The Rise of the American “Somm”

The reinvention of the wine professional has resulted in a new brand of next-gen swagger, complete with a revamped lexicon and liberal arts degree. Francis Percival tracks the American transition from "sommelier" to "somm."

For good or ill, we are living in the era of the transition from the sommelier to the “somm.” Whereas a previous generation of quiet professionals confined themselves to their fine dining restaurants, now the American sommelier is ubiquitous. On the covers of wine magazines, in documentary films and across social media it is the sommelier that has become the public face of wine.

Even the trade press is not immune. No sooner had Sommelier Journal suspended operations in October this year than the press releases were flying out to announce its acquisition and rebranding. The name, re-crafted in the hopes of reclaiming a new relevance? The SOMM Journal.

This status is changing the language of wine too, as sommelier-speak becomes a creeping presence in the wider conversation, equal parts grifter slang and wine-service Urban Dictionary. The New York Times even obligingly published a guide to talking like a somm for those seeking to know their ballers from their grandma wines. (A serious drinker liable to spend a lot of money on wine vs. a wine that is widely accepted, but not particularly interesting.)

As an Englishman I have always been a keen student of the transatlantic divide—having a southern Californian wife makes it a necessary demand of domestic harmony—but it has been staggering for me to witness how professional wine service has been refashioned into something close to the apotheosis of modern America: loud, and engaging; at once brutally professional and relentlessly informal; swaggering and competitive. Oh yes, and with lots of photos on Instagram.

But if America has transformed the route into the profession, the accumulated baggage of American campus culture has also shaped how sommeliers think and talk about wine. It’s become fratty. While nobody is yet hazing pledges or playing wine-pong with illustrious bottles of Burgundy, the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros.

It is true that many of the most overt differences between American sommeliers and their European colleagues can be explained as a simple Old World, New World cultural divide. As eating out in America has become more relaxed and informal, so too has the behavior of America’s sommeliers. Simple tableside interactions like touching guests would be unknown in most of Europe, but are now common stateside. Some young sommeliers might wear slick suits, but in other establishments they will be in barely more than a t-shirt and jeans—tattoos on display. They are, after all, Americans under the age of 40. Levi Dalton is Wine Editor for Eater NY and himself a longtime sommelier with experience at restaurants like Masa and various outposts of the Boulud restaurant group. Now in his mid-thirties, his career has been long enough to see the change in style of service: “Now, if you play by the old rules you are out of a job.”

Stories about ebullient Americans and reserved Europeans have been written for centuries, but they do not explain much beyond the fact that American sommeliers work in America and European sommeliers work in Europe. Transpose sommeliers to another country and they will soon adopt the tableside manners of their new home.

Across the world, the culture of the current generation is shaped by the dynamics of our education system. As one French winemaker told me, “I much prefer working with American sommeliers; in France they tend to be high-school drop-outs who were not bright enough to go to college.” This is perhaps harsh, but it is true that the French system favors early specialization, forcing youths of 16 to opt between a vocational or academic pathway. In this respect Pascaline Lepeltier, the Wine Director at Rouge Tomate in New York City and Brussels, is an interesting case. A French woman who opted for the life of a sommelier over that of an academic philosopher, she is careful to note that things are changing in France, but acknowledges that, “if you don’t fit this [academic] model, you find yourself in some other establishment where you may be voie de garage, or in the “garage lane,” for drop outs. Hospitality school used to be a big one, with a lot of kids told they could not do anything else.”

In contrast, American sommeliers tend to have bachelor’s degrees in an astonishing diversity of—albeit largely humanities—majors. In researching this piece I spoke with ex-linguists, literary scholars, economists, philosophers and a fine art major. A typical American sommelier might have worked front of house to earn some money during college, but they will not have dedicated themselves totally to their profession until they reach their early mid-twenties. It is no surprise that they are more enthusiastic than a sullen French teenager.

But if America has transformed the route into the profession, the accumulated baggage of American campus culture has also shaped how sommeliers think and talk about wine. It’s become fratty. While nobody is yet hazing pledges or playing wine-pong with illustrious bottles of Burgundy, the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros. Talk of “unicorn wines” (wines of extreme rarity) abounds, with triumphant exchanges over Twitter confirming recent conquests. (I should note, that this does not mean that it’s completely dominated by men. Linda Milagros Violago, a sommelier who is now the wine director at NYC’s Contra and has worked everywhere from Mugaritz in Spain to Geranium in Copenhagen, insists that, “it’s much more of a boys’ club in Scandinavia.” Some of the most enthusiastic participants in the jockish world of social media wine banter are women.)

At the same time, the language and tone with which sommeliers talk about wine has never been more influential. Like America itself, the American wine community is grappling with the challenges of a multi-polar world. Rather than shifting geopolitics, the problem for the wine world is something that might at first seem much more straightforward: what is a good wine and how do you decide if it is good? Where in the late 1990s a sommelier could expect to serve guests already fired up by the points scores of critics like Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator, the fragmentation of the critical universe has made answering this question the sommelier’s own responsibility. Levi Dalton remembers: “In the old days, you were reacting to a remote authority figure, who had already made people excited.” Now the world is different and Dalton is blunt about new rules. “The sommelier must enthuse or die.”

This has given the modern somm the chance to celebrate his or her own ethical values. For Pascaline Lepeltier this has a political edge. “Today it seems you can have a louder voice by buying certain things (and not others) than by voting,” she says. “I am talking less about a ‘style’ [of wine] than about a philosophy of what farming and winemaking should be. The style being more the final interpretation by an individual winemaker of that philosophy.”

The wines embraced by this new somm are diverse, but the unifying factor is the culture of the sommeliers themselves. I am sure that the bright young liberal arts graduates prowling the floor today or trumpeting loudly over social media have not self-consciously recreated a wine version of college fraternities, but they have arrived at something remarkably similar. The somm is a sommelier seen through this lens. And today, the difference between a good, bad or indifferent somm depends largely on whether the message is lost in the medium.

Francis Percival is the a co-founder and convenor of the London Gastronomy Seminars and the food editor and columnist for The World of Fine Wine, for which he won the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year award in 2013. His work has also appeared in Culture, Decanter, Saveur and the Financial Times. He lives in London.