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Trusting The Sommelier?
Buyer Beware

Every once in a while I read something written about wine by a "qualified" wine expert that makes my head explode... this month's issue of Food & Wine magazine gave me just that experience. In their "Wine Talk" section they interviewed Shayn Bjornholm, the examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers, and he answered this question: What don't most people know about Cabernet? His answer, "The fact that it should be a little green! A little bit of green pepper. People assume vegetal flavors and wine don't really go together: they think "Oh, fruit, that's it" But fruit alone to me doesn't taste like Cabernet to me. The wine should have a little greenness to balance the oak and the fruit. That's the secret of great Cabernet."

My objection is to the word fact! I'm sorry, green is what happens when the grapes are under-ripe. It's what happened when the Chileans spent years harvesting under-ripe Carmenere thinking it was Merlot and all the wines were filled with aromas and flavors of green bell pepper. How many of my customers would come back for another bottle of $50 Napa Cabernet if they got a big whiff of green bell pepper on the nose instead of cedar and cassis, not many!

When you taste as many wines as a sommelier does, you are bound to become a little jaded. I am sure that's why so many of them seem to embrace the obscure. I have been in a restaurant in New York with a list that included four Gruner Veltliners by the glass but not a single Chardonnay and one in Chicago with a selection of fifty Italian wines so obscure that there were less than five labels I recognized, and I've been in the business 16 years! Last year, a number of Sommeliers who belong to a group called "Pursuit of Balance" pushed for wines with lower alcohol levels, banishing anything over 13.9% from their lists, meaning that 90% of California wines missed the cut.

A quick scan of the wine list can usually tell you whether it presents a balanced selection or simply reflects an ego-driven collection of obscure wines and personal prejudices. I typically try to look at the wine list online before I make a reservation at restaurants when we travel just to avoid having my head explode at the dinner table.