Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history – and future – of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.
Sometime over the last decade and a half America redefined the role of sommelier, outdoing France – and England – to become the profession's most important steward. No longer was it a role reserved for men donning tastevins and bad attitudes. It's grown to become one of the restaurant's most important positions and with that a generation of sommeliers like Larry Stone and Daniel Johnnes–and on their heels, Robert Bohr, Rajat Parr, Bobby Stuckey, Cat Silirie and so on–were able to professionalize and inspire the diversification of the role beyond the wildest dreams of any aging Paris sommelier.
Naturally, as these sommeliers gained attention, the pool of younger sommeliers looking to follow in their footsteps broadened, and with that came a boom in sommelier certification programs that offered to train them. Many, like the Court of Master Sommeliers, grew up in the 1970s, but not until the 2000s did it, and many of the now dozens of certification organizations, begin to make an indelible mark on the industry.
Now, as yet another generation of new sommeliers comes up, it's high time to wonder just how important certification is and what sort of role it will play in the future. It's a question that's inspired plenty of debate in the wine world, so to help work things out we've asked four sommeliers, two certified and two not, to share their thoughts.
Michael Madrigale, Chef Sommelier, Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, New York
Over the past couple years Michael Madrigale has secured himself a spot amongst the country's top sommeliers and has turned Bar Boulud into one of New York's most beloved wine destinations. His newest program, at Boulud Sud takes a break from the classics of the northern Rhone and Burgundy to showcase the oft-ignored wines of the Languedoc, Rousillon, Provence and the further flung regions flanking the Mediterranean Sea.
Since I know you're a straight shooter let's get to the point: Is sommelier certification bullshit? No, definitely not. That's like saying college is bullshit or that your neighbors' religion is the wrong one. It depends on the person. Personally, I've never considered it, as I'm not a fan of learning–in essence–agriculture in a classroom setting.
You didn't go to through any formal training, but you're one of the country's top sommeliers. How did you learn the ropes?
I didn't go to class, I went to wine. The first time I tasted Burgundy my body became warm. It was magic and I remember feeling like I was let in on one of life's great secrets. I was 23 and soon quit my marketing job and starting working in wine. Everything in my life soon revolved around the pursuit of wine knowledge. Read tons of books, moved to France to make wine, traveled throughout Europe's great wine regions on a bicycle borrowed from a friend. It was the experience and putting the wines in context of the wine regions, winemakers, soils, etc that taught me how to be a sommelier.
What's that special quality that a sommelier must have that something like the certification process can't teach?
Passion and charm. At the end of the day we are in the service industry. Table 23 doesn't give a fuck that you list the wine regions of Moldova in alphabetical order. They just want a nice wine with their meal and don't want to be sneered at if they choose a carafe of Pinot Grigio or a Zima on the rocks. You have to attend to their interests first.
You've trained a lot of sommeliers, some of them came to you after going through formal training. Is there anything that you have to encourage them to learn or unlearn?
Not really. Somms with formal training actually have a good base of knowledge that help them work the floor with a general ease. I try to show them to have more fun on the floor with guests…and, most importantly I force them to unlearn the way to tie a double-windsor knot.
Region you're most excited about right now?
Just got back from Alsace last week. Incredible region. Very undervalued.