A Sommelier an Outsider Living on the Inside
Growing up, I never in a million years thought that I would be a sommelier. I don’t know if there are any 10 or 11-year-old boys or girls that dream about being a sommelier. In fact I don’t know if there are any kids that know that the job even exists. So how did I ever get here? To me, wine always seemed as something for the rich and élite. Now here I am, writing about wine, teaching and recommending wines to people with a higher income than myself. What I am going to state is merely a personal observation of myself and some other sommeliers I know. In no way do I want to generalize and assume that all sommliers feel the same way.
Growing up I had always felt like an outsider looking in. Although I was born in San Diego, my parents raised me in a small town in Mexico; Jerez, Zacatecas. My father was building a hotel when I was born and we lived in the partly built building. Times were tough. We did not have doors nor windows, electricity was sparse and showers meant bathing in the river next to the hotel. When my father’s business plan took a turn for the worse, my mother decided to bring us back to the US to live with her mom and start school. We arrived to downtown San Diego and lived in a 1 bedroom apartment with a shared bathroom by the entire floor.
I started school and I immediately realized that I was different. All the kids spoke English and many of them had blonde hair and blue eyes. Although I am fair-skinned and visually easily fit in, I was still an outsider. My family was very religious and we kept to ourselves. I remember not understanding the conversations the other kids were having. It was not so much the language, but it was the concepts. They spoke about TV shows, cartoons and sports. At that time we did not have a TV, I did not watch cartoons and did not play sports yet. I knew that I was an outsider, but I insisted on fitting in. I soon found ways to connect with other kids. I made up stories and created a false reality which I shared with my classmates. So much, that one day the teacher told my mother that I was a liar. I guess she did not understand creativity.
The reason I mention my first few years of school is because it was something I would have to revisit the rest of my life. I immediately learned to adapt to the new culture, my peers and surroundings. I started by insisting that we only speak English at home, something I regret to this day. After high school I realized that I enjoyed being an outsider. So I decided to travel. I really enjoyed being on the outside and looking in. In order to support my travel habits, I worked in restaurants. It only made sense. I would work 9 months, save money and travel for 3. The whole time I treated it as part of my education, getting to know the world. The funny thing was that my true education was during those months that I worked. While working as a server, I learned and took a great interest in wine. All of a sudden, the traveling became less frequent and I immersed myself in wine. One thing led to another, and here I am today.
The other day I was reflecting on my job and looking back at how I got here. That little boy eating adobe from the walls of the rundown hotel in Mexico is now recommending which Grand Cru Burgundy Mr. Smith should drink with his Colorado lamb rack. It was like, “what am I doing here?” 15 years ago, while I was beginning to learn about wine, I thought it was so foreign and I felt overwhelmed by the subject. I would serve guests and recommend wines, but not really know what it was like to truly understand wine. Again, I felt like an outsider looking in. True to my nature, I continued to perceiver. I studied, I tasted and learned all I could about wine. All of a sudden, I am teaching waiters about wine. Then I am giving wine seminars to the public. Guests are coming into the restaurant and seeking me out to help them pick their wines for dinner and other special occasions. At my wine sales, people spend thousands of dollars in one day purchasing bottles that I recommend. Not until I sit down and think about it does it seem strange.
The sommelier is a professional who people trust will guide them in making wise decisions. Most people assume that the sommeiler has an extensive cellar and only drinks the top wines of the world. I guess that is the image sommeliers like to portray. Speaking for myself, that is so far from the truth. Yes, I do get to taste great wines. But it is rare that I own them. These wines are outside of my budget. The best part about being a sommelier is coming across many different types of wine and finding those great buys that fit within my budget. Although I do have clients who want to spend money on expensive wines and seek my advice, I most treasure when I recommend a delicious inexpensive wine to a regular Joe.
Today, I no longer feel like an outsider looking in. Instead I feel like an outsider living on the inside. I know wine. I love wine. I can’t afford wine. So I stay the outsider, but I fit right in. I bet there are many other sommeliers out there that feel the same way. They love wine, but unless they get a sample from a vendor, they are limited by their budget. I have about three cases of wine in my cellar, these wines I do not touch. Esoteric value driven wines is what I drink day-to-day. If ever interested in hearing some suggestions, drop me a line. I would be happy to open the door to my wine world. Which is a world where I am comfortable to be an outsider living on the inside with a delicious cheap bottle of wine.
Maurice, I found this to be one of your most wonderful and personal writings my friend.
I feel we all know something important about you, as well as your knowledge of wine. I
appreciate your sharing.
Thanks Michael. I never knew it was going to be so personal until I finished writing it. I almost did not post it. But I am sure there are many others out there that can identify. Cheers!
I’ve skimmed your blog for a few months (especially your A-Z series) but your latest entry truly jumped out at me. I want to share a little about the status of -my- current love affair with wine and see if any my opinion resonates with you.
I live in Chicago and have been very blessed to survive this present recession with my current job intact. I have worked for the city almost nine years now and am extremely grateful for this job and the fact that I work with mostly very cool people.
But l do have Plan B dreams. They involve, you guessed it, the lovely wine beverage. I have started to network online (Facebook and LinkedIn are great for that) and have met many cool industry folks, and even interviewed a few for my blog.
I’ll get to my point now. I -do- think there is this “Wine Talaban” out there that wants to keep wine as this cloistered luxury product and subtly works through the media and organizations like the Court of Master Sommeliers to keep it that way. I don’t want to get all Oliver Stone on you, but if enough articles like “$20 Wines that taste like $100” get written, the people who make their living off selling those hundred dollar bottles are going to take action.
One thing you wrote in your blog made me a little sad:
“Speaking for myself, that is so far from the truth. Yes, I do get to taste great wines. But it is rare that I own them. These wines are outside of my budget.”
How do you really feel about that, philosophically?
Does it disturb you at all that so much of the infrastructure of this industry is targeted towards the one percent and the ninety-nine percent is either ignored or pitched really kitschy product that really won’t educate them or inspire them to broaden their palate?
Or am I over-interpreting what you’ve written, and if my DNA is more interested in winning over the “swing drinkers” as opposed to the “base drinkers” (a little political lingo for you), then I can still find a role in the wine world that would incorporate my values.
Would love to get your thoughts!
Nice to hear from you. I love reading your questions on #sommchat. You always have something to ask. And this is no different.
Thank you for following my silly writings about wine. Yes this piece was a bit serious, especially for the guy who writes love letters to Grenache. I didn’t think it was going to be so serious until I had finished it. I guess I just wanted to get it out of me. I am not sure if I really meant anything other than laughing at the irony of it all. Most my life I always felt as an outsider, but now with wine, I feel like I am in the inside. I remain an outsider in that I cannot afford everything I’d like to, but that really doesn’t bother me. In all actuality it doesn’t bother me in the least. When I taste a special bottle I appreciate it more than the person who can afford to drink it everyday.
Yes I remain the outsider, but living on the inside is actually pretty rewarding because I am not subject to the media and the “Wine Talaban” you speak of, because I make the decisions. I get to bring in what I believe will work best for the restaurant. Wineries, importers and distributors approach me in hopes of showcasing their wines. I get to sift through a lot of wine, some expensive and some great values. I don’t need to own a 1st growth to have an experience, just tasting them once in a while is perfect for me. The rest of the time I get to enjoy esoteric, high acid deliciously made wines at a great price.
Much of the industry that is geared for the 1% is really the big cult Napa cabs that all taste the same. I don’t really mind that. Let them spend their money, blow out their palates and increase their egos. No sweat of my back. What is more frustrating is the swill that is pushed on the other 99%. Homogenized wines that lack balance, subtlety and elegance. This is where I see people as yourself and myself to be an important part of the industry. Teach people how to understand wine. We should remember never to loose sight of people’s personal preferences. But it is up to us to help guide them in having a preference.
I hope I sort of answered your question. I guess what we can do is jump right into the inside, turn it inside out and expose it for the 99%! Wine is not black and white, but shades of golds and reds. Wine is not a damper at the party, but what gets you dancing. Wine should not be taken seriously, after all great winemakers never did, or else they would never of created some of the great blends we’re blessed with today. Let the 1% swirl their prized juice and show off their collections of wines sitting their temperature controlled fridges. We will take it lightly, enjoy it for what it is and have fun talking about it and most importantly drink everything that comes our way.
Maurice my friend, this was a real pleasure to read. It’s very special to be able to share with you the personal experiences that brought you to where you are now. So many people have followed circuitous routes to get to wine, and everybody’s story is unique. Thank you for sharing yours with us.