeping in mind the sommelier’s weekend generally falls to Sunday and Monday.

Nor are the sommeliers in smaller cities ignored. Anne Hood, who runs the wine program for Harry’s Savoy Grill and Harry’s Seafood Grill in Wilmington, DE , went to New Zealand last year where Icon Estates invited her to spend eight days visiting wineries. “We went to the best places, including Kim Crawford, but also wineries that were not part of the Icon portfolio,” she says.

In many ways the Icon program, which annually involves forty sommeliers in an immersion experience in a particular wine region, is similar to the continuing education programs pharmaceutical companies have long sponsored for important physicians.

Ashley Augustin, sommelier of Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore, has an all-French wine list, with twenty-four served by the glass. “We have the opportunity to present a number of French wines many people haven’t heard about — Cahors, Bandol and others,” she says. “When I see someone open the wine list, it’s my job to take them somewhere. We let our vendors know the kinds of things we’re looking for, and I sometimes will get some vins de pays that really surprise me.”

A sommelier’s power may be best reflected when it comes to emerging wine regions that need a popularity push from an authoritative voice in the industry. Yet, Old World wine regions are also noticing the benefits of working with sommeliers. The U.S. public relations agency for Bordeaux, Benson Marketing, employs a retailer, a writer and a sommelier each year to choose its “100 Today’s Bordeaux for under $30” list, which is then marketed through a series of regional tastings and other media and trade events where sommeliers are present. Napa Valley’s Peter Mondavi, Jr. says that his family’s Charles Krug brand has “developed an outreach program to speak to the key sommeliers across the country and share with them all that is new” as Krug tries to re-invent itself as a top-end winery.

The Sommelier Life

Fred Dexheimer, Master Sommelier and wine and beverage director for New York-based BLT Restaurant Group (chef Laurent Tourondel’s rapidly growing collection of restaurants) agrees being a sommelier is a ‘hot’ job. “Sommeliers used to be scary-looking people with tuxedos and tastevins,” he recalls. “Now, we’re allowed to be more casual, and consumers feel much more comfortable with us.”

While Dexheimer does appreciate the glamorous nature of the job, he also knows that it is a demanding profession that has strong financial responsibilities. “I tell the people in our eight restaurants that, yes, you get to work in great places with great chefs,” he says, “but when it comes to running a restaurant’s wine program, it’s all about the numbers.”

Dexheimer notes each of BLT Restaurants’ wine programs has somewhat of a different personality, but all have a sommelier there to interact and guide guests through the extensive lists. “There are certainly trends and new finds that the sommeliers get excited about and translate their enthusiasm for these wines to the guests, yet there always needs to be a balance between the tried and true and the offbeat treasures,” he explains.

Michael Muser, who teaches sommelier classes in addition to being sommelier and wine director at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago, says, “I always tell students that you have to count your mistakes every time you take inventory.” Muser thinks part of the learning process for beginning sommeliers is in understanding your audiences. “You run the risk of making the decision to buy obscure wines and run ahead of the pack,” he says. “You have to keep your public in mind. For example, we have completely different wine sales in our lobby area, where people tend to want the traditional wines, than in our fine restaurant, Avenues. There we might challenge our guests with an offbeat Riesling or a stunning Gruner Veltliner.”

Or, as sommelier Hood warns, “You can’t afford to hand sell every bottle.”

The art of selling wines to these sommeliers, of course, means appreciating both sides of the job: the glamour and the grueling physical aspect of moving around cases of wine and processing them.

Monique Seillan, vice president for communications for Jackson Family Wines, says that all its company’s sales people must have either been a sommelier at one point in their career or have undergone sommelier training. “Jess Jackson [of Kendall Jackson] asked to have a special team who are sommeliers first, then sales people,” she says.

Other distribution companies are also ramping up their sales expertise before calling on sommeliers. “It’s always important to have your sales people to be educated about the wines by someone other than the company reps,” says Scott Gerber, senior vice president and co-founder of New York-based Martin Scott Wines. “We brought in sommelier Chris Miller to train our sales people in about eight sessions and to test us. We also taste all our wines blind. We want to earn a degree of respect from the sommeliers who are making the buying decisions. Even if you have a good product, if you don’t have this respect, you move down on their scale.”

While salespeople are getting better at knowing wines and understanding which ones to offer, Caceres maintains, “sommeliers are the first line of defense against bad wines.”
Chandni Patel, who works for Cornerstone Communications in New York on the 2008 Albariño campaign as well as with other producers, says that “most sommeliers are receptive to learning about new wines, because they get list fatigue if they keep repeating the same wines. But sometimes the most difficult thing for us is getting time on their schedules to see them.”

Key to understanding sommeliers is recognizing there is a camaraderie among them. “It’s really a relatively small network within any city once you get down to it,” says Frost, who has worked in both restaurant and retail spheres and who frequently consults on wine education and communications campaigns. “The restaurant business is so ‘flowing,’” he says. “Everybody knows everybody.” This closeness makes sommeliers ripe for viral marketing strategies to get them talking among themselves about particular wines or categories. Additionally, sommeliers frequently shift jobs from restaurant to restaurant.

Venus and Mars

In many ways, sommeliers and retailers are quite different in how they approach their jobs and in their outlooks, which have led some to observe that, “Sommeliers are from Venus and retailers are from Mars.”

“Sommeliers don’t want to hear as much about the media reputation of a wine as a retailer does,” says William Scherer, the sommelier at Aureole in Las Vegas. “I never mention to a customer a wine’s Parker or Wine Spectator score, although I do think those are good barometers.” What Scherer does appreciate, he says, is that writers who rate wines will alert him and other sommeliers to the potentiality of regions, citing as an example Stephen Tanzer’s recent coverage of the Tannat grape in Uruguay.

Debbie Zachareas, a principal at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants in San Francisco, thinks most of the differences between on-premise and retail are somewhat superficial and overblown, having worked for many years simultaneously in both ends of the trade.

“Remember, there are lots of different consumers and different audiences,” she says. “People who shop at old-school retailers are not looking for new wines. There’s room for everybody.” Frost agrees. “Retailers are hostage to what customers want,” he says, “while restaurants have more latitude.”

There can also be a symbiotic economic and marketing relationship between the two sides of the trade. “I work closely with the sommeliers at Charleston Place and the Peninsula Grill,” says Debbie Marlowe, owner of The Wine Shop in Charleston, SC. “When people try a wine in a restaurant that they really love, they want to know where they can buy it. It works out for everybody.”

“Every good sommelier will have in their back pocket a list of retailers to send their customers to when they are looking for a wine they’ve had in the restaurant,” Zachareas explains. “The consumers are looking for the same taste experience, even if they can’t find the same wine and retailers can help them with this” – a win for the consumer, the retailer and the sommelier.

As she points out, retail has a depth of offerings that most restaurants don’t. “There may be a couple of Rhone villages on the restaurant list,” she says, “while a retail store may have several affordable Cotes-du-Rhones.”

Zachareas also says she has enjoyed working both sides. “Sometimes, a salesman will come in with a handcrafted wine that has over-delivered for its price,” she says, “so I would buy a case for the store and a case for the restaurant.”

Of course, there are no guarantees as to which new wines sommeliers will, in the end, latch on to, like the sudden rise of Pinot Grigio a few years ago. “I was completely baffled by Pinot Grigio,” Frost points out. “I never saw it coming.”

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