He's What? Master Sommelier? But He's Twenty Four Years Old! It Takes Four Decades, Sunshine
by PHILIP WHITE
It happened again. The greying hack asked the innocent question about somebody’s son and got the smug return fire “Oh he’s a master sommelier now”.
Master sommelier? Bullshit! He’s twenty-four years old.
It’s a wonderful thing that sommeliers’ associations are blooming around Australia, and that so many enthusiastic people are holding structured tastings, and learning about the lure and lore of wine, and checking each other’s progress. It’s a tribal thing. It helps build a profession. It will be better for the diner.
But twenty-four years of age? The hack quotes his own mantra, something which in itself took decades to develop. This could be read as a mouldering has-been constantly re-inventing his self-importance in order to stay alive, but it here it goes:
“Until you’ve watched several great wines, from several great regions, vintages and varieties, fabulous years and foul, develop from the flowering of their vines, through their ferments and delinquent juvenility, to their prime, and on into the nether regions of the twilight zone, then that person cannot possibly speak with a master’s authority about such wines.”
Of course a younger critic can write in an opinionated entertaining way about wine; or a young sommelier reliably recommend and properly present good wines or reasonably judge their condition before presenting them to customers in the correct manner. But how long does it take to understand pinot noir? Good Burgundian pinot, for example?
Thirty years? Forty? Ask Gary Steel. Once you nail the time it took, then ask how much money it cost him. Ask him about the travel; the air tickets; the stress.
BORDEAUX WHITES AT THE FICOFI TASTING AT KAESLER WINES IN THE BAROSSA IN 2010. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO UNDERSTAND THIS STUFF? HOW MUCH MONEY DOES IT COST? HOW MANY AIRFARES? photo LEO DAVIS
The S-word originates in the old Greek sattein, which means to pack, or stuff. The old French used sompter, or someter, for the truckie of the day: the driver of a pack horse, camel, mule or ox. The four-legged prime mover was the sauma or somier. Given the life expectancy , a twenty-four year-old truckie was probably half way through his working life then. A master sompter, at that braw age? Possible.
Just how this term changed its shape to become the infant dude who pours your wine in a restaurant is a very important progression.
This old sompter, his mule loaded with scribble, was a baby once. He committed evil tricks, like maintaining a good set of empty Grange bottles from different vintages. Using Kaiser Stuhl Bold Red, a non-vintage blend from a flagon, he would fill a flight of great Granges and sit back to listen to the sophists explain the different years.
He was so bold as pull tricks on great men like David Wynn, who invented modern Coonawarra, and Max Schubert, who invented Grange.
In 1980 he attended a luncheon with these intensely competitive sages, and a spunky Pam Dunsford. Each guest was obliged to bring a mystery bottle. The young White took a bottle of Blue Nun, a cheap, sweet, German megablend, and a bottle of Yalumba’s Brandivino, a mixture of young brandy and sweet rosé. In the bathroom he blended half a bottle of Blue Nun with a fifth of a bottle of Brandivino, sprinkled it with some of Mrs. Potter’s perfume, which reminded him of something from Poland, filled it up with tap water, gave it a shake, poured it into a decanter and served it.
The sages agreed that it must have been a pale Chilean rosé. They even discussed varieties, and their Spanish and Portuguese origins. After all their deliberation, the culprit was terrified to think of how he would excuse his scam. Honesty worked. He may have just gotten away with it; there were giggles at the table. But the memory lingers, and if those men were alive they would remember, too. Not many whippersnappers took the piss outa blokes like those.
Were he to take that long strange haul all over again, this bullocky thinks he could slowly, through human discourse and experience in his trade, learn to discern which great house would prefer which product, how and where to find it in the market, how best to contain it and transport it, and maybe even stow it in the cellars of his client.
He would by necessity be first a farrier, animal husbandry expert, veterinary surgeon and wheelwright, just to keep his truck serviced and willing. He would, no doubt, be faced with the problem of diminishing quality usually meaning larger volumes, greater difficulties, and lower profits. And he’d learn that a little lugubrious fulsomness earned the better tip here, and some respectful austere distance the same thing somewhere else.
If he were a wine trucker, the task might eventually also involve him developing a refined, reliable palate, so he could never be tricked by a vendor flogging him Blue Nun, Brandivino and Mary Potter’s perfume mixed with Adelaide water. He might also work out a vocabulary to enable him to discuss his purchases more fluently and reliably.
He could also, very easily, become addicted to alcohol.
If he managed all that with elan and respect, he would be a sommelier. If he became a master of that craft, he might be called a master sommelier.
But he could also be stuck in the mud somewhere, trying to extract a team of oxen without busting one keg.
Today the oxen might be electric, instant or digital, and the cart might be one huge refrigerator.
The, er, the other bit will still take thirty or forty years. Or more.