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American sommeliers better than French ones?


sharonb
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An interesting article on Slate.com...

Article

Or is it just another feel-good, France-is-hidebound provocation?!

Hi, Host's note

Let's discuss this, but it has the scent of a possible unpleasant cross-cultural food fight. So let's discuss it with civility.

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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I have had nothing but pleasant and often very rewarding experiences with French sommeliers (all of them male, admittedly, but I see no reason why this might not change), many of which were in countries other than France. They all seemed happy in their work; I might even write more pompously "devoted to their cause".

Charles Milton Ling

Vienna, Austria

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Thank you very much for posting this article Sharon. I think the article brings up many different complicated issues about differences between French and American culture and while I am sure that there are hints of truth to what he says, it's a bit oversimplified. I've certainly met many passionate and enthusiastic French sommeliers, not necessarily in three-star restaurants, which my pocket book doesn't allow me to frequent, but in places like Le Verre Volé, La Muse Vin, Racines, le Baratin, etc. French service is generally more subdued than American service for many, many cultural reasons and I appreciate both for different reasons.

The author writes about some of the most prestigious restaurants in the States, I wonder if sommeliers in rural America are as formidable. If one compares the sommeliers in a restaurant in a small rural town in France to the equivalent in small town USA, I doubt it would be so easy to say that American sommeliers rule. Sure, the US probably has sommeliers who are just as, or even more knowledgeable, than their French counterparts, but overall the quality of wine service throughout France compared to wine service throughout the US is probably of a higher quality and this is due to the rigorous training that most, if not all sommeliers, receive, no matter where they work in France.

One of the things I love about the US is the fact that you can change careers at any age, that people will give you a chance when you might not have the exact qualifications, but that is not the French way and there are pluses and minuses to both systems which are far too complicated to discuss here.

And the fact that author compares American sommeliers to French, suggests that French sommeliers are still something worth comparing to.

And why do we need to compare anyway? Can't we be happy that wine service in the US is getting better, without saying the French way is tired and outdated?

www.parisnotebook.wordpress.com

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I have no criticism of the wine service I received in France. I am very much a wine novice, and generally at a starred-type restaurant, I ask the sommelier to help me choose. All the sommeliers were very good about taking my few preferences/thoughts into account and recommending something appropriate.

But . . . I would say that the general lack of female sommeliers (and captains and servers) in starred restaurants in France certainly stood out to me (although it was not entirely unexpected, since I had read something to that effect here or elsewhere). I won’t go so far as to say it necessarily bothered me, but it is something that I hope would change.

Like cmling, I see no reason why this shouldn't change in France, but I suppose it’s rather surprising to me that there was little evidence (to me) of much change so far. The noteworthy exception on my visit – there was at least one female server at L’Arpege.

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Thank you very much for posting this article Sharon.  I think the article brings up many different complicated issues about differences between French and American culture and while I am sure that there are hints of truth to what he says, it's a bit oversimplified.  I've certainly met many passionate and enthusiastic French sommeliers, not necessarily in three-star restaurants, which my pocket book doesn't allow me to frequent, but in places like Le Verre Volé, La Muse Vin, Racines, le Baratin, etc.  French service is generally more subdued than American service for many, many cultural reasons and I appreciate both for different reasons.

The author writes about some of the most prestigious restaurants in the States, I wonder if sommeliers in rural America are as formidable.  If  one compares the sommeliers in a restaurant in a small rural town in France to the equivalent in small town USA, I doubt it would be so easy to say that American sommeliers rule.  Sure, the US probably has sommeliers who are just as, or even more knowledgeable, than their French counterparts, but overall the quality of wine service throughout France compared to wine service throughout the US is probably of a higher quality and this is due to the rigorous training that most, if not all sommeliers, receive, no matter where they work in France.

One of the things I love about the US is the fact that you can change careers at any age, that people will give you a chance when you might not have the exact qualifications, but that is not the French way and there are pluses and minuses to both systems which are far too complicated to discuss here. 

And the fact that author compares American sommeliers to French, suggests that French sommeliers are still something worth comparing to.

And why do we need to compare anyway?  Can't we be happy that wine service in the US is getting better, without saying the French way is tired and outdated?

Thanks, that was everything I wanted to say, but without the long-windedness I was getting tangled up in.... :smile:

Edited by markemorse (log)
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I would add that there is much greater presence of a true wine specialist in the restaurants we frequent in France than in the United States.

In France, I have no problem, even in the simplest restaurant, with asking the wine person to recommend something really interesting to coordinate with our menu choices. We are constantly impressed with the wonderful bottles that are brought to our attention. Perhaps it's the knowledge of the sommelier; perhaps it's the potential of the list. I should add that most often the bottle that is recommended is less expensive than the one/s I had in mind. Also, outside of Paris, we always try to drink local wines. There's a lot of good stuff out there!

eGullet member #80.

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IMHO a pretty biased and ignorant article.

I'm all for the fact that standards are improving in the states and that the profession is losing its gender bias. Equally, I'm sure that the top wine persons in the states are every bit as good as their European and Asian counterparts.

Why, however, knock the French? Easy target perhaps? Cheap way to jazz up a mediocre article?

Again, IMHO the French don't really need defending, but I do think that if one were to compare the standards across both the USA & France in all restaurants that actually have a wine list then my American countrymen would have to plead 'No contest'

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IMHO a pretty biased and ignorant article.

I'm all for the fact that standards are improving in the states and that the profession is losing its gender bias. Equally, I'm sure that the top wine persons in the states are every bit as good as their European and Asian counterparts.

Why, however, knock the French? Easy target perhaps? Cheap way to jazz up a mediocre  article?

Again, IMHO the French don't really need defending, but I do think that if one were to compare the standards across both the USA & France in all restaurants that actually have a wine list then my American countrymen would have to plead 'No contest'

French sommeliers look after wine lists that are predominately composed of French wines. American sommeliers look after lists that are a more worldly in focus. I would argue that no one knows more about French wines then the sommeliers at the top restaurant in France. It would be interesting to ask M. Hamon, Chef Sommelier at Le Cinq, what he knows about small producers in Napa.

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IMHO a pretty biased and ignorant article.

I'm all for the fact that standards are improving in the states and that the profession is losing its gender bias. Equally, I'm sure that the top wine persons in the states are every bit as good as their European and Asian counterparts.

Why, however, knock the French? Easy target perhaps? Cheap way to jazz up a mediocre  article?

Again, IMHO the French don't really need defending, but I do think that if one were to compare the standards across both the USA & France in all restaurants that actually have a wine list then my American countrymen would have to plead 'No contest'

French sommeliers look after wine lists that are predominately composed of French wines. American sommeliers look after lists that are a more worldly in focus. I would argue that no one knows more about French wines then the sommeliers at the top restaurant in France. It would be interesting to ask M. Hamon, Chef Sommelier at Le Cinq, what he knows about small producers in Napa.

Yes, so? What's your point?

Why not ask American sommeliers about small producers in Gaillac?

I think the test is if the sommelier at a specific restaurant can give truly good advice as to the wines on that restaurant's wine list that best match the meal that the customer has chosen. A sommelier who can do that is worthy of the title no matter what their location, gender or nationality.

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As Felice notes, the depth of the sommelier culture in the US is quite shallow. The thing about France is that you go to some hotel in the middle of nowhere with a Michelin-mentioned-but-not-starred restaurant, you sit down for dinner, and there's a big list of local wines in exhaustive verticals along with a professionally trained sommelier who knows everything there is to know about the region's vineyards, grapes, producers, etc., and is able to make very good, no-nonsense, correct recommendations. Not to mention, because the good restaurants are single-sitting operations and tend to have very few tables, you can actually talk to the sommelier and the sommelier will open and pour your wine and do all sorts of follow-up. I mean, sure, Daniel Johnnes is a great sommelier. But where exactly can I go out for a meal tonight and be served by Daniel Johnnes? Nowhere. American sommeliers at that level are corporate executives, the equivalent of Alain Ducasse. So maybe France doesn't exactly produce the Daniel Johnnes breed of sommelier. But France produces very well trained sommeliers that actually work in restaurants. On any given day, at equivalent restaurants, you're going to get better, more comprehensive wine service in France than in the United States. I can't imagine anybody who has dined in both places would think otherwise. The one thing you can say about the US is that if you happen to be in the right place at the right time and you fall into the orbit of one of the very best American sommeliers, you're in for a real treat. Like when Joseph Nase and Danielle Nally were handling the wine service at Lespinasse -- at the same time. I just haven't had that level of experience and interaction in France. But that's the outlier-type experience. It's not normal. Also, American wine lists are different. They're global and eclectic. Course-by-course pairings and by-the-glass programs are much more ambitious and prevalent. American customers prefer very exact matches, whereas French customers like to do a white and a red for the whole meal. There are so many points of differentiation that it's hard to evaluate one system by the standards of the other.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I would add that there is much greater presence of a true wine specialist in the restaurants we frequent in France than in the United States. 

In France, I have no problem, even in the simplest restaurant, with asking the wine person to recommend something really interesting to coordinate with our menu choices.  We are constantly impressed with the wonderful bottles that are brought to our attention.  Perhaps it's the knowledge of the sommelier; perhaps it's the potential of the list.  I should add that most often the bottle that is recommended is less expensive than the one/s I had in mind.  Also, outside of Paris, we always try to drink local wines.  There's a lot of good stuff out there!

Well I guess as the oldest living Civil War veteran here, or at least as a pretty memory-burdened geezer, I do have to note that my recall is, as with Margaret's post, that outside Paris one had a wonderful range of local wines offered intelligently by sommeliers in the most humble of auberges - you'll note that I used the past tense. I do think that the subspecialization of tasks in French restros has decreased over the past 50 years, at least - to the advantage of the diner for the most part - but resulted in decreasing numbers of average/humble places having sommeliers. But the interesting stuff is still out there and the days of watery Loires and crank-oil Cahors, gone. One of our most interesting trips of the last decade was a round trip Barcelona-Geneva-Barcelona where we spent the majority of time in the Languedoc/etc. - superb!

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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I think the test is if the sommelier at a specific restaurant can give truly good advice as to the wines on that restaurant's wine list that best  match the meal that the customer has chosen. A sommelier who can do that is worthy of the title no matter what their location, gender or nationality.

Exactly. But the problem I've experienced is that qualified women sometimes get passed over for the job in favor of some young dude in a suit with a hyphenated name and a French accent, regardless of her qualifications. I have vintage regrets older than some of the twinkies that have been hired for the better jobs in my area that I was qualified for but never even considered for, because of my gender and lack of the accent. :shrug: It is the sexist and ageist nature of the business.

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The thing about France is that you go to some hotel in the middle of nowhere with a Michelin-mentioned-but-not-starred restaurant, you sit down for dinner, and there's a big list of local wines in exhaustive verticals along with a professionally trained sommelier who knows everything there is to know about the region's vineyards, grapes, producers, etc., and is able to make very good, no-nonsense, correct recommendations. Not to mention, because the good restaurants are single-sitting operations and tend to have very few tables, you can actually talk to the sommelier and the sommelier will open and pour your wine and do all sorts of follow-up. .

I found it interesting that Fatguy’s experience with French sommeliers has been that “you can actually talk to the sommelier and the sommelier will open and pour your wine and do all sorts of follow-up” whereas Mike Steinberger, the article’s author, writes that “condescension and humorlessness have long been defining features of French wine service” while American sommelier’s style is to “educate and enthuse” the customer.

Again, I think, this can be explained as a cultural differences. France is a wine drinking country and everyone drinks wine, from the working class to the upper echelons of society. Wine is a part of the national education and it is very much a part of French life. Wine isn’t the latest fad in France and is drunk on a daily basis by a large portion of the country. Given this climate, it seems normal that a waiter in France wouldn’t try to “educate and enthuse” his customers unless they asked questions about the wine and indicated that they wanted to know more. Fatguy was interested and engaged the sommelier who then felt free to converse, but if Fatguy had just drank the wine and didn’t ask any questions, the sommelier would probably assume that this guy didn’t want to chat and would leave him alone to drink his wine. It has taken me a long time to realize that in France information is not as freely given as it is in the States and you need to ask questions.

www.parisnotebook.wordpress.com

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The thing about France is that you go to some hotel in the middle of nowhere with a Michelin-mentioned-but-not-starred restaurant, you sit down for dinner, and there's a big list of local wines in exhaustive verticals along with a professionally trained sommelier who knows everything there is to know about the region's vineyards, grapes, producers, etc., and is able to make very good, no-nonsense, correct recommendations. Not to mention, because the good restaurants are single-sitting operations and tend to have very few tables, you can actually talk to the sommelier and the sommelier will open and pour your wine and do all sorts of follow-up. .

I found it interesting that Fatguy’s experience with French sommeliers has been that “you can actually talk to the sommelier and the sommelier will open and pour your wine and do all sorts of follow-up” whereas Mike Steinberger, the article’s author, writes that “condescension and humorlessness have long been defining features of French wine service” while American sommelier’s style is to “educate and enthuse” the customer.

Again, I think, this can be explained as a cultural differences. France is a wine drinking country and everyone drinks wine, from the working class to the upper echelons of society. Wine is a part of the national education and it is very much a part of French life. Wine isn’t the latest fad in France and is drunk on a daily basis by a large portion of the country. Given this climate, it seems normal that a waiter in France wouldn’t try to “educate and enthuse” his customers unless they asked questions about the wine and indicated that they wanted to know more. Fatguy was interested and engaged the sommelier who then felt free to converse, but if Fatguy had just drank the wine and didn’t ask any questions, the sommelier would probably assume that this guy didn’t want to chat and would leave him alone to drink his wine. It has taken me a long time to realize that in France information is not as freely given as it is in the States and you need to ask questions.

Spot on! I fully agree and second the comment about asking for information. (this applies to everything, not just wine) Whenever I ask a French sommelier for information, recommendations or whatever I get a full and knowledgeable answer in a pleasant manner. I've had more than one sommelier write up precise directions as to how to find a winery whose product had been recommended and enjoyed. (see the little write up on my blog, last Nov/Dec can't remember which in this regard.)

I think as I said in my earlier post that the author either didn't know what he was talking about or was taking cheap shots or both.

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Spot on! I fully agree and second the comment about asking for information. (this applies to everything, not just wine)

Yes, I have had many frustrating moments before learing that I need to ask the right questions in France. I'm sure French people in the States wonder why people keep giving them all sorts of information they never asked for. :smile:

I think as I said in my earlier post that the author either didn't know what he was talking about or was taking cheap shots or both.

I think one problem is that you can only precieve the subtlies of another culture--and often your own-- after living in foreign country. You won't get a true understanding after a few trips. Things that seem strange or even wrong are often cultural misunderstandings. So the author, who I assume is American, sees the world of wine with an American filter and when the French sommelier does things differently, he sees this as inferior without understanding all of the cultural and historical differences of why things are done differently.

And of course, it makes for good reading.

www.parisnotebook.wordpress.com

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Why is it that I feel like I have already read this kind of biased, misinformed and factually flawed article a thousand times?

So the author, who I assume is American, sees the world of wine with an American filter and when the French sommelier does things differently, he sees this as inferior without understanding all of the cultural and historical differences of why things are done differently.

I'm not sure the author has such excuses. If I tried to write such a mediocre article on American sommeliers I wouldn't expect to be excused on the grounds of cultural differences. The info exists, it's there to be searched and it's a journalist's job to get it. Cultural differences are precisely what a decent journalist is supposed to take into account even before he starts writing. This one could have made the minimal effort of getting thorough information and treating the subject fairly.

Edited by Ptipois (log)
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