Caviar & Lentils
There’s a saying among sommeliers that goes like this: “you need to taste a lot of caviar before you can serve lentils at home.” For people who work in the restaurant business, and even more so in wine, there’s a lot of truth hidden behind that expression. We taste very expensive wines, we post the bottles on Instagram, and we talk about them a lot, but the truth is that reality tells us that the ones who can truly buy those wines, who can afford the luxury of opening one of those wonderful, scarce bottles that we boast about savoring, and especially who has dozens of those bottles in their temperature-controlled cellars, are not us. For us, it’s no more than enjoying a borrowed life.
According to a 2017 study conducted by Guildsomm, an international association of sommeliers based in the US, the average salary of a head sommelier working in a major city in the global context of the wine market is approximately US$56,000 a year after taxes. Not bad. But… before thinking about buying some Grand Cru from Burgundy, this sommelier has to think about paying a big-city rent that will eat up at least 40% of his or her earnings. And then there are the bills. Not to mention the expense of a kid or two. The credit card will be working some overtime.
Sommeliers have plenty of opportunities to try great wines. They open many of them at the restaurants where they work. In the large cities where they live, there are many tastings to attend, and the wineries, regional associations, and importers invite them—all expenses paid—to taste those wines in situ in the wineries where those great and costly wines are made. But, once again, those aren’t the wines they are taking home. They are the ones they will recommend to their customers, who will actually enjoy those bottles. And it’s the same for wine writers. We are all intermediaries.
Sure, sommeliers and journalists sometimes get together to share those bottles that we have been able to buy with great effort. And for a few moments, in the midst of the hubbub that urges us to taste that which we are passionate about, we enjoy those borrowed lives as if they were our own. We post them on social media, being careful to show the label—all those alienating bottles to earn the most likes possible.
But I sometimes wonder if this isn’t just a kind of test drive. Go to a Ferrari dealer, the sales rep looks you up and down and then lets you drive one of those cars around the block. Neither you nor he can afford that Ferrari—neither of you can afford the luxury of parking that car in front of your house. He knows you don’t have the money. And you know he knows. But for a magical moment, while you roar down the street, you let yourself think that yes, it’s yours—that that quarter of a glass of Musigny that you got to drink among your sommelier friends is really a whole bottle, all for yourself. And that you have more in your cellar. Several more.
But the work of sommeliers or wine writers is more than just talking about impossible wines, about wines that used to be expensive and that are now just plain untouchable. Of course, you do need to mention them once in a while. But in the global context, talking about a Grand Cru from Burgundy is a matter of extreme luxury. What’s essential now, however, is seeking out new horizons, new zones, and new wines. We still can’t buy the Burgundies that we couldn’t buy before, but there’s Jura (well, not any more, actually) and Savoie and Jerez and Oltrepo Pavese and Rhone (although less and less) and many other zones that still offer amazing value for money.
In an upcoming edition—and if the planets manage to line up just right—we’ll be able to talk about the little revolution that’s taking place around the escalating prices of wines from great appellations, an inflation that has obligated a new sector of the trade—the sector that sets the trends—to tune its attention to more obscure places. Forget about those well-established Bordeaux-Burgundy-Barolos. For now, we’ll enjoy our test drive. Watch our photos on Instagram. And drop dead with envy.