Remember the sommelier? The man— and it was always a man— with what looked like a shiny medallion hanging from a heavy chain around his neck? He used to work the floors of Baltimore restaurants like The Chesapeake or Danny’s, coming to your table to suggest a bottle of wine to go with your lobster thermidor or shad roe. As Baltimore historian Gil Sandler puts it, the sommelier was a guy “with vague overtones of European culture. He had to make a polished presentation and act with authority to ensure validity. Diners believed he had some kind of training.”
When I think of the sommelier, I think of Joe Czernikowski of the Brentwood Inn in the Graceland Park neighborhood of east Baltimore. Part bartender, part showman, part owner, Mr. Joe, as I grew up calling him, was renowned for his theatrics. Wearing his taste-vin, the shiny metal saucer used for tasting wine, as proudly as a medal, he wheeled his beverage cart around the restaurant, offering lady diners gifts of costume jewelry and trinkets, and slipping candy to the kids. Order a martini, and he’d pour it from great heights into your waiting glass.
With his nerdy, dark-rimmed glasses, smiling face and joke at hand, Czernikowski never appeared stuffy or serious— he certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the snooty, pretentious sommelier. In fact, when the Brentwood Inn closed in 1980 and the contents of its wine cellar went up for sale, many folks were surprised at the high quality of Czernikowski’s inventory. Jay Miller, a partner in Bin 604, even remembers picking up some prized Bordeaux— a 1961 Haut Brion and 1962 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes— and “pretty good” Burgundies from the ’59 and ’62 vintages.
When restaurants like the Brentwood Inn began fading away in the early ’80s, in many cases, so did the old-style sommeliers— not that there were ever many of them in Baltimore to begin with. Most folks I talked to barely remember a sommelier in Baltimore. As Sun columnist Jacques Kelly points out, Baltimore diners in the ’70s were more likely to be ordering martinis and manhattans than wine.
Bill Irvin, director of food and beverage for Big Steak’s Management, which owns Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Babalu Grill, remembers his tenure as sommelier in the early days of the Polo Grill when owner Lenny Kaplan “wanted me to wear a big chunk of metal around my neck” while working the floor. But he believes that most diners in Baltimore now find that “too pretentious.” High-end restaurants continue to offer customers fine wines, but the man in the tuxedo wearing the big chain doesn’t live in Baltimore anymore.
Surprisingly, no one seems to miss him, either.
The incredible shrinking sommelier Just because the old-school sommelier isn’t a fixture of Baltimore’s hot new restaurants doesn’t mean the sommelier is totally extinct in Charm City. Simply put, a sommelier is a member of a restaurant staff who is in charge of the selection, purchase and service of wine. And the fact is, anyone who wants to call him or herself a sommelier can do so— there’s no wine world license like the M.D— though there are two widely recognized “master program” accrediting groups, the master sommelier diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers and the master of wine exam from the Institute of Masters of Wine.
The master sommelier is someone who has completed the equivalent of a Ph.D. in wine— there are only 74 in North America (13 of whom are women), and the majority work in world-class restaurant cities like Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as tony resorts like Aspen and Vail. There is not a single one in Baltimore— not yet, at least. Nelson Carey, owner of Grand Cru wine bar in Belvedere Square, hopes to pass the final portion of the master sommelier exam in 2006 (see sidebar).
These days, only a handful of wine professionals in Baltimore restaurants actually use the title sommelier. Though he has not received formal certification, Sotto Sopra’s Chris Clune is one. “It’s really the French for wine waiter,” he explains. “And because most of my food and wine background has been French, I tend to abide by the French way of doing things, which is to call the person in charge of wine a sommelier. It’s what I know.”
Clune earned his knowledge of wines during 15 years of working in restaurants and retail wine shops in New York and San Francisco. He tastes all wines he places on Sotto Sopra’s wine list and sees himself as a liaison between the kitchen and the floor staff in terms of wine pairings and recommendations. During evening service, Clune, dressed in the same shirt and tie combination as the rest of the wait staff, works the floor of the dining room, offering advice and answering questions about wine.
Chris Coker has been sommelier at Corks since 2000. Although he has other responsibilities at the restaurant, it’s when he talks about wine that he becomes truly animated. In 1998, Coker was working as a manager at Bandaloops restaurant in Federal Hill and picked up weekend table-running duties at Corks. “I got a meal and a glass of wine at the end of each night. It was so sweet,” he remembers.
Coker also remembers his first wine tasting at Corks. Chef/owner Jerry Pellegrino wrapped up the wine bottles, covering the labels so his staff could taste them blind. At that first wine tasting, Coker tried a 1996 Pahlmeyer Merlot, from Napa Valley. “That wine blew me away,” he remembers vividly. “People in the know hated merlot, but I couldn’t believe it could taste so good. I didn’t know anything. I had all these biases.”
But tasting after tasting, Coker kept trying wines that surprised and impressed him, and the biases began to disappear. “After I was blown away 100 times, I said, ‘I’m just going to shut my mouth.’ And Jerry [Pellegrino] said, ‘That’s better.’”
Pellegrino— himself a wine expert who has passed the first level of testing for the master sommelier— liked Coker’s enthusiasm and passion, and offered him the sommelier job in 2000. Coker, just back from a trip touring vineyards in France, has been running Corks’ wine program ever since. He travels to the West Coast to taste wine two to three times a year, and when he returns, he writes “pamphlets” for staff about what he’s tasted, including the history of the grape varietals, maps and other teaching information.
On a typical day, Coker arrives at the restaurant around noon to taste wine with distributor representatives or to take inventory (Coker orders beer and spirits as well as wine). Because he’s also responsible for front-of-the-house staff, he sets up the floor plan for evening service and informs servers of any guest’s special needs, before changing into his sommelier clothes: a button-down shirt and dress slacks in the summer, a suit in cooler months. “I like wearing a suit to look professional,” he says. “But I don’t want to scare people or appear too stuffy.” Coker is proud of his servers’ enthusiasm for selling wine (occasionally, customers ask the restaurant’s male servers if they are Chris Coker because of their proficiency in making wine recommendations), but he will assist in wine service by bringing proper glassware to a table, decanting and serving wine to diners. He also works with particularly wine-savvy diners.
Days at Corks are long, often noon to midnight or 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., six days a week, and being a sommelier, Coker explains, “is a never-ending process of learning and teaching.” Through reading and travel, and most importantly, through tasting, Coker has learned about wine from growing conditions to clonal varieties of grapes to soil types. Although he’s not certified as a sommelier, he has worked hard for the right to use the title and believes he’s justified in using it. “To me, a sommelier is someone who makes a concerted effort to learn their trade,” he says. “It’s not just about offering great advice or telling someone ‘this wine tastes good.’ It’s about telling them why it’s good.”
it’s all about the waiter In a restaurant scene like Baltimore’s that values comfort, familiarity and convenience, the word sommelier is often used in the same sentence as the word “intimidating.” “Sommeliers are perceived as an elitist group,” explains Stephen Fedorchak, The Capital Grille’s regional director of operations. Greg Eisenhart, manager of beverage programs at Baltimore’s Capital Grille, agrees: “Even though all our managers on staff have some sommelier training, using the title sommelier makes a wine program seem standoffish and steeped in too much tradition. It’s just less approachable.” This is the primary reason The Capital Grille uses terms like “manager of beverage programs” as opposed to sommelier— even though Eisenhart, for example, has passed the first level of the master sommelier program.
Alan Biars, the general manager of wine buying for Greystone Grill, is even more adamant about not using the term sommelier. “They’re really not very many certified sommeliers around,” he says, “and we’re deceiving the public if we use that term.” Then he adds a sentiment echoed by many of the city’s restaurateurs: “Sommelier connotes ‘fancy.’ I don’t think our restaurant is as fancy as a sommelier.”
That’s also why more and more restaurants— Fleming’s, Ruth’s Chris and The Capital Grille, for example— are putting wine into the hands of the waiters, literally. “Customers can be quite intimidated to talk with this one person, afraid to talk about wines, worried that they’ll mispronounce something,” says Sean Williamson, wine manager at Fleming’s. “We’ve taken everything stressful about ordering wines and put it in the hands of a server.”
At Fleming’s, every applicant for a server position is given a wine test, and if hired, Williamson goes to work “filling in the holes” in the server’s wine knowledge. The restaurant holds weekly tastings, including “match games” in which servers randomly pick names of entrees and appetizers from paper bags and must choose wines to pair with their hodgepodge dinner. Similarly, The Capital Grille brings in some of their vendor partners to conduct wine-tasting classes for staff, and also requires staff members to conduct tastings for their colleagues. “The best way to learn is by teaching,” says Fedorchak. “The staff learns more when they teach, and people enjoy learning from their peers.”
A wait staff well-trained in wine is a boon to any restaurant, but the lack of a designated go-to wine person on staff can sometimes result in less than stellar wine service. In Baltimore, I’ve encountered my fair share of hits and misses, from really interesting and quirky recommendations at Peter’s Inn and The Brewer’s Art to some not-so-perfect recommendations at other places. At one disastrous dinner, our server cautioned me that all of the regional wine I was interested in was awful. Then the server called the polite, but equally un-informed, hostess to help me choose a wine— because the owner and wine purchaser wasn’t on the premises. Another time, a server, without being asked, brought over a glass of wine he promised would be “perfect” with a friend’s entrée. It wasn’t perfect— but it was the most expensive wine by the glass on the menu, for which she was charged. Good restaurants strive for good service in all areas, but if the person ordering the wine for restaurants is not on the floor to offer his or her advice and expertise, sometimes the customer suffers.
Though it is the wait staff that handles most of the wine service at the Babalu Grill, Irvin, director of food and beverage for Big Steak’s Management, will often play the role of the “silent sommelier” by sending over a free glass of wine to customers whose plate is full but glass may be empty. He’ll also pour a merlot and cabernet sauvignon side-by-side for customers so they can determine which is more to their liking with their entrée. “I’ll give away wine all day,” if it helps the customer determine what she or he wants, he says.
To make choosing wine even more user-friendly than quizzing a waiter, Fleming’s offers a sort of “paper sommelier”: a carefully arranged wine list of 100 wines by the glass, half of which are available at any Fleming’s nationwide, the other half selected by Williamson just for the Baltimore restaurant. The wine list is organized progressively from lighter to more intense tastes, making it easy for customers to choose. Fleming’s also offers themed “Discovery Flights,” three 3-ounce glasses of say, California Cabernet or New World Syrah/Shiraz, that allows customers to try a few wines before committing to a bottle.
At Charleston, owner Tony Foreman chooses most of the wines himself or with his wife, chef Cindy Wolf, and many of the wine choices are “reactive to what’s happening on the menu.” Foreman, who co-owns Bin 604 and has been learning about and tasting wines for 20 years (he estimates he’s tasted between 7,000 and 8,000 wines), honors what he calls a “no fault policy” that allows customers to reject a wine if they don’t like it. “If a customer is curious about a wine, I tell them, ‘We’re going to open it and you’re going to try it,’” he says. “If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it. If you’re nervous [about wine], (continued on page 245) don’t worry about it. I know what your food wants. I’ll try to figure out what you want.” Diners at Foreman’s other restaurants, Petit Louis in Roland Park and Pazo in Harbor East, will find food and wine pairings on their menus.
Like their championing of casual, low-stress dining, restaurants like The Capital Grille and Fleming’s emphasize the same philosophy with their wine programs. The Capital Grille’s Eisenhart comments: “Wine is a beverage. It’s meant to be fun.” And the more comfortable diners are ordering flights and trying new wines, the more they will return to the comfort and fun of that restaurant. Fleming’s Sean Williamson does away with the pretense of wine altogether: “Wine needs to be taken off a pedestal, and put down on the dinner table. It’s just fermented grape juice.”
So what should wine drinkers expect to see in Baltimore restaurants in the future? More wines by the glass, more varieties of wine and a more casual wine atmosphere. This doesn’t mean there will be less wine advice, though. As diners become savvier, they will have more questions, not fewer. And restaurants plan to have the staff— certified sommelier or not— to answer them.
Another thing too, seems clear: The guy in the tuxedo with the big chain around his neck isn’t coming back anytime soon.
A short list of Baltimore wine specials
Abacrombie Fine Foods: Wednesdays, half-price on all wines
The Bicycle: Every day, 18 wines offered for $18 per bottle
The Brewer’s Art: Sundays and Mondays, 12 wines for $12 per bottle
The Chameleon Café: Wednesdays, half-price bottles
Corks: Fourth Sunday wine & cheese pairing, six wines/six cheeses, $25; third Thursday, thematic wine dinners, $75 per person
Gertrude’s: Wednesdays after 4 p.m., all wines by bottle and glass half-price
Golden West: Wine Wednesdays, discounted and half-price bottles
Greystone Grill: Tuesdays, half-price bottles
Helen’s Garden: Thursdays, six wines at $14 each
Peter’s Inn: Wednesdays, three selected wines by the bottle and glasses are half-price
Sotto Sopra: Mondays, half-price bottles
Vespa: Tuesdays, half-price bottles