An Interview with The HoseMaster of Wine ™
-Juvenal, 1st Century Rome
When I see a social media link to a new post from the HoseMaster of Wine—the alter ego of former sommelier Ron Washam—I always click. That's more than I can say for most wine blogs. My feelings on his writing are complicated: sometimes I think it merely fuels the fire of the disgruntled, but I also know it fills a critical void. As a profession, we have to be able to reflect on ourselves, admit our imperfections, and see our jobs in a comprehensive context.
Recently, I've personally been a target—ego bruised, hair complimented—but I keep coming back for more of his wit. We thought it would be entertaining and enlightening to interview Señor Hose and pose the question “whither the sommelier?”
-Geoff Kruth, MS
My favorite German filmmaker once said, "Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creatures in the world." Is this how you feel about sommeliers?
No, that's not how I feel about sommeliers. However, it is how I feel about German filmmakers. Who else would look a chicken in the eye and expect to see intelligence? You must be talking about the legendary auteur Kolonel Harlan Sanders. Not my favorite German director, though I did like his wonderful film Das Bucket.
I'm a recovering sommelier. We're always the severest critics. To be truthful, I can't remember the last time I ran into a sommelier in a restaurant. That might be because I use the drive-thru window and the sommelier only asks, "Do you want fries with that?" My first impression of a sommelier isn't in their eyes, or their person at all; it's the impression I get from their wine list. Even before a sommelier approaches the table, their wine list makes an impression on me. I might glance through a wine list and already hate the sommelier. On more than one occasion in recent years, I've opened a wine list in a trendy restaurant and been a bit stumped. A lot of choices, but on the entire list, I may recognize about half the wines. I cannot imagine how a customer with less knowledge about wine than I, if such a person exists, feels reading an obscure wine list like that. Except intimidated. Which is not normally why a human goes to a restaurant. That's why you go to church.
I do think that the wine list itself, how it's presented, what it says about the sommelier and the restaurant, how the wines are listed, how it makes the average guest feel when he thumbs through it, is an overlooked but important part of the job. A well-chosen wine list isn't about the sommelier exclusively; it's about the diner's experience as well. I don't want to read the menu and have no idea what the food is. Who likes to ask for a translation of the food? It makes you feel like the Republican nominee, an idiot. I don't want to feel that way about the wine list either. Sure, have wines that you love on the list regardless of whether they're familiar to people, but try to see the list as welcoming to the guest, too, and provide for that.
Did I answer the question? No. Sommeliers are not “the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creatures in the world." Wine writers are.
-Ron Washam, HMW
I think your point on the wine list as a welcoming feature to a restaurant is really important. We've all seen wine lists that look like they’re meant to impress other sommeliers and not the clientele. Pushing customers a bit out of their comfort zone is not inherently a bad thing, but it’s a balance. On the other hand, we don’t want restaurants just selling chicken fingers and pepperoni pizza; exploration is part of the dining experience.
I've always felt that education is key to this. Granted, a little bit of education or a shiny new pin often makes people dangerous—but a broad understanding of the wine world gives you perspective. It seems like you’ve been extremely critical of formal education. Could you expand on your thoughts here?
I once received a particularly unpleasant letter (and I've received many unpleasant letters) from a guy lashing out at me for making fun of all the various wine degrees. I don't mind hate mail; it's part of the territory. When I Googled this particular moron, he had more letters after his name than there were letters in his actual last name. I think it was eleven letters attached to his surname signifying his various "accomplishments" in wine. It was self-parody. Long ago, I attached "HMW" to my name as part of my comic persona. I confess, however, that there's something satisfying about having letters after your name. It sets you apart, like having a forked tongue or a third nipple. So, yeah, I kind of see MSs and MWs a bit like that.
I certainly do not have any objection to formal education. What I object to is the glorification and misrepresentation of that formal education. If one were to list, in order of importance to humanity, all the occupations and avocations in the world, sommelier would not be in the top 500. It's a glorious job, and I loved every minute of it. So study it all you like, pass all the formal exams and tests, blind taste until you can spot a Xinomavro across a crowded refugee camp, get your lapel pin like you did when you became a Webelos, but at least have the proper perspective on your so-called achievement. How many other professions, the 499 listed before sommelier, professions that require lots and lots of formal education, are there that post letters after their names? Doctors, nurses, dentists, sequels to "Rocky"...and WSET, and CSW, and CWE, and MS, and MW. Call it what you like, but it's hubris, plain and simple. Study wine, study its history and meaning, polish your hospitality skills, enjoy the unbelievable fun the job can be, but, for God's sake, do not succumb to the temptation to think you're someone extraordinary because you know a lot about wine. I assure you, you are not. I hold myself to the same standard.
I do not care in the slightest that my sommelier is an MS or an MW. Now, thanks to the kind of ludicrous publicity that a film like SOMM has given to the profession (in my mind, that film is almost a Christopher Guest parody—I kept expecting Fred Willard to appear instead of Fred Dame) (Oh, I forgot. Fred Dame, MS), when I mention to people I was a sommelier for 19 years they almost always ask me, "What level?" I usually respond, "I parked on the third level most of the time." They want to know how hard it is to "pass the test." Really hard, I tell them, especially the evening gown competition. I want my heart surgeon to have an MD, but all I want when I go out to dinner is a great, interesting, well-chosen bottle of wine with my dinner. One does not need a formal education to do that. Ask Raj Parr. He's no longer in pursuit of balance, I hear, which explains why he falls down so much.
-Ron Washam, HMW
Defining a Great Sommelier
From your perspective, what qualities make for a great sommelier—and conversely, a bad sommelier?
"What qualities make a great sommelier?" is more a question you should answer, Geoff. But I'll give it a shot. First of all, it's a service position. It's far more about hospitality than it is about wine knowledge. You can teach just about anyone wine knowledge, but hospitality is a much harder talent to teach. Beyond that, the sommelier is a part of the restaurant team. A "great" sommelier, however you define that, is, on his own, as worthless as a great pitcher out there alone on the mound. I suspect if you surveyed restaurant patrons as to whether they'd rather have a great chef, a great waiter, or a great sommelier, sommelier would come in fourth. So a great sommelier has to have more to offer than just wine knowledge and the ability to open a bottle of wine. Above all, a sommelier has to learn to listen. I think that's a trait that is uncommon among sommeliers, and not just when they're at work. In my experience, they like to preach more than Judge Judy having a hot flash. Listening is also about the suspension of judgment, and understanding that your first and only responsibility is to make the customer's experience richer. Educating them is an option only when they want to be educated. Save the preaching for when you judge wine competitions. Other judges are imbeciles.
And let's not forget integrity. Too often a restaurant wants to unload wines as wine by the glass, or as part of a wine and food pairing, simply because they aren't selling. You don't have to go to that many restaurants to sniff out this kind of behavior. Granted, it may be under duress from ownership. But you can't, on the one hand, claim to be featuring great wines by the glass when you're, on the other hand, actually dumping slow-moving wines, or putting wines on the list to pour because you think the salesperson is cute. Or because the wine region sent you on an expensive junket. Or because they have a cool guest house you can crash the next time you're in Napa. There's way too much of that pay for play in the wine business. A sommelier needs to have authority and integrity. I borrowed mine.
I've said many times that there are no great palates for wine. There are only experienced palates. People who have more taste buds per square tongue, so-called Super Tasters, hate wine. Wine, to them, is far too bitter and nasty to enjoy. Consequently, the people we look up to as having great palates really only have experienced palates. A sommelier comes to my table and she's only about 28, I tend to take her advice with a large grain of sulfites. Though I believe she knows her own list, that's not to say she has a great palate. I understand that, but she needs to also. So let's add humility to the list. After all, the one thing everyone who has ever learned about wine eventually understands is that wine outclasses us. It humbles our meager human ability to smell and taste. It befuddles our miserable vocabulary when we attempt to describe it. We may be a little better than the average person at understanding and describing wine, but deep down we know we're vastly under-equipped to do wine justice. So be humble. You passed a hard test and learned a party trick. Get over it. Feel honored to have wine as a passion, not entitled.
A lousy sommelier is one who fails on several of the above counts.
-Ron Washam, HMW
The Role of Satire
I don’t disagree in general, but I do take issue with viewing blind tasting as a party trick—assuming that’s what you are referring to. The point of blind tasting is not to impress people but to accurately identify dozens of objective factors that are common in wine so that you have a better understanding of what you are describing and selling, instead of relying on superlatives. If my car salesman can’t tell the difference between a Honda and VW, I’d opt for a new car salesman.
Moving on… I think humor and self-deprecation are really key in our field, and you are one of the few people filling that gap. Like you said, we should keep our profession in perspective. Sometimes, I feel your writing goes beyond this and seems an expression of personal bitterness above satire. Is this a fair critique?
I was certainly being glib when I refer to blind tasting as a party trick. Almost everyone I know learned about wine by tasting wines blind and trying to guess as much about the wine as you could. I think that's a very useful tool. Vision is our most powerful sense, and we automatically defer to it, whether we're conscious of doing so or not. Taking sight out of the equation—that is, eliminating the visual clues a label provides—forces us to use our other senses in order to make sense of a wine. Above all, and I think this might be its most important contribution to a budding wine expert, it's incredibly humbling.
"Personal bitterness" is an interesting phrase, Geoff. I wonder what you think I might have to be bitter about. Perhaps you think I wish I were Robert Parker, or Matt Kramer, or Fred Dame, MS? I might wish I had the talent of Hugh Johnson, but that's not bitterness, that's envy. I have no negligible bitterness when it comes to my wine career. But I write wine satire, which, as you say, is precariously rare in such a pretentious and ultimately trivial business. Satire does not allow for nuance. Satire stakes a position of cynicism, or truth-telling, from a very exaggerated position in order to reveal folly, foible, and hubris. It cannot be about bitterness because readers sense that and then don't laugh as much or hear what you're saying as clearly. Nor can it be simple bullying, because people are usually repulsed by that. The first rule is, it has to be funny. Comedy is about anger, always has been. Laughter is a way of blowing off steam that doesn't involve an assault rifle. In that way, satire is cleansing. Laughter has always been the best medicine, aside from NyQuil, which makes a mean Grasshopper. Aside from that, the HoseMaster is a character I write. I am not the HoseMaster, praise the Lord. I'm just a guy who writes for the creative outlet it provides. I would do it if no one read it. Indeed, I did that for decades. That I've attracted any sort of minuscule audience is bewildering. Truly, I'm just having fun hurling brickbats at the pretenders, the pompous, and the pious, and they are legion in the wine business. Really, what could be more fun? To your question, though, any critique of what I do is fair. There are many who are offended by what I write. Or who find me bitter. Maybe one should read what I write blind, and judge me that way. However, I'm glad you find what I do "key." Though that's not why I do it.
-Ron Washam, HMW
The Future of the Sommelier
I'd be curious to get your take on the future of the sommelier, but I guess we should first both define what we mean by the term. To me, a sommelier is a professional with training and experience in the sales and service of wine. Whether you saunter around a fifteen-table dining room selling Côte Rôtie, manage a retail store, or sell wine by twelves instead of ones is irrelevant. Most restaurants don't—nor am I convinced a majority should—have a person solely dedicated to wine service.
It seems from reading your articles that your opinion is that the sommelier is a peaking trend with a nigh apocalypse; I feel it is a career beginning to establish itself. It has growing pains—and requires a leisure class to indulge in double- or triple-digit bottles of fermented grape juice—but I see it growing and maturing. How do you see the future?
As to the future of sommeliers, well, I think the word "sommelier" itself, with its air of superiority and snobbishness, is part of the problem. And when people write about sommeliers, or interview sommeliers, almost every time it's a person working in a restaurant, not someone working for Constellation. Will "sommelier" evolve into meaning simply someone whose life revolves around wine? Maybe. But that feels a long way off. Poll a thousand folks about the word "sommelier" and what one does, and restaurant, I'd venture to guess, will appear almost every time.
As a profession, it has to mature or the growing number of young people pursuing it as a vocation will find very little work. In that regard, image is the key. I fought the stereotype of a sommelier my entire career. When customers liked me, they'd flatter me by telling me I wasn't like other sommeliers. Whatever that means. For the most part, they only knew one or two. But is shows that sommeliers spend far too much time espousing their skills and wisdom about wine, and not enough time spreading the gospel of wine. Too much time announcing their credentials, and not enough time asking other people what they thought about wine, how wine fit into their lives, or their budgets. Far too much time spewing marketing truths about wine instead of speaking the simple truths about wine—its history, its resonance with the human spirit, its simple joys, not the least of which is altering our state of consciousness. Who really cares if you can tell an Hermitage from a Cornas? People sense wisdom and passion. They don't care so much about wine babble or elitism. One always teaches by example. Humility is always a great example in any profession. As are listening and caring.
The more people who learn the history and tradition and pleasures of wine, the better. If you can make a living at it, more power to us. Wine reflects society. It always has. We live in that fractured world now between the crazy wealthy, and the rest of us. Wine prices are out of balance because our culture is out of balance. When that changes, and it must, so will the profession of sommelier. Those who will succeed are those who learn about wine, and then forge their own paths. I don't think it's ever been easy. Or in huge demand. And yet it endures. I don't see why that will change.
-Ron Washam, HMW