I came close. Very close.
Not to winning the Best Sommelier in America 2011 contest.
To becoming a legend among sommeliers by setting fire to my $3000 Zegna Su Misura suit during the decanting portion of the competition. Decanting includes holding a bottle above a lit candle, which is playing with fire for someone like me.
Just in time, Aldo Sohm, one of the organizers, raced in from the sidelines and lifted my arm from the flame. Actually, I wouldn't have been the first to add conflagration to my credentials. A judge, Roger Dagorn, told me about a long-ago competitor, a former sommelier at Restaurant Daniel in New York, who carelessly allowed the wicker basket holding his wine to become engulfed in flames.
I entered the two-day contest, hosted by American Sommelier and held earlier this month in New York, with dual status. I was not quite a participant and by no means a challenger for the title. I was permitted to take the same tests as the 29 genuine entrants, and I was given a bye into the second-day finals, usually limited to those who have placed in the top four on day one. For me, it meant an opportunity to get an insider's look at an arcane profession that is rapidly gaining popularity even as mass-market interest in the ceremony and formality of fine dining decreases. Dagorn recalls only about a half-dozen professionals working in Manhattan 20 years ago, but these days restaurants are sprouting sommeliers. The collecting and drinking of fine wine is an obsession of the very wealthy, and, at the same time, interest in lower-priced wines from around the world has become a passion of those with lesser incomes. The sommelier, of course, must be a master of both the rare and the unusual.
I have never worked in a restaurant. A few days before the competition, I asked Sohm if there was anything I could do to improve my chances of performing credibly, and he suggested I read up on service. I did not take his advice. It seemed as unlikely to advance my chances for success as skimming the Kama Sutra would prepare a man for his first night of making love.
My confidence ebbed further when I told a friend with knowledge of these events that I planned to enter. Her reaction was more than unkind.
"You're out of your mind," she said. "You're going to get killed. I thought you were going to be a judge."
"I'm not qualified to judge," I replied.
"No, you're not qualified to compete. You're not a professional. You're a...a...a...writer! Why don't you take the New York State Bar Exam. You have as much chance of doing well on that."
I thought she was deliberately exaggerating. I know how to open a bottle. I understand wine lists. I can taste wine as well as the next amateur, use words like "brambly" and phrases like "redolent of honeysuckle." She asked me if I knew how to use a gueridon. I'd never heard of a gueridon, the little cart on wheels that sommeliers push around the dining room.
"Listen," she sneered, "there's always a couple surprises in these things. Someone who's brilliant and adored and runs a top dining room comes in and bombs, and then there's somebody from a dump of a town in Michigan who beats the guy from Le Bernardin. Sometimes people come out of nowhere and do fabulously. But it's not going to be you."
I put a corkscrew and a box of wooden matches in the pocket of my suit jacket, and headed for the Jumeirah Essex House, just off Central Park in Manhattan. Only later did I learn how badly armed I was. Serious competitors are known to carry two corkscrews, two lighters, two cigar clips, one cigar punch (whatever that is), matches, business cards, a pad, and several pens. Cigar-service is part of the competition. I've never smoked a cigar, let alone advised anybody on how to select one.
The first day started with two seated tests, the first a written exam, the second a blind tasting. I took a table across from Ian Cauble, wine director of the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, California, who was intensely studying three-by-five cards. He had box after box of them, and I asked permission to look at a few. What are the main soils of the Jura? (Soils? I only know one wine from the Jura, vin jaune, or yellow wine, and I have no idea if that's a nickname.) Name the districts and wards of the Western Cape. (No idea.) I asked Cauble if the Western Cape was part of Australia. He assured me it was not. I guess I'm not so good at geography, either.
Sydney Paris, the beverage director of Prima restaurant in San Francisco, overheard our conversation.
"Remember," he said, anticipating my test results, "there is no crying in sommelier competitions."
I assumed he was making a joke.
"I am not," he said. "I've seen people cry, faint, even fall over from stress."
Everyone in the room except me looked young, smart, and well-prepared. They also looked nervous. I was not. They had their careers. All I had was my self-esteem, practically nonexistent where wine is concerned. I once identified a Moscato d'Asti poured by a famously cranky importer who needed to be impressed in order to continue our interview, but that was more than 20 years ago, and I had never topped that simplistic feat. I thought I was dressed better than my competitors. Oddly, sommeliers tend to favor very wide ties.
Our first test was The Written Theory Exam. As best I could tell, none of the 77 questions had anything to do with theory. They delved into obscurity. Define Falernian. (Define it? I've never heard of it. The answer: A word describing a wine produced from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Falernus in the time of ancient Rome.) What is a feuillette? (No idea. The answer: A French wine barrel—maybe I should have known that.)
I'm pretty sure I got three questions right. Maybe a dozen other answers were almost got right, like this one: In what modern country is thought to be relics of the oldest winery? How old are those relics thought to be? The answer was Armenia, 6100 years ago. I said Greece, 2300 years ago. Almost perfect, by my generous reckoning.
I asked Cauble how he had done. He shook his head. "Nothing they asked was on my cards. None of these answers are in those 500-page wine books. You can't study for a test like this. It's about experience and conversations."
I had hoped for a few questions that reflected my personal knowledge of wine, almost all of it picked up in the mid-to-late 20th century. Here's one: What's the word? Answer: Thunderbird.
I did a little better on the second exam, a blind tasting, although I don't believe I got anything exactly right. I came close, but in the alcoholic-beverage business, close only counts on breathalyzer tests.
Decanting and serving wine tableside was the ultimate trial of day one. I walked into a room with a table and two seated customers awaiting service. Sohm said the couple was celebrating the gentleman's birthday and that they had ordered a 1990 Cuvée Cathelin, purposely providing an incomplete description of the wine. The woman was the host—no longer can sommeliers assume that the fattest man at the table orders the wine. Off I went, to disaster. Try as I might, I could not remember the producer of Cuvée Cathelin or where it was from. (It's J-L Chave, and his 1990 Chave Cuvée Cathelin Ermitage is a $3000 wine from the Rhone.)
I grabbed a wine cradle—metal has replaced those flammable baskets. I took a bottle of wine standing in for Cuée Cathelin. I couldn't get it to sit properly on the newfangled cradle. It kept slipping off. I could not extract the cork, even by tugging. I was paralyzed by inferiority. By the time I did get it out, my little rolling cart—gueridon to those snooty sommeliers—was littered with bits of foil, hunks of cork, and blood-red drops of spilled wine. It looked like Freddy Krueger had entered the competition. It was during the extraction process that I placed my sleeve in the flame of the candle. I did everything but run screaming from the room with my hair on fire.
Afterward, I was permitted to watch other contestants perform. Quite a few, like me, did not recognize Cuvée Cathelin. Some had the same problems as I did with the cradle. One in five had the same problem extracting the cork. The wine substituting for the Cuvée Cathelin was a nine-year old Italian Grignolino that almost certainly was bottled with cheap corks. (Italian corks are not beloved in the industry.) After one entrant had exceeded even my level of ineptitude, a judge, Robert Bohr, leaned toward me and said, "You're not dead last."
The job of sommelier is back-breaking physically and mind-bending mentally. He or she must carry cases of wine from delivery vans, and I've known female sommeliers who did it in high heels. Sommeliers answer more questions than quiz-show contestants, and not just about Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rheingau, the only regions they had to master a half-century ago. Sometimes, the questions are simplistic. Giselle Hamburg, sommelier at the Tarry Lodge in Port Chester, told me what she's most often asked: "We want a really good wine and don't want to spend a lot of money. What do you recommend?" In the service portion of the competition, the sommelier was asked by a make-believe guest what clone of Nebbiolo was used in making 1985 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino. (You think I knew?)
The position of sommelier incorporates ritualistic and ceremonial elements of the sort found in religious services, especially when sommeliers wear their shiny silver tastevins, not much different from the pectoral crosses that hang from the necks of clergy. Athleticism is required, too. We often hear that the difference between amateur sports and professional sports is speed, and that also goes for wine service. Finally, a good sommelier must be a competent psychologist, responsible for stabilizing the mental health of uneasy customers. No longer do the duties of the sommelier, as in my early days visiting French restaurants, include foisting oxidized wines on the unknowing and sneaking sips of `55 Latour from the decanters of customers naïve enough to let them out of their sight.
As day two started, I wondered if my performance could get worse. Certainement. Day two was in front of a live audience. I left a pad with Hamburg, with instructions to take notes on my performance. This is her first one: "Richman is about to get a whopping he'll never forget."
I was disgraceful in the blind tasting. I didn't like any of the wines placed before me, and I realized that I had no experience analyzing wines I wasn't enjoying. Always, I'd dump them and move on to something better. Sommeliers have to be more composed than that. In another of the six segments, candidates had to recognize obscure local names for wines and expound on their properties. I got zero right. (The one I thought I knew turned out to be a red wine, not a white, as I had confidently announced.) I excused myself from the cigar competition. I suppose I could identify an exploding cigar if it blew up in my face, but that's the extent of my expertise. I did fairly well finding mistakes on a made-up wine list. I even noticed that Château Lascombes, a second-growth Bordeaux, was misidentified as a third growth. I was irrationally proud of that.
The service competition was impossible. Each candidate was given 22 minutes to deal with three tables and execute tasks that included identifying, decanting, and pouring a wine; serving champagne to a party of two (that suddenly became a party of three); and suggesting wine pairings to a couple that had chosen a six-course menu. As soon as I realized I had no chance, I transformed myself. I adapted the persona of a character never before seen in a sommelier competition. I became an Old Jewish Waiter. I told jokes, often at the expense of the people I was serving. While pouring champagne, I reminded customers of the philosophy of Chuckles The Clown, a character from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show: A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants. Bohr said he wouldn't mind hiring someone like me for his restaurant, "...but you would have to be supervised."
The final segment was a head-to-head challenge. Each of the four finalists plus me stood before a table holding 20 champagne flutes. We were given a magnum (equivalent to two bottles) of champagne and these instructions: Fill all 20 glasses evenly. After pouring into a glass, no going back and adding more. The magnum should be empty at the end. I killed the competition. On my second glass, I estimated that the pour was perfect. I also heard a glug, glug as the champagne came out. Inspired, I moved as rapidly as possible, pouring to the sound of the glug, glug. I was faster than anyone else, by several minutes. I was more accurate than anyone else.
Afterward, I overheard Jared Fischer of Le Bernardin, who finished second in the competition to Alexander LaPratt, sommelier at db Bistro Moderne, talking to a friend. He was conceding that I had won the champagne pour. "It was a million-to-one-shot," he said, not in scorn but in wonder. I don't agree. I acquired my champagne habit before most of these kids were born, and something good was bound to come of it.