Are Great Sommeliers an Endangered Species?
We chatted with James Beard Award-winning sommelier Bobby Stuckey about the future of the position and why so many of his colleagues are retiring early.
Bobby Stuckey is an iconic restaurateur, Master Sommelier, multiple-time-James Beard Award winner, marathon runner and mentor to countless sommeliers across the United States. His flagship restaurant, Frasca Food & Wine, has become a Mecca of hospitality in Boulder, Colorado.
We reconnected recently and began a discussion about a broad range of topics, including why self-discipline matters, prioritizing guest experience, the future of the natural wine movement and how the party-loving sommelier image needs to go.
Read on for our conversation.
Jordan: We were recently talking about how the party-boy/party-girl sommelier image needs to evolve. Do you think professionalism in our industry is at risk?
Bobby: I’m 49-years-old and I took my initial [sommelier exam] 24-years-ago. When I was at The Little Nell, [in Apsen], I worked for a guy who was an old-school, cranky somm before I took over, and I remember that my goal—our generation’s goal—was to be enlightened sommeliers with our focus on the guest. I thought, back in the early 2000s, we had left behind the days of the snooty sommelier. I thought we would never talk about somms who aren’t concerned with guests anymore.
Jordan: What do you see that makes you concerned we are at risk for regression?
Bobby: I think the natural wine movement is a vacuum. The sommelier right now wants so badly to put his or her own flag on their wine list that they are making it elitist to the guest. They have built barriers—everything has to be so weird and such a story, and we don’t care if the wine is any good or not.
Jordan: A lot of lists getting attention are meant to highlight the sommelier who can prove that they have access to certain wines as a form of currency.
Bobby: There should be a respect of the craft of the sommelier. The first thing you do in the Master Sommelier Blind Tasting exam is say “is the wine flawed or sound.” A lot somms don’t care if it’s flawed as long as it has a great story. So many wine lists create barriers for people because [sommeliers] want to have their lists be about themselves.
Jordan: The trend towards small production is something we can all champion. Do you think that this is a symptom of the sommelier wanting to seem individualistic and self-important? Or do you think there is just more interest in great wine and fewer bottles available?
Bobby: Well, I think sommeliers have always advocated for wines of scarcity. I mean that’s what created the cult wine movement in Napa, that’s what created the craziness around Coche-Dury. But the thing around those wines were that they’re revolutionary great wines for a region or from a producer that had come out of nowhere. Steven Spurrier put a blind tasting together in 1976, and California wineries beat out some of the great French vineyards. And that was based on quality per taste. Now we’re almost doing the opposite. We would rather tell the story so much, we don’t even care—or understand—what it tastes like.
I’m reading a book by Questlove called Creative Quest and there’s a great chapter about young musicians not wanting mentorship and not wanting to know where they came from. It reminds me of the sommelier movement right now in that the young somms don’t even want to know what’s great, they just want to know what’s on Instagram.
And at the end of the day, I have a problem with that because I really don’t care about the sommelier, I care about the guests.
Jordan: I remember dining at Frasca for the first time 14-years-ago. My guest experience there was instrumental in my deciding to shift career paths and train to become a sommelier. Your mastery of wines, willingness to share your knowledge and incredible hospitality turned wine from something intimidating into something I decided to pursue as a career. Which relates tangentially to this notion of accessibility and quality, and the misperception that greatness and luxury are inaccessible and accessible is synonymous with cheap.
Bobby: Noble doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. But expensive needs to be great. I think about this because I sell Pinot Grigio for a living. Why is it that a sommelier will be so emphatic to beat up their importers so much and they will say to their reps “I’m writing the Volnay section and I can only have d’Angerville ” and they’ll insist on Jamet for their Rhône list—meaning they will get, at most, six bottles of Jamet and they’re going to drink two, so four will ever touch the guest.
But then they’ll get to a wine like Pinot Grigio and either they won’t put it on their list or they’ll add it by the glass or they’ll call their rep and say, “what do you have for $9.99?,” which is not how a sommelier should be thinking. They should be thinking about the wine that touches the most guests. You will want to spend more time on that, than the six bottles that are going to touch less than 12 guests.
Jordan: What other advice, for future or aspiring sommeliers, would you give?
Bobby: Well, the first thing is don’t make the wine list about yourself. Make the wine list about your guest and about the restaurant you work for. Have a point of view that is about your restaurant and about your guest.
Second, learn to taste wine for quality versus price. If you taste a wine and it costs you $20 but in blind tasting you really think it’s a $15 bottle of wine. You may not think $15 to $20 is a big difference but that five bucks on a wine list means the difference between a $45 bottle of wine and a $60 bottle of wine for your guest. If you’re not good enough of a sommelier to blind taste and assess quality to price for your guest and for the restaurant that you work for, then stop playing around with Instagram. Get to work to learn how to taste, so you can be great for your guest.
At Frasca, we’re really excited about the story, but a wine that costs this much, also needs to taste like this much.
Jordan: Hospitality is a craft, and would you say that the party-boy/party-girl sommelier image is at odds with that?
Bobby: Look at how many sommeliers have the same career expectancy of an NFL quarterback, like three years. And that’s sad. I love our industry! Alice Waters once said that it takes seven years to be a great waiter. So, let’s say she’s exaggerating. It takes at least five years to be a great sommelier, but the problem is most people don’t make it five years on the floor anymore. I see it all the time; young people come up to me and they go “I’m stressed. I’m overwhelmed. I need to get out. ”
No one likes saying “oh, I want to be an average sommelier.” But this is what’s happening. It’s simple mathematics: you have a five-day workweek, if you go out after work until 2:30 in the morning drinking and then try to have a great day the next day…If you want to be great in college that’s ninety-percent to a hundred-percent that’s A-level, right? So you’re trying to be great but you’ve got a five-day workweek, if you go out after work and stay out late, wake up [hungover] and that next day, even if you ace it, you’re not going to be excellent. If you do that twice in a week, on the next day you work, the best you can be that week is average.
And then you never get to be really, really, great. Even the most talented ones are never going to reach their potential, they get artificially tired and worn out. So they never get to the five years. And we never get to see Alice Water’s theory of sommeliers who have been around, working on their craft, getting better each year.
We have this thing in our industry, a list of who’s great under thirty. The premise is stupid! There will never be an award for the greatest surgeon under 30. Matter of fact you don’t want to have a surgeon under thirty operating on you. If surgeons can have great careers into their 50s, 60s, and, even, 70s, we should as journalists and people, applaud the great hospitality professionals that have created it as a craft. The sad thing is there so few of them. [Today’s sommeliers] are partying too hard and they get burnt-out.
Jordan: I guess that’s one reason I liked the process and structure that the Master Sommelier exams provided. And if you’re on that path you don’t have time to go out because you’re too busy studying or getting up early for a tasting group or…just going to work. And on a more long-term note, if sommeliers are not approaching their roles as a craft, the Vivinos and Delectable apps of the world are going to claim to have as much or more information as sommelier anyway. The way to mitigate against that is to be a great hospitality professional, which requires mentorship.
Bobby: And the sad thing is people don’t want to be mentored, they want to rebel against it. It just goes back to Alice Waters’ statement, our industry is never getting to be as great as it can be because the party atmosphere is artificially wearing people out, and we never get to see the full potential.
Jordan: What do you think the solution is?
Bobby: I think if people had to wait longer to be a sommelier like if they had to work as a waiter longer and take care of themselves, study more and focus. I think if all of a sudden no wine positions were available until people had at least passed the Advanced Exam [from the Court of Master Sommeliers], it would change the industry overnight. Because they will have to commit, and it’s hard to pass the Advanced, it’s like a mini-MS [Master Sommelier exam]. I feel that once someone passes their Advanced exam, they are a real wine person. They really change.
Jordan: That exam does require such dedication: to block off your schedule, pay the various costs, and just to follow through with the goal and the process. It’s like running a marathon in certain ways.
Bobby: Yeah. Look, are there exceptions? Yes. Rajat [Parr], Robert [Bohr], they there are exceptions. But most of us aren’t the exceptions, most of us are the average person. And the average person needs discipline to be great.
Jordan: And if memorizing a good story and coming into contact with a “new” bottle before the rest of the market is the new criteria for becoming a sommelier, the value-add is not especially valuable for the guest.
Bobby: The natural wine movement is the Fox News of wine. [Sommeliers are] defending wines because they have a good story. People get pissed when I say that to a natural wine person. But I’m like, hold on, let’s think about this. The wine you gave me isn’t sound, isn’t delicious. Look at what happened eight years ago with the region Beaujolais. The reason Beaujolais became popular eight years ago was because it was good for the quality per price.
I think it’s important to say that there are journalists that are hurting the situation. They’re just not disciplined. So many journalists are against blind tasting, because it takes away from their flowery writing. And they want to uncover something “new” and different—but they are doing a disservice if they’re promoting storylines or regions for the sake of saying something new instead of providing information of value for the reader and wine drinker.
It’s great to have a great story, but the thing you’ve to do first is taste the wine, is it great for the price? Is that better for the guest? As hospitality professionals we need to think about our guests first. That is the heart of everything we do.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Jordan Salcito is a veteran sommelier with a decade spent in the dining rooms of James Beard and World’s 50 Best recognized Eleven Madison Park and Momofuku. Salcito is the founder of organic Italian grapefruit wine spritzer Ramona and also Bellus Wines.