The Changing of the Guard
Young somms have created a wine market in their own image. Is that a bad thing?
September 16, 2015 ● 6 min read
By Lauren Friel | Art by Ash Huang
At a post-tasting party a few months ago, I found myself in the dim light of a fashionably dingy bar wanting to stab the small group of esteemed wine professionals I had gathered with.
The conversation started normally enough—someone poured us all a taste of a certain hip and talented West Coast producer’s wine, showy swirls and sips ensued, followed by a dialogue surrounding the wine’s attributes and pitfalls. At some point, I found myself standing between three people, all declaring that the producer had harvested way too early and they’d be surprised if the wines lasted very long in the market.
This is how the wine world spends 80% of its time, so this sounds pretty standard. Perhaps if these people were seasoned industry veterans, I would have looked for the aggressively unripe tannins myself. But this time, all three were under the age of 27, and none had done a lick of vineyard work in their young lives. Yet there they were, standing around in tight suits munching on gratis cheese and salumi, making positively unequivocal statements that made me want to put my glass down, stand up on the banquette and scream, “WHO THE FUCK DO WE THINK WE ARE!?”
This got me thinking. As far as the wine world is concerned, who the fuck do we think we are? Sommeliers, historically, have been the champions of winemakers. We’ve been tasked with literally stewarding the fruit of a producer’s labor to the drinking masses for hundreds of years.
When did we become critics?
“The role of the central authority in wine has shifted from critic, to sommelier,” says Eric Asimov, one such critic with The New York Times. Asimov’s in line with others I spoke to when he notes the move in American fine dining from traditional French service—white linens, one million utensils and a Bible-weight wine lists—to a more casual experience. By coupling old-school knowledge with new-school hospitality, sommeliers have become likable, accessible, easy to learn from. They’re not as removed as the critic of yore. This newfound approachability is not the only thing accelerating their rise from steward to influencer—as Levi Dalton, host of the hugely popular podcast I’ll Drink To That points out, the very nature of the job has won them the heart of the everyman. “As a sommelier, you can’t abandon regular diners,” he says. “That’s what drove sommeliers to permanence.”
Ok, so assuming all of this makes sommeliers the new voices of the industry, why the bravado in these voices? Why the casual, categorical de-frocking of producers at the hands of the new guard? “There’s definitely something a little bro-y about it,” Asimov says. “The posting of photos on Instagram like, ‘This wine is fucking awesome!’ It’s cliquish.”
And with a casual F-bomb from the Times wine critic, there it is. That inarguably social-media-driven, dude-bro thing. The new normal.
As sommeliers become more trusted figures in the industry, the uptick in interest from younger, would-be wine professionals explodes. Go to your local hot-spot, the place with the most recent accolades and glossiest feature in a national mag. Chances are the person pouring the wine is 30 or under, maybe female, maybe gay, maybe anything but a middle-aged white guy. This is fantastic for this traditionally stuffy industry, and indicative of the current market. Who do young, beautiful people want to learn from? Other young, beautiful people, of course. In today’s ever-wine-conscious millennial market, those female, gay, not-white beautiful faces bearing bottles of grower Champagne are sought out first. The market trusts their taste, implicitly.
“When I was in my 20s we went to nightclubs, and we drank vodka with cranberry juice,” Dalton says. “I look at a place like Roberta’s, and I see young people hanging out the way I used to hang out at a nightclub. It’s a different scene. People are taking food more seriously.” And, by extension, wine. The ability to propel a certain winemaker to prominence is exponentially higher, thanks to that very bravado that so irks the old-school.
If the most noticeable difference between the new guard of sommeliers and their predecessors is the visual megaphone provided by a forum like Instagram, the less visible one lies in the career trajectory. The previous generation’s rise to wine leadership often involved years of mentorship and decades of commitment to one chef or restaurant group. Today’s sommeliers go for that somm job (and call it a “somm job”) right out of the gate, motivated by their understanding of wine as their baby boomer parents introduced it to them. More young people are enrolling in Master Sommelier courses than ever before, leaving restaurateurs to cull the newly-primed masses. There may not be enough cooks to go around, but the ranks of the sommelier are growing. And migrating.
“I have a lot of talented young people working for me, and their enthusiasm and drive is crazy,” says Patrick Cappiello, wine director and partner at Pearl & Ash and Rebelle, two of New York City’s most revered and unabashedly cool wine bars. Cappiello is tall, beanpole tall, and tattooed, with thick black glasses. He rocks a flannel during service and moves through his dining rooms with a certain combination of grace and swagger. A fixture not only in the Instagram feeds of wine groupies the world over, he’s been featured in Food & Wine, was named “Wine Person of the Year” in Imbibe, and he’s the newly-knighted wine writer for Playboy. He is generally accepted to be exceptionally talented. He seems genuinely loved by his professional peers.
If there’s a poster boy for the new celebrity sommelier, it’s him.
By Cappiello’s own admission, he’s a good decade older than most of the up-and-comers around him. Unlike a lot of the young people joining the industry today, he didn’t move to New York in his early twenties hoping to become a MS, and it’s well-known that he didn’t set out to be the media darling he has become. Still, if he posts a bottle shot on Instagram, you can bet sales in New York will jump the days that follow. Whereas the relationship between critics’ scores and the wine market was once a thinly-veiled business arrangement, social media allows for someone like Cappiello to say, “I like this,” and boom: watch the bottles fly.
Cappiello is aware of that. He appears genuinely horrified at the idea of his celebrity ever getting in the way of the wine, (he mentions something about Wine Person of the Year being like winning the mayoral bid in Skokie, Illinois), and yet understands it as a cornerstone of his success. Because he’s seen his own influence at work, he’s a little uncomfortable with the number of inexperienced wine kids bopping around the city, potentially unaware of the power they wield. “The narcissism of this generation is kind of amazing,” he says. “With power comes responsibility.”
When the question is no longer whether power and influence can easily be attained, it’s about how it’s used. Wine has never held the kind of flashy charm it currently enjoys. Is it dangerous to consider such a slow, artful product in terms of trendiness?
Cathy Corison, owner of Corison Winery in St. Helena, calls it the new kid on the block phenomenon. The veteran winemaker credited with helping shape the identity of California wine (see: her beloved Napa cabernet), is notably unconcerned with the arrival of young blood. Heralds it, even.
“[Young sommeliers] have enthusiasm and drive and open-mindedness,” she says. “There’s an inclination to be more adventurous, and I think those are all very good things. For me, it’s mostly about having a diversity of voices. We’re embarking on a really exciting time.”
As all of these voices come together, it’s natural that some will try to be heard above the din. The recent spotlight has turned the world of wine into a legitimate competitive landscape—social media and a little bit of grandstanding allow a reputation to be born. Celebrity sommeliers are known for certain styles and philosophies; the producers, regions, and vintages are their calling cards. Corison doesn’t see a predilection for trendiness as a threat.
“Fashion comes and fashion goes, but a great house is steady. Wines from great regions and great houses speak of that place and nowhere else,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re in vogue. We all have to have a long-view. The wine business is a very long-view place.”
But still, I worry: as the young, beautiful, certification-laden masses seek positions and clout like Cappiello’s, is there a danger of a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad-conscious mindset having a serious effect on those people sommeliers were meant to steward in the first place? The power of the millennial generation to drive sales already sends old-school advertisers scrambling. The short answer is that if legions of young people dream of being the next Patrick Cappiello, just like Cappiello’s generation dreamt of being the next Axl Rose, the wine world should be better for it.
Maybe it’s dangerous to assume that serious study and a stack of noisy selfies with Clos Rougeard are mutually exclusive. After all, some of us in that dingy bar, among bottles in varying states of emptiness and gratis cheese, still champion the careers of winemakers before our own. We’re quieter, but we’re there.