The End of the Somnambulist Sommelier:

Written by Al Drinkle

A challenge, to Calgary’s wine directors, servers, merchants and consumers

The lunatics have taken over the asylum!!! And not the right lunatics!!! Not the ones who spend the vast majority of their waking hours (forfeiting the vast majority of potential sleeping hours) contemplating the convoluted, multi-faceted and exciting discipline that is wine, but the ones who, knowingly or otherwise, want to reduce wine to just another commercial product – a one-dimensional product that we engage with indifferently in the same way that we might ketchup, lip balm or snow shovels!!! Something needs to be done!!

I see a wine market brimming with vinous pleasures. We have access to wines brought to fruition by creative, self-sacrificing stewards of unique parcels of earth, wines with stories of precarious climates, faraway lands and the passionate weirdos that tend them. Wines free of makeup, free of technological wizardry and free of the stamp of heartless industrialization.  These wines can enhance our meals, stimulate our imaginations and add vitality to our very lives if we let them. They are distinctive, sometimes quirky, sometimes sublime, sometimes charmingly modest, but are not just important so that a small number of wine snobs can plunge deeper into the depths of elitism; they are important because they are fucking delicious and uniquely so! We need both Chinon and Teroldego in a different way than we need both Coke and Pepsi! If I try to sell you Prieto Picudo or Scheurebe at Metrovino I’m not being an esoteric jerk, I just think that, even if you don’t know it yet, you’re probably ready to move on from Malbec and Pinot Grigio and that you’ll find delight in these alternatives that you were contentedly oblivious to mere moments ago.

I see way too many wine lists made by people who are infatuated with wine but are for some reason sheepish about harnessing their enthusiasm in a proactive way. (Wine lists made by people who don’t care about wine is a completely different issue). Instead of allowing their lunacy for great and unique wine to inspire their clients and guests, they allow the closed-minded, tunnel-vision asininity of their most conservative patrons to pollute their own wine lists.

You might assert that one must strike a balance between pleasing one’s customers and promoting wines that one loves; my riposte… Why not do both? There’s lots of wine knowledge in town, but not a lot of confidence. I urge you to love the crazy wines that you love and do so proudly and confidently, then recommend them confidently because you know they’re going to be great with what your guests are eating. Such enthusiasm is infectious! What’s the point of working so hard on your Sommelier Diploma or paying all that money for your wine pilgrimage to Galicia just to spend your evenings pulling corks on bottles of vapid bullshit that somebody who knows nothing about wine thinks they’re supposed to be drinking? 

Of course, wine is a subjective and personal enterprise. Because of this, telling somebody that they shouldn’t be washing their oysters down with Amarone is not quite the same as a mechanic suggesting that somebody not fill their diesel-burning engine with unleaded fuel. Or is it? I admit that right and wrong in the wine world is an exercise in grey areas but I think that there is a distinction between making sound recommendations and simply being a pest and again, it comes down to confidence and the tactful and diplomatic dissemination of suggestions.

Wine professionals are there to help with consumer’s wine choices and if a guest or customer flat-out refuses this service (which in a restaurant or shop with educated staff will not cost any more or less than the wine itself), that’s up to them, but my experience is that such clients are the minority. From colleagues in the restaurant industry in particular, for this is where one witnesses the consumption of newly sold wine, I often hear complaints about how difficult and set in their ways Calgarians are in general and how fascinating but obscure wine-styles are totally lost on this breed of supposedly self-righteous diner.

I usually abstain from pointing out that I’m a Calgarian myself, opting instead to suggest that my interlocutor harden up and do their job. If you know that a Barossa Valley Shiraz is going to taste like shit with seafood, then don’t offer a Barossa Valley Shiraz by the glass at your seafood restaurant!! That’s step one!! Don’t let the wrong kind of lunatic run your wine list!

In many ways, Chefs have an easier time pursuing ideologies than sommeliers, wine directors and merchants, mostly based on the fundamental predilections of customers. Perhaps there aren’t quite as many open-minded diners as most chefs would wish, but it’s still absurd to think of somebody going to a French-style bistro and getting upset that there isn’t any spaghetti or futomaki on the menu. Why then, should the administrator of the same establishment’s wine list worry that somebody might complain if there’s no Napa Valley Cabernet available to them? 

“I can’t believe that I couldn’t get a glass of Pinot Grigio at Chez Ta Bouche. The waitress tried to convince me to drink Muscadet! Can you believe it? Naturally I informed her that I don’t drink sweet wine...” 

“Appalling! The wife and I were at Chez Ta Bouche last week before the Flames game and not a single East Indian curry to be found on the menu! How scandalous!”

The first statement is just as ridiculous as the second and only the lack of conviction on the part of wine professionals would have you believe otherwise. We have no Chilean wine at Metrovino and we’re not looking for any. When customers question this, I inform them that we have nothing against Chilean wine but that we’re very Eurocentric and instead of having a paltry and incomprehensive Chilean selection, we choose to leave the category to other shops and make sure that we’re doing a great job with regions that are closer to our hearts.

This is not an earth-shattering stance, in fact it makes perfect sense to me, so why pander to those who want every wine list and every retail selection to be predictably “accommodating” according to the word’s most bovine application to wine? I’m not saying that all French-style restaurants should offer exclusively recondite French wines, or that all wine shops should choose a South American wine-producing country to ignore - only that decisions in these regards should be made fearlessly and that if the wine director of a Zimbabwean-themed restaurant wanted to restrict their list to wines that started with the letter “V,” then by all means they should do it and I’m sure that the right kind of lunatic could make it work.

Finally, to the challenge proposed in the alternative title of this increasingly verbose diatribe… I challenge you (and myself!!!), Calgary’s sommeliers, wine directors, servers and merchants, from the academic to the eccentric, from the neophyte to the doyen, to embrace your inner lunatic by confidently making the most out of the exceptional wine selection that we have in Alberta to take yourselves, your colleagues, your customers and guests on vinous adventures with the wines you believe in, especially the excitingly arcane and the unjustly obscure – not to be an esoteric jerk, but to make everybody’s lives more vibrant.

Some of you are doing an excellent job already and I emphatically commend you. And I challenge Calgary’s wine-drinking and restaurant-frequenting public to embrace this adventure, to leave behind your predispositions and help to stimulate and kindle what can be the most exciting wine scene in Canada.