The Secret to Le Bernardin’s Award-Winning Wine Program? Female Sommeliers
We chatted with Aldo Sohm, who was named best sommelier in the world in 2008, about his wine program at New York’s legendary restaurant Le Bernardin and his diverse team.
Aldo Sohm is the wine director of famed French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in midtown Manhattan and a partner in his eponymous wine bar next door. While you might not guess given his humility, Aldo is one of the most decorated sommeliers in the world. In 2008, he earned the title Best Sommelier in the World, preceded by Best Sommelier in America (2007) and Best Sommelier in Austria (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006).
Aldo’s wine program at Le Bernardin won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service in 2009, and is consistently counted among the best programs in the world. Last November, Le Bernardin was top restaurant in the world as judged by La Liste. And that’s not to mention that since opening its doors in 1986, Le Bernardin is the only restaurant to exclusively garner four stars from the New York Times.
Aldo and I sat down recently to discuss his approach to hiring and empowering a diverse team.
Jordan: “Recently, you mentioned to me that you have a nearly all-female sommelier team, and that in the past you’ve had exclusively all-female sommelier teams. Can you tell me about how that came about?”
Aldo: “Well there are a number of reasons. First, I’m a firm believer that women taste wine better than men do. There’s no doubt about it. Men just have a hard time admitting it! We men make it up with training, we make it up with ego. We men care about ‘is the ‘96 vintage better than the ‘04.’”
Jordan: “Men like to qualify things.”
Aldo: “Yes. And women care less about that. Take my girlfriend Catherine, for example. She could care less about what’s on the label. She just wants to drink something delicious. She has an excellent palate. She can tell you the truth without putting ego into it or being swayed by a brand or a vintage.
One day she and her girlfriends asked me to do a wine tasting. I told them I’d taste with them under one condition: we taste blind. I asked them to be honest and to tell me one thing only—do they like the wine or not? So I pulled a bottle of Roulot Bourgogne Blanc, a bottle of Grüner Veltliner, and just to mess around with them I put a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in there. It’s one of the biggest selling brands in the United States. Highly successful. Sommeliers have an opinion on it—and you know what? It doesn’t matter. The fish has to like the bait, not the fisherman.
My girlfriend warned me—and, of course, as a man I didn’t want to listen, and sure enough—they liked the Pinot Grigio the best. And I was in shock.”
Jordan: “Wow! I am in shock as well.”
Aldo: “Yes—and I said why? And they said, this wine we can drink. The other two wines are too complicated; they distract from our conversation. So I did a similar test with red wines. I [poured] ‘96 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage—sommeliers would have gone crazy. But this group hated that wine with a passion.”
Jordan: “Because it’s so full of personality?”
Aldo: “It’s just…there are so many layers. I gave them Malbec on the side, they loved it. And you know, at the end of the day I said, ‘I’m afraid, I learned more than you did today!’
The reason, to come back to your question is, I believe, that women are better tasters. They are more thoughtful, more intuitive. That is one of the reasons why I had, until two years ago, a team of seven sommeliers—all of whom happened to be women. I personally don’t care whether they’re men or women—I believe in the best person for the job. They have to be good. They have to be passionate. They have to be humble. They have to be curious. And then I look always for a certain special quality—I have to be able to connect with that person, to be able to talk to them and really enjoy working with them.”
Jordan: “Because you’re spending at least 12 hours a day at work?”
Aldo: “But also from a guest’s perspective, you want to have someone who is talking to you and you know that you can trust that person—what that person tells you to drink, you drink. That’s ultimately the goal.”
Jordan: “Can you talk a little bit about the training programs at Le Bernardin or the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar?”
Aldo: “The process at the wine bar is a little simpler, more casual, because it’s more informal than LB. Now with the team I did one thing, I set up a system where they all train with each other.”
Jordan: “And what does that look like?”
Aldo: “They study with each other. They have tasting groups, they have family meal and they talk about different wines—then one goes to travel to a winery and shares her experiences there. And I do wine class with them every Thursday. We talk about not only about the wines on the list but also about broader topics and issues. Last week, we talked about reduction. What is it, how does it smell and how does it show in certain different wines? We really fine slice those layers of how oxidation and reduction differ. I show them premox [premature oxidation], wine faults, corked wines. But I also share experiences I accumulate every day. I review them myself on a daily base when I go back home to Brooklyn on the subway.”
Jordan: “You review your day in your mind and grade yourself?”
Aldo: “This is a ritual I always do. I think about what I did well, what I could have done better.”
Jordan: “A number of people on your team have very compelling side hustles.”
Aldo: “I always say, look, you need to realize one thing—your career cannot rely solely on the reputation of this restaurant. How strong is your own brand? You ultimately have to create your own, outside of the work you do here.”
Jordan: “That’s very powerful and quite uncommon for a boss to encourage personal brand-building, especially at such a high-stakes and esteemed restaurant.”
Aldo: “It’s important to bring them to the next level if you want to keep them engaged and committed to the restaurant. I’ll use the examples of the people who work with me now for a while. At Le Bernardin, Katja Scharnagl has worked with me for eight years, Sarah, Maya and Marie for four-and-a-half. Cameron for four years. Marie and Sarah have built strong businesses outside of the restaurant, but they still stay with me. Now I have three guys on the team as well. It’s interesting, coming from an all-female team because my all-female team set the culture that still exists.”
Jordan: “Can you talk about how?”
Aldo: “By having an all-female team all of a sudden you have no more ego. No ‘I sold the bigger bottle than you’—that’s completely irrelevant. No, they share among each other. They communicate much stronger among each other. So this dynamic is the culture now, and it remains even when we add in a few junior men.”
Jordan: “It’s about communication.”
Aldo: “Always. Back to brand building, it’s imperative that they take on responsibility because it’s important to see that success entails hard work. You have to have initiative, you have to chase things. You know that.”
Jordan: “Yes. And can you talk a little bit more about this? Because you are setting a new standard. And it’s worth noting here that Le Bernardin is unrivaled in its excellence and its awards. No other restaurant in America has upheld these standards of excellence more consistently for as long as Le Bernardin. Do you think we can credit co-owner, Maguy Le Coze, for this in large part?”
Aldo: “Absolutely. No question! She is unbelievable. She is the most impressive boss I’ve ever worked for or with. Alan Richman wrote about her recently in the New York Times and I think he captured her more than anyone. She knows everything. She measures your performance on the floor, your precision, your ability to deal with critical situations, personal issues and your coworkers. In the background she knows the numbers. She listens to customers who give feedback. She checks every invoice. And her discipline—that’s the most impressive part. I always tell her that German generals are sloppy by comparison. She is also incredibly fair. She takes care of you. It’s something I have never seen before. She demands a lot, but she also gives. And that’s the most impressive part. She is the gold standard.”
Jordan: “Did Maguy encourage your studies to become Best Sommelier in the World?”
Aldo: “Yes, of course! I remember after I won, I spoke to her and she screamed on the phone—out of happiness.”
Jordan: “And how do you maintain these standards of excellence while also encouraging your team to build their own brands and grow? Presumably when it means that they’re spending a bit less time at the restaurant? How do you make that work?”
Aldo: “You know, here’s the thing: we evolve. Times change. Look, why do restaurants have such large sommelier teams right now especially the highly starred restaurants? It’s that the service team becomes younger and younger. Back in the day, when I came to New York, every captain, every front waiter knew a lot about wine. That is not always the case anymore. Part of it is because we do have a new generation of young, hungry sommeliers that has reduced the professional need for non-wine service staff to be quite as educated on that topic, but it is definitely a different environment from before.”
Jordan: “How do you manage that?”
Aldo: “You have to have anchors who keep everything together. But also, you know, you have the minimum wage increased and that becomes incredibly difficult. Not having too much overtime now becomes critical. And young people, they really insist on their free time. It’s a generational change. Back in the day, people like me they’d work five doubles, and would be upset if they lost a shift!
Again that changed, that mentality changed. And I realized that. So, I noticed, and I evaluated—where are their values? What is important to them and what does it take for me to keep them happy and keep them tied into the restaurant? Every great restaurant needs consistency.
So that’s why I like to keep this team as happy as possible. Of course, you have to keep them focused. But, if there are some personal problems, I pull them aside and talk with them after service.
I want to be compassionate. It excites me when my team becomes successful. I was asked recently by a German journalist, what has been your biggest victory? In Austria, I was a teacher for an educational program called Young Sommeliers. Eventually they created the first Young Sommelier Competition, and I trained three women for this very intense competition. One backed out two weeks prior because she was too freaked out—and the other two went and took first and second place.
Motivating yourself is one thing. Motivating others and getting them to that level is totally different. And that to me was the biggest victory. It’s the same thing I’m trying to do with my team at Le Bernardin now. When Marie came to me about creating her wine label Colete I thought, yes! Follow your passion! For Sarah Thomas, when she came with Kalamata’s Kitchen, I supported her, and I said you’ve got to do that! She now works part-time, which we’ve never done before! However, I told her: when you are on the clock at Le Bernardin, you are at Le Bernardin. You’re 100 percent here.”
Jordan: “But it’s worked! Because she knows the list and knows the systems?”
Aldo: “She knows the list and she is actually excited to come here. What good does it do to me when they move on and go somewhere else?”
Jordan: “Can you talk a little bit about Katja, the head sommelier at Le Bernardin?”
Aldo: “Katja is my anchor. My introduction to Katya came through friend, who is a watch journalist. He a very critical customer, very demanding. It’s all about precision with him, obviously. He sent me her resume and mentioned that she wanted to work in New York. But you see, Europeans think working in New York is like Sex and the City—again we all know this is a fantasy, not reality.”
Jordan: “Like going to Austria means floating down the Danube…”
Aldo: “Yeah and, you know, singing The Sound of Music in the Alps. So, he sent me her resume and she had referenced my biggest mentor, Helmut Jörg. So I called him. He said to me, ‘it’s very simple: she is like you. Once she signs up for that job, she is on that job.’ Katja loves to work. You can rely on her one hundred percent.
But when it comes to studying, she can procrastinate. And I know she won’t mind me saying this! For example, she is an excellent baker. And so, I said no more dinner parties, no more cookies, no more cake! Study. And, again, I could have said nothing. But I knew where she wanted to grow.”
Jordan: “Because you knew her goals and her ultimate ambitions from the outset.”
Aldo: “Ultimately, yeah. I knew she couldn’t achieve it without encouragement, so I started pushing her. Some people have more confidence, some people lack confidence who are absolutely brilliant. So I remember I sat outside with her before she flew for her Advanced exam. She was very nervous. And I said: you should be scared right now about the Master Sommelier exam, because this is just a step!”
Jordan: “And did that shift her perspective?”
Aldo: “She looked at me and said ‘do you think I’m able to get that one?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘of course, that’s why we’re doing this!’ And the Advanced exam, for her, was a breeze.”
Jordan: “Do Americans just have bigger egos?”
Aldo: “Every person is different. Humility is important. My girlfriend asked me recently ‘why do you do so much mentoring in your free time?’ I said, that’s an excellent question and you probably will never understand my answer, but I was very fortunate that people helped me in their free time. I think it’s only fair, as a sign of respect, to offer this to others as well.”
Jordan: “And it elevates the wine community.”
Aldo: “I think so. You know, together—this is actually an American thing—together we’re strong, the more you build this up, the more you can elevate. By the way, didn’t I train you, too?”
Jordan: “Yes, before I sat for my Master’s exam. You trained me down downstairs in Le Bernardin on a Sunday, your day off.”
Aldo: “So I do this, too, with everyone who works with me. Look, the reason why I’m pushing them all so hard is that you have to build off your experience at Le Bernardin. You can utilize it, of course, but you have to bring something to it as well. Life is not only taking, it’s giving.
And then these different aspects of your career start communicating with each other, and that’s ultimately what you want to get into. So I push that mentality onto my team, and make sure they stay with me. I mean who has that track record? I’m proud that people stay for so long because like Bobby Stuckey said [in a Daily Beast article on sommeliers], three years is typically the lifespan of an employee these days.”
Jordan: “And it’s not like this is an easy place to work.”
Aldo: “Not at all, we’re full-on. We have extremely high standards, but we treat each other with respect. The example comes from the top—chef Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze have built an institution here, and it is up to us to maintain and elevate it for them.”
Jordan: “You also don’t make mistakes very often.”
Aldo: “Mistakes don’t sit very well with us. And if mistakes are made, which they inevitably are, how you handle and fix them is key. I train them for that. A mistake can be an opportunity to get to know a guest better, if handled correctly.”
Jordan: “This sounds like a good model for future or current restaurateurs who are worried about labor cost, turnover, all of the very real problems that make our industry so difficult. You’re making a very compelling argument for curating and training a team that learns discipline by providing extraordinary service to guests and is in turn pushed to build their own brands that allow them to grow, ease overtime costs, and give back to the restaurants.”
Aldo: “And you have to live it for them. You cannot bless water and drink wine. Look, even I have to evolve. Last year, I realized wine prices from certain areas are climbing up, up, up. I am fortunate—I was able to afford the Chaves and the Roumiers and Roulots and the DRC’s during my studies—not every afternoon, but once or twice a year. That’s obviously changed.
I raised a team meeting to discuss natural wine, which could work at Le Bernardin. But it’s complicated because Eric Ripert’s food is so clean. And then we discovered the whole Iberian Peninsula—and I’m talking about the New Spain not the classics.”
Jordan: “Yes! José Pastor’s portfolio…”
Aldo: “Exactly. Or Olé from Patrick Mata. Because, look, when you’re 25 and come for the first time into Le Bernardin, you’re not going to spend $500 on a bottle of Chambolle-Musigny. So, what can we offer that important client? Something really cool that the sommelier is 100-percent excited about? You have to have a $50 bottle of wine that’s delicious.”
Jordan: “What books do you recommend to servers who tell you they want to learn more about wine?”
Jordan: “And The World Atlas of Wine?”
Aldo: “Yes. And there’s a 24-Hour-Wine-Expert by Jancis Robinson. This book is packed with information and probably took her the most time to write.”
Aldo: “One more thing about my team: Diversity is important to us. It is absolutely key.”
Jordan: “And we live in New York, an ecumenical city with so many different cultures and perspectives. You bring Austrian discipline and focus.”
Aldo: “We’re stronger because of a diversity of perspectives. Everybody brings extra input. And then we have this powerful cocktail of a team to which everybody contributes and you elevate the entire product. Marie is from France, Sarah is from Pennsylvania even though her parents are from India. Then you’ve got Gili from Israel, then we have Katja who is from Austria, then we have Cameron who is from America, Maya is from Brazil, then we have now Barbara who is from Queens ,New York, but her parents are from China. And you can cater to all sorts of clients. The different cultural backgrounds we have represented mean that we can make a huge array of guests even more comfortable. We can relate. So look, you bring business in because, how many Israeli sommeliers are out there in New York? How many Indian sommeliers? How many Austrian or Chinese? Not that many. That diversity is the key.
Here you have to be on. This is like the Super Bowl every day. Every person with a smartphone is a critic. You have to perform, you have to execute but nothing you know is as important or authentic than when you’re happy. When you have a genuine smile. And when you can look at people and know what they want before they do. And the customer can read if their sommelier is excited to see them. That’s my team.”
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. She is the founder of organic Italian grapefruit wine spritzer Ramona and also Bellus Wines.
Interview has been condensed and edited.