Full-time Valley sommeliers are dwindling, but a new generation is filling the void.

Zero Somm Game?

Written by Nikki Buchanan Category: Valley News Issue: June 2017
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Fat Ox sommelier Stephen Johnson, Photo by Chad Cocquyt

Twenty years ago, sommeliers were intimidating figures – wine specialists employed by upscale restaurants to help customers navigate tome-like wine lists, lest one make the fatal mistake of ordering a too-tannic red with his veal. They were the keepers of arcane information in a nearly incomprehensible world. But the wine consumer market has changed dramatically, and full-time sommeliers, once ubiquitous in Phoenix, have become a rarity.

The question is: Will we miss them?

Thanks to social and economic shifts, the role of the sommelier has evolved in the past 10 years. The trajectory of this once-formal profession is best understood by considering its past. As two wine wonks steeped in our local culture, both Stephen Johnson (full-time sommelier at Fat Ox in Scottsdale) and Dave Johnson (co-owner, GM and resident cork dork at Ocotillo in Central Phoenix), insist that the ’90s was the Golden Age for sommeliers, an era when money was spent freely and they were revered. The times were so prosperous that even independent restaurants could afford impressive cellars, lengthy wine lists and a sommelier to manage them, while a luxurious resort restaurant such as the late Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician could handily support six somms, a 40- to 50-page wine menu and a $3 million wine inventory that included 40,000 bottles and 2,500 different labels.

But when the recession hit in 2008, that oenophilic extravagance ground to a sobering halt. Wastrels were suddenly careful with their money. Restaurant dinner tickets dropped like rocks. Casual upscale dining became the new normal, and restaurants hired sommeliers who possessed the skillsets to wear other hats. More often than not, somms became general managers, and general managers became makeshift somms.

No one stopped buying wine – in fact, more people were drinking it than ever before. They had begun to venture beyond oaky Chardonnays and big California Cabs. They knew a bit more and needed hand-holding somms a bit less. The significant difference was that now they ordered wine by the glass – not the bottle – for the sake of frugality.

As far as Dave Johnson is concerned, that penchant for parsimony (and a certain provincialism) hasn’t gone away, though the economy has improved. “Everybody is looking for a $12-$15 glass of wine that’s fruit-forward, one-dimensional and safe,” he contends, an order that doesn’t require the advice of a sommelier.

Brent Karlicek, beverage director for Upward Projects, points out that craft beers and cocktails have also stolen wine’s spotlight, a phenomenon he calls “diversification of beverage interest.” If anything, he says, the role of the sommelier has grown to include the public’s new interests. Somms these days may oversee a restaurant’s entire beverage program, just as Karlicek himself and Regan Jasper (beverage director for Fox Restaurant Concepts) do.

Meanwhile, millennials have come of age, and they love high-quality booze of every description – inventive cocktails, craft beer and boutique wines. As Oscar Avila (sommelier at Atlas Bistro) notes, millennials are more likely to spring for an expensive wine than the Baby Boomers and more willing to try new things. However, instead of turning to Wine Spectator or critic Robert Parker for ratings and reviews, they trust their own palates. They look up wines on their phones and follow their favorite wineries and somms (internationally known Dustin Wilson and Dan Keeling, or Avila himself @sommmexoa) on Twitter and Instagram. Avila and Stephen Johnson say somms are the celebrity chefs for a new generation, the people whose work seems incredibly glamorous, though it seldom is.

The 2012 documentary film Somm, a modest nail-biter that followed four young men as they prepared for the Master Sommelier exam (a test with a 97 percent fail rate), is partly responsible for the resurgence of interest in the profession. Millennials not only admire sommeliers; they want to be them. According to Stephen Johnson, who is pursuing his own Master Sommelier certificate, more people are taking sommelier exams than ever before. Many are servers with aspirations – even if they never go past level one certification, they’ve made themselves valuable to employers who realize that wine is the highest producing income product in their restaurants.

All four experts agree that the role of the sommelier is expanding, not contracting; a well-rounded somm has become an industry expectation. Many have migrated to wineries and beverage distributors, while others run wine education programs or consult for several restaurants, putting together wine lists that often require more breadth than depth. They promote the enjoyment of wine, making it fun and approachable in a way that old-school somms seldom did. Avila and Stephen Johnson speculate that the job will come full circle and more somms will return to the floor, offering the kind of interaction that “adds value to the dining experience.”