Many people criticize pretentious sommeliers, but is the rest of the wine world any better?
Sommeliers – they’re the worst, aren’t they?
I follow a bunch of them on social media. You should see this. Ballin’ like the rappers of yore, opening the Pétrus, posting videos of all the great wines they’ve opened, a well-lit Instagram photo of a great label they just got, complaining about late deliveries or unfulfilled orders, going on a trip to taste wines in Vega-Sicilia, cigars at the club and then, the final twist at the end of the pour: bragging about the ridiculous hours they work.
For a group of people whose job it is to bring wines to the table of the more affluent (who prefers to sit at the table?), it’s a bit of a stretch to go and brag about those wines afterwards. Imagine, for example, the Insta account of someone working at Maranello Sales in Egham, Surrey (a top Ferrari dealership in the UK), posting “It’s the new yellow F8 Spider, bitches” with a picture of it. ‘themselves climbing into the driver’s seat. Alright, but that’s not your car, is it? You do the equivalent of posing on the hood of a sports car, pretending it’s yours.
You’ve brought a bottle of wine to a table, opened it and poured it for the table, and if you’re lucky, tested it for cork taint or oxidation beforehand – as the test food of a decadent Roman emperor, a praegustator – there to make sure TCA does not defile the palate of the powerful. You then took a picture of the bottle (with all the people drinking it cropped), posted it on social media, and got a bunch of likes or followers.
The world of sommeliers (and this often goes for the hands-off crowd as well) is also remarkably safe. It is almost always the same superior category of wines; the best Champagnes (Krug, Salon, DP, etc.); the big labels from Bordeaux to Tuscany to Napa and so on. Also, if I see another video of a mob of gray-suited minions opening an old bottle of port with searing tongs and with the long-faced solemnity of a group of veterinarians trying to artificially inseminate the last panda in the world, I’ll go through the mail.
It’s like reading a serialized account of Marie Antoinette’s Cake Decorator’s Diary. Only then will the decorator put the icing on the cake by highlighting how hard they worked to make this Victoria sponge. Because sommeliers, apparently, work hard. Regularly generating that often-encountered bragging complaint about long hours, being up all night, eating meals, etc.
I fancy a video of a restaurant after closing time, the somm flipping the Ornellaia, Dalle Valle, Pingus and Grange in the recycling bin, snatching a cigarette with the bellboy, sharing the Corton lightly snuggled up with the kitchen staff and snapped a picture of cooking some Cognac back. It is reality.
That’s the kind of reality you see everywhere else in the wine world, isn’t it? Wait…
It’s not just sums
Because it’s not just sommeliers, is it? If they are all I dishonestly accused them of, what about the rest of the wine world? Check out non-sommelier influencers and there are basically two categories: posts of great, great bottles of wine (Vega-Sicilia, Petrus, Ornellaia, Dalle Valle, etc.) and advertising for mainstream brands. Want to see a progression of well-known, already well-established wines being slammed on the internet when offered as a tasting sample, or given as a gift, or on a press trip, take your pick of trades related to wine .
If sommeliers open wines for the wealthy, what do the great wine writers do? Taste these wines to defend and maintain the status of these same labels? How many derogatory posts on social media have you seen from our prominent critics? Even at more mainstream levels, very few posts are outright scathing about wines, preferring not to post low-scoring bottles.
And speaking of posing next to a Ferrari, the sommeliers aren’t the only ones having their photo taken (after how many attempts) looking cool near the stone cross outside Romanée-Conti . How many photos of unopened wine labels are there in wine shops or at industry tastings? They aren’t the only culprits behind my endless barrage of videos of sabering and port openings.
They aren’t the only ones asking via Instagram what to pack for a trip to Madeira or complaining about the service at their local wine bar. They are not the only ones to easily take photos of natural wines while accepting the hospitality of a regional organization/producer/brand of luxury products (cross out the useless mention).
When it comes to the trope of hard work as bragging, sommeliers don’t come close to wine merchants. Even I have been guilty of this: declaiming to anyone who would listen that I had reached a 100-hour week during harvest several years ago. It mixes exhibition with exploitation in a way that is hard to outclass.
Somm could say
So what was the point of all this? Well, first of all, as in many areas of human endeavor or endeavor, there is a tendency to berate a particular class or group within a larger group. Years ago, video gamers hated viewers for their passivity to the screen in front of them. Maybe it’s just one more thing?
The publishing industry of the wine world is currently struggling with influencers, but 20 years ago it was bloggers; the production side struggles with minimal intervention wineries; marketers hate “clean wine” – in fact, just about everyone in the wine world hates it.
But all of this pet hate really shines a light on the issues in our own industry. “Clean” wines only shine a light on transparency in wine production and labeling.
The phenomenon of posting photos of inaccessible great wines (and their subsequent popularity) only highlights the lack of inclusivity in wine, given that the majority of people posting these photos wouldn’t crack those bottles one night. school anyway. For most of us, they are given as tasting samples: to write down, to rent, but not often emptied. The people who are actually drinking these things aren’t on Insta or whatever (they’re on Twitter, if any).
Influencers too (much in the same way bloggers used to) cause problems for writers and editors. Some remind us that it would be nice to have wine as a hobby, others that we are less than photogenic, others that the presentation can compensate for a lack of understanding, still others that there are still problems of ethics and what constitutes advertising or coverage. These are as much publishing and influencing issues as blogging issues.
I could go on for a while, but hope my point is made? Sommeliers are not the only ones to flaunt the crumbs that fall from the table in such a nauseating way. If anything, they’re the least troubling of us all.
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