Forget Pretension. This Is How a Sommelier Should Act.
Rosie Schaap writes about award-winning sommelier Roger Dagorn and his superb hospitality in her new book “Becoming a Sommelier.”
There’s a reason I’ve never suffered from a fear of sommeliers, and his name is Roger Dagorn. In the 1990s, he was the sommelier at New York City’s Chanterelle, a restaurant of the sort often forbiddingly (and annoyingly) described as “temples” or “monuments.” But if the fearsome reputations of such places set up the expectation that they had to be staffed by the most exalted and priestly of professionals (I remember Bianca Bosker’s tracing of the sommelier lineage back to the sacred cupbearers of ancient Egypt), the service at Chanterelle subverted that expectation. And if the office of sommelier is arguably the most hieratic of all fine-dining functionaries, its legendary sommelier is likely the friendliest and most down-to-earth sacred cupbearer you’ll ever meet.
His restaurant career began when he was a teenager, at his family’s French restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Le Pont Neuf. But I’ll always associate him most closely with Chanterelle, where he worked from 1993 until the restaurant closed in 2009, and where he was honored with a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service, and in this I don’t think I’m alone. Chanterelle was an unusual place—still discussed and mourned by many a decade after it shut its doors for the last time.
Ruth Reichl, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, known for her democratic taste (it could be a “monument” to haute cuisine one week, a humble Chinatown noodle joint the next) granted it four stars—the highest acclaim she could bestow—in 1993. After rhapsodizing about the food and the service, this is how she concluded:
Leaving the restaurant late at night, you walk out into the near-silence of a deserted street. As you stand waiting for a taxi, turn back and take one last look. The people inside, caught in the shimmering golden light of the room, look blessed.
I can attest to its specialness, too. In 1995, two years after that review was published, I knew the beatific aura, that golden shimmer, of which Reichl spoke—but not exactly firsthand: I had glimpsed it through a pub window. That year, not long out of college myself, I’d moved back home to New York City, and had taken a job teaching at a community college in Tribeca. I found a bar near the campus that was just right for grading stacks upon stacks of freshman English compositions while nursing a pint or two of Guinness. Set on the corner of Hudson Street and Harrison Street, the bar had great big windows that flooded the room with light by day, and that by night provided an excellent view of Chanterelle. The restaurant was right across Harrison Street. And Reichl was exactly right: captured in the soft light of that dining room, the people lucky enough to eat there had an almost otherworldly, sanctified glow. How I envied them.
Chanterelle seemed unattainable to a young teacher, beyond aspirational, way out of reach. Still, I’d slow down to glance at the menu whenever I walked by, and feel a faint jab of hunger mixed with desire—and I’d daydream about what it would be like when I got to have dinner there. I would start with the seafood sausage everyone talked about. There was no question that I would finish with cheeses served from the cart I’d spied through the window, gliding smoothly around the room like a friendly ghost. Of course all of this would have to be accompanied by wine. Exceptionally good wine that I absolutely could not afford, and probably never would.
Toward the end of the first semester, I’d started dating another teacher. He had grown up in the Livermore Valley, one of California’s smaller wine-producing areas, and had worked at a small winery in high school. Although Frank’s studio apartment was largely unburdened by material possessions other than books, he had a much better batterie de cuisine than most men I knew in their mid-twenties. He had a beloved, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. And he had a wine rack.
What he didn’t have were expensive clothes. Or shoes. Or haircuts. Instead, he saved up what money he could for once-or twice-yearly splurges at great restaurants. And when we met Chanterelle was at the top of his list. I don’t recall what the occasion was that first emboldened us to make a reservation there. It might have been a birthday, or maybe an anniversary. But I do remember it was a big deal. After more than a year of gazing at its menu longingly, we were actually going to eat some of those dishes that had acquired nearly mythical status in our imaginations.
We were not disappointed. The kind-eyed hostess, Karen Waltuck, whose husband, David, was the chef, gave us a friendly welcome in the art-filled foyer. The dining room was serenely pretty, not flashy or overdesigned in that headache-inducing way endemic to so many restaurants. Its walls were painted in a comforting yellow-white (Reichl described it as “apricot”—but to me it looked more like thick buttercream) that I’ve since tried to replicate in my home, broken up by fluted wooden panels and sideboards. Flashes of color were supplied by towering, artful arrangements of fresh flowers. The high, recessed ceiling was hung with enormous brass chandeliers.
According to plan, we started with the seafood sausage. And every single bite of our entire dinner, from the sausage to the cheese, was so good that I don’t remember us speaking more than a few words. But if we were asked to isolate one single detail that stood out most on a long list of delights, neither Frank nor I would have hesitated to answer: the brightest star of the evening was the sommelier, Roger Dagorn.
After we placed our dinner order, Frank, with his wine-country background, knew to ask to speak with the sommelier; I’m not sure I even knew what a sommelier was back then. An elegant, smiling man soon materialized at the side of our table. He struck me as one of those people blessed with a gift for putting others at ease (since Frank was shy by nature, I was especially grateful for this), and he radiated warmth. We told him about what we were going to eat, and then he and Frank got into the specifics about pairing.
Frank and I probably had the lowest incomes in the room, but no one made us feel like we mattered less than any of the other guests, and I’m sure there were some VIPs in our midst. Frank was, well, frank with Roger about what we could realistically spend on a bottle of wine (this, I learned from him that night, is perhaps the most important first step in an honest and productive conversation with a sommelier). He let him know that one bottle would be our maximum, so it would have to be some kind of magical shape-shifter of a wine that would complement both the seafood sausage and whatever our main courses were. Not only was Roger unfazed by our criteria and our budget, but he also chose a perfect bottle that was priced substantially south of our upper limit.
Roger took his time with us. He listened closely. And he selected for us a wine that we could afford that still made us feel special. We lingered with our one perfect bottle until it was time for cheese, and agreed we’d treat ourselves to a glass of dessert wine each, too. I’m pretty sure that was partly because we wanted another opportunity to speak with, and learn from, Roger. We knew he had other customers who needed him, but we didn’t want to let him go.
I hadn’t read Reichl’s 1993 review when it originally appeared in the Times, but reading it now, more than a quarter of a century later, I’m moved by how perfectly she captures him:
[T]he sommelier, Roger Dagorn, is there with a smile. In fact, few restaurants offer such pleasant and unintimidating wine service. Mr. Dagorn is clearly enamored of this unusual list; he has good wines at every price level, and he discusses each with deep affection. “This is a wonderful wine,” he offered one night, “but a couple of bottles have been off, so please tell me if it isn’t everything it should be.”
So it’s no wonder that I feel so fortunate that Roger Dagorn was my first sommelier, is it? I’d known nothing about his profession. I had no preconceptions, no expectations. But first impressions are powerful, and my first impression of the office of the sommelier came from Roger, who modeled not only how knowledgeable and informative a sommelier could be, but also how gracious, modest, and generous one should be. I did not know then that by the first time I met him, he had already been a sommelier for more than twenty years.
Roger Dagorn made my first experience with a sommelier so easeful and so pleasurable, I have never since felt intimidated by sommeliers, and have never hesitated to speak with them, to ask questions, to let my ignorance show. Instead, in the presence of a sommelier, I’m happy to disclose what I don’t know—so that I may learn something. But this does not mean that all sommeliers are like Roger Dagorn. In the decades between that night at Chanterelle and now, I’ve seen dozens of other sommeliers at work, and very few can match him for knowledge or for tableside manner. He set the bar high. The best I’ve encountered since then—younger sommeliers like Amanda Smeltz—invariably share his passion for his field, and his excellence at transmitting what he knows.
When Chanterelle closed in 2009, Pete Wells wrote a brief eulogy for the website of the New York Times. Wells recalled his first meal there, during which he joked with the waiter that he’d drink whatever he was told to drink; he didn’t feel like thinking about it too hard (he may have been joking, but this reflects exactly what many diners feel when they know they’re about to be presented with a wine list as long as War and Peace). The waiter had a sense of humor, too, and advised him never to give up his right to think for himself, lest someone take it away.
“Much of that meal is lost to me now but I remember one course clearly: a beef carpaccio with black truffles,” Wells writes. “The sommelier, Roger Dagorn, poured a daiginjo sake with a mushroomy undertone. It was an uncanny choice, well worth the risk of temporarily ceding my right to think for myself.”
Uncanny is the right word to express his ability to pair the right drink with the right food, sometimes in surprising, even daring, ways. One can learn, both from books and from experience, about certain classic combinations that are pretty much guaranteed to please: Muscadet with oysters, for example, or Sauternes with foie gras. But there is room, in the sommelier’s work, for imagination, and for surprises. Even, or maybe especially, when they seem counterintuitive, strange—uncanny.
What I remember best from my last time at Chanterelle is that, as our dinner wound down, I asked Roger if he might recommend an Armagnac to end the night. Of course, he might. But he had something else in mind. “Do you like rum?” he asked us. Sure, I liked rum. I was in my twenties. I liked all liquor. But neither Frank nor I had ever considered it an after-dinner drink, the way we thought of Armagnac or Cognac or a single malt Scotch whisky. Still, we, too, were happy to cede our right to think for ourselves to Roger, and our trust in him was rewarded.
He poured some rhum agricole—a thing we’d never heard of before—into two small snifters. It looked to me like tiger’s eye quartz: deep amber, with a shimmer of dark brown. And its taste: reminiscent of Cognac, but earthier. For all its refinement, a quiet but determined funkiness had found its way in, and set it apart from other nightcaps I’d known. It was an inspired choice—and it did not go unnoticed by Frank or me that it was also a less costly one than Armagnac would’ve been. Roger wasn’t interested in selling the most expensive things in the book; he was interested in sharing his knowledge, and in introducing us to something new (to us) and beautiful. Pairing drink with food can be an act of creativity, undertaken primarily to give a diner pleasure. In his unforced, unfussy, and unfailingly warm way, Roger showed that pleasure can be enough of a virtue on its own, but it can go even deeper, by opening up possibilities and cultivating curiosity.
I followed Roger Dagorn’s post-Chanterelle trajectory for a few years, until I lost his trail. Around 2013, I thought he was working at the restaurant Tocqueville, near Union Square, when I tried to contact him for a story I was writing about rum—since it was he who had introduced me, all those years earlier, to rhum agricole. I did not hear back. I heard he was still teaching future sommeliers at the New York City College of Technology, but perhaps he was on a leave of absence when I attempted to find him there. I gleaned occasional, frequently conflicting rumors of his whereabouts— always accompanied by affectionate anecdotes. He’d gone to a fancy midtown steakhouse. He’d become a consultant. He had retired. He was making wine. He moved to France. Most of these rumors were untrue, but I gave up the hunt, and didn’t pick it up again until I started working on this book, because I couldn’t imagine writing about sommeliers without discussing Roger Dagorn. I had to see him again. At the very least, I wanted to thank him.
From BECOMING A SOMMELIER by Rosie Schaap. Copyright © 2019 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.