See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip—Savor
Is being a sommelier as much fun as it sounds?
I’m meeting with a sommelier, and it isn’t what I’d pictured. We’re in a dark, narrow corridor about two floors under Boston’s fashionable Back Bay—our progress halted by a securely bolted industrial door. The crisply presented tables of the high-end Grill 23 restaurant above us seem a world away.
This is no musty French cellar; the mood here is set by fluorescent lighting and racks of server uniforms. “This is insurance right here,” says Morgan (Melkonian) Jerome, a level-two master sommelier, as she unbolts the battered metal hinges and slides back the door.
We step into a cool, deep room lined with shelves full of wine bottles; some have been laid down for the future, others are weighed down by four-digit price tags. “A lot of my personal wine is up there because my refrigerator broke,” says Jerome, pointing to a high shelf on the far wall.
This is more like it.
Jerome (SHA’04) is Grill 23’s assistant wine director and as such, she’s responsible for buying, checking, recommending, and serving some of the restaurant’s 17,000 bottles.
“We have just under $1 million in inventory,” she says. She’s sampled about half of the wine list, she estimates. If she hasn’t tasted something, it’s probably because it’s so rare: “We have a 1959 Pétrus—I can’t just open that up and give it a taste.” The Pétrus sells for $4,000 (although you can pick up the 2000 vintage for a mere $2,850).
Pairing wine and food
Jerome doesn’t like to separate wine from food—with an empty plate, she’ll choose a beer rather than a red. “Wine is like salt and pepper to food,” she says. “When you take a bite of food and follow it with a sip of wine and it brings it to a whole new level, that’s when you know you’ve got a nice wine pairing.”
She traces her mental connection between eating and drinking back to the School of Hospitality Administration’s food and wine courses and a Kopf Family Wine Fellowship, a $10,000 undergraduate fellowship that took her to California, France, and Italy. “Not only was it wine-focused, it was very food-driven as well,” says Jerome of the fellowship, awarded annually to just six students nationwide.
Jerome is definitely not the kind of wine buff to salute hints of blueberry or coffee overtones. Instead, she talks of acid cutting through fat, of “pairing sweet wine with a really fatty savory,” of matching a Sauterne with fois gras—her own pick.
“I don’t taste wine and pride myself on being able to tell you that it smells of coconut,” she says. “I’m way more interested in how that wine is going to taste with your scallops.”
That kind of advice makes her a popular dinner party guest, although envy often mixes with skepticism. “People just think, ‘Oh, so you drink for a living?’” she says. “It’s still a job. You still have to deal with unhappy customers.”
And it isn’t only about having talent or the right taste buds. Jerome spent two years getting her “hands out during the harvest” in Napa Valley, and to become a certified sommelier, made her way through paper exams, blind tastings, and a grilling on obscure wines.
Still, with free bottles from distributors, frequent overseas education trips, an office that backs onto a small cellar room, and a personal wine collection hidden two floors down behind a bolted black door, it’s “definitely a cool job.”
Editor’s note: After we met with Jerome, she accepted another cool job—wine educator at the upscale Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma, Calif.
Andrew Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in the winter 2010 edition of the School of Hospitality Administration newsletter Check-In.+ Comments