The Miami Herald

Daze of wine and noses

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, January 6, 1985)

I have never gotten into wine. I'm a beer man. What I like about beer is, you basically just drink it, then you order another one. You don't sniff at it, or hold it up to the light and slosh it around, and above all you don't drone on and on about it, the way people do with wine. Your beer drinker tends to be a straightforward, decent, friendly, down-to-earth person who enjoys talking about the importance of relief pitching, whereas your serious wine fancier tends to be an insufferable snot.

I realize I am generalizing here, but, as is often the case when I generalize, I don't care.

"Nevertheless, I decided recently to try to learn more about the wine community. Specifically, I engaged the services of a rental tuxedo and attended the Grand Finale of the First Annual French Wine Sommelier Contest in America, which was held at the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. For the benefit of those of you with plastic slipcovers, I should explain that a "sommelier" is a wine steward, the dignified person who comes up to you at expensive restaurants, hands you the wine list, and says "excellent choice, sir" when you point to French writing that, translated, says "Sales Tax Included."

Several hundred wine-oriented people were on hand for the sommelier competition. First we mingled and drank champagne, then we sat down to eat dinner and watch the competition. I found it immensely entertaining, especially after the champagne, because for one thing many of the speakers were actual French persons who spoke with comical accents which I suspect they practiced in their hotel rooms ("Zees epeetomizes zee hrole av zee sommelier sroo-out eestory..." etc.) Also we in the audience got to drink just gallons of wine. At least I did. My policy with wine is very similar to my policy with beer, which is I just pretty much drink it and look around for more. The people at my table, on the other hand, leaned more toward the slosh- and-sniff approach, where you don't so much drink the wine as you frown and then make a thoughtful remark about it such as you might make about a job applicant ("I find it ambitious, but somewhat strident." Or: "It's lucid, yes, but almost Episcopalian in its predictability.") As it happened, I was sitting next to a French person named Mary, and I asked her if people in France carry on this way about wine. "No, " she said, "they just drink it. They're more used to it."

There were 12 sommeliers from around the country in the contest; they got there by winning regional competitions, and earlier in the day they had taken a written exam with questions like: "Which of the following appelations belong in the Savoie region? (a) Crepy; (b) Seyssel; (c) Arbois; (d) Etoile; (e) Ripple." (I'm just kidding about the Ripple, of course. The Savoie region would not use Ripple as an insecticide.)

The first event of the evening competition was a blind tasting, where the sommeliers had to identify a mystery wine. We in the audience got to try it, too. It was a wine that I would describe as yellow in color, and everybody at my table agreed it was awful. "Much too woody, " said one person. "Heavily oxidized, " said another. "Bat urine, " I offered. The others felt this was a tad harsh. I was the only one who finished my glass.

Next we got a non-mystery wine, red in color, with a French name, and I thought it was swell, gulped it right down, but one of the wine writers at my table got upset because it was a 1979, and the program said we were supposed to get a 1978. If you can imagine. So we got some 1978, and it was swell, too. "They're both credible, " said the wine writer, "but there's a great difference in character." I was the only one who laughed, although I think Mary sort of wanted to.

The highlight of the evening was the Harmony of Wine and Food event, where the sommelier contestants were given a menu where the actual nature of the food was disguised via French words ("Crochets sur le Pont en Voiture, " etc.), and they had to select a wine for each of the five courses. This is where a sommelier has to be really good, because if he is going to talk an actual paying customer into spending as much money on wine for one meal as it would cost to purchase a half-dozen state legislators for a year, he has to say something more than, "A lotta people like this here chardonnay."

Well, these sommeliers were good. They were into the Harmony of Wine and Food, and they expressed firm views. They would say things like: "I felt the (name of French wine) would have the richness to deal with the foie gras, " or "My feeling about Roquefort is that..." I thought it was fabulous entertainment, and at least two people at my table asked how I came to be invited.

Anyway, as the Harmony event dragged on, a major issue developed concerning the salad. The salad was Lamb's Lettuce with -- you are going to be shocked when I tell you this -- Walnut Vinaigrette. A lot of people in the audience felt that this was a major screw-up, or "gaffe, " on the part of the contest organizers, because of course vinaigrette is just going to fight any wine you try to marry it with. "I strongly disagree with the salad dressing, " is how one wine writer at my table put it, and I could tell she meant it.

So the contestants were all really battling the vinaigrette problem, and you could just feel a current of unrest in the room. Things finally came to a head, or "tete, " when contestant Mark Hightower came right out and said that if the rules hadn't prevented him, he wouldn't have chosen any wine at all with the salad. "Ideally, " he said, "I would have liked to have done just an Evian mineral water." Well, the room just erupted in spontaneous applause, very similar to what you hear at Democratic Party dinners when somebody mentions the Poor.

Anyway, the winning sommelier, who gets a trip to Paris, was Joshua Wesson, who works at a restaurant named Huberts in New York. I knew he'd win, because he began his Harmony of Wine and Food presentation by saying: "Whenever I see oysters on a menu, I am reminded of a quote..." Nobody's ever going to try buying a moderately priced wine from a man who is reminded of a quote by oysters.

It turns out, however, that Wesson is actually an OK guy who just happens to have a God-given ability to lay it on with a trowel and get along with French people. I talked to him briefly afterwards, and he didn't seem to take himself too seriously at all. I realize many people think I make things up, so let me assure you ahead of time that this is the actual, complete transcript of the interview:

ME: So. What do you think?

WESSON: I feel good. My arm felt good, my curve ball was popping. I felt I could help the ball team.

ME: What about the vinaigrette?

WESSON: It was definitely the turning point. One can look at vinagrette from many angles. It's like electricity.

I swear that's what he said, and furthermore at the time it made a lot of sense.

© Dave Barry
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