Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.  (1 Timothy 5:23 — St Paul’s advice to St Timothy)

Image of Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals

SpouseMouse gave me Secrets of the Sommeliers as a birthday gift.

It made perfect reading during Christmastide and is a book I shall refer to often.

That said, I have a few quibbles with the book by sommelier Rajat Parr and journalist Jordan Mackay.

However, the book, published in 2010, has several good points of reference, and it won the prestigious 2011 James Beard Award in the Beverage Category.

Parr’s transition from food to wine

Parr, who writes in the third person, tells us how he made the transition from food to wine, despite growing up in a teetotal household in India. His mother opposed his going to America to chef school, so he completed his culinary studies in his home country. Afterward, he fulfilled his dream of going to New York to study at The Culinary Institute of America.

A talented chef, he went on to work at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He later moved to San Francisco, where his career changed completely.

Parr never drank wine until his London-based uncle introduced him to a glass of Bordeaux at the age of 20. Once Parr moved to California and began working for Larry Stone at Rubicon, a restaurant, he began tasting more wines. Stone is a renowned sommelier who took Parr under his wing. Soon, Parr decided his future lay in wine rather than food.

Parr developed his palate and became a sommelier at The Fifth Floor, another famous San Francisco restaurant, and is now Wine Director for the Michael Mina Group of restaurants, a job he has held since 2003.

Palate development

Parr says everyone can develop his palate by tasting and smelling everything. Keeping a food diary of sensory notes helps.

Parr used his encyclopaedic knowledge of tastes and scents when he began tasting wine. He learned to identify grape varieties and vintages by referring to his vast culinary knowledge.

Sommeliers spend a lot of their spare time blind tasting, often with each other. They also attend scheduled wine tastings and winery tours. Parr’s palate is so sensitive that he can even identify wines and vintages with a head cold. One of these was a 1998 Volnay Premier Cru Burgundy. Jordan Mackay vouches for this in the comments on a book review which appeared at Vinography:

I can assure that the blind tasting feat of the Volnay actually occurred. I was there. And it is only one of many such feats I have witnessed. Raj’s is truly a remarkable palate.

Parr also keeps a wine diary, noting what he sees and tastes. He recommends that amateurs do this, too. If a wine is mediocre, just note the name and year and leave it at that.

Why sommeliers have a bad reputation

Parr writes that, until recently, the sommelier was generally the person passed over for the head chef’s position. They started out as chefs before making a forced transition to wine.

Not surprisingly, they became resentful and passed their bitterness onto the customer.

Parr explains that, in the old days, sommeliers were often related to the head chef and were tied to the family restaurant. They were working alongside the men — sometimes brothers or cousins — who then took over the kitchen. It was hard for them to accept that the head chef was seen to be better at cooking than they were.

Today, most sommeliers are good cooks who choose to pursue a career in wine. They have become more helpful in suggesting wines to the customer. A good sommelier will know food and wine pairings. His or her politeness and knowledge helps a restaurant make money.

The best sommeliers today are often on the same executive level as the head chef. Parr is one of them and is very much a part of opening new restaurants.

Today, wine is equal to the food on the menu in many prestigious American restaurants.

Another new development is that a few sommeliers are actually producing their own wines.

Grape and wine varieties

An early chapter in the book explores the various grape varieties as does the appendix.

These are chapters which I have reread and shall continue to do so.

We learn not only what to expect from grapes and wines but also about terroir — soil characteristics. Terroir really does affect the grape and final taste. Some will have a slight mineral taste. Others might taste chalky. Neither of these is bad, by the way.

It is also perfectly acceptable to use some eccentric descriptions such as pencil lead or leather when describing taste.

Food and wine pairing

When deciding on a wine for lunch or dinner, it is imperative to look at the seasonings or accompaniments.

Yes, you can have fish or chicken, but a mild sauce requires a gentler wine whereas a spicy preparation dictates a more robust wine which will complement it.

As for cheese and red wine, Parr and other oenologists agree that a white often goes better. Parr explains that our habit for pairing red wine with cheese is the result of having a bit left in the bottle after dinner. He suggests — and this is probably too expensive for most of us to try when dining out — buying a bottle of white wine to drink with the first course and return to with cheese. This might mean buying a second bottle — e.g. red — to drink with the main course.

Stunning photography

The photographs are beautiful. I’ll be revisiting those of the vineyards featured.

Too much Burgundy!

SpouseMouse’s and my expectations were that Parr would present an overview of world wine.

However, he focusses primarily on Burgundy.

As my interest lies more in Bordeaux, which Parr dismisses as lacking character, I am disappointed.

Near the end of the book, Parr admits he doesn’t like Bordeaux because he could not get any tours of the vineyards, only the wineries.

I’ll have to start dipping into our old wine atlas now to complete my education.

That said, Burgundy lovers will appreciate Secrets of the Sommeliers.

Too US-centric

Potential buyers of this book who do not live in the US or visit California very often will find this book disappointing.

I do not know the American sommeliers — his friends — featured in the book, which I had expected to look at sommeliers around the world and tell us more about their career development from country to country.

However, Parr tells us that sommeliers stick together and become close friends for life. Wine is their world. They also learn from each other and are eager to pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

Egotistical?

Some of the readers’ reviews on Amazon complain that Parr comes off as egotistical.

He has a highly enviable job considering that he is not, technically speaking, a Master Sommelier.

He is a specialist in a specialist vocation. The use of ‘vocation’ is important, because it’s more than a job; it’s doing something one loves.

Rajat Parr is a man who has come a long way from Calcutta. It’s not surprising that some of what he writes will sound a bit over the top at times.

In March 2014, he returned to his alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America, to deliver the commencement address:

He encouraged the 31 graduates to also follow their passion and stay inspired, even if a job they’ve been given is monotonous.

“Remember you’re going somewhere, so don’t stop learning,” Parr advised the recipients of associate in occupational studies (AOS) degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts. “Even if it’s a mindless job, you have to keep on learning. That’s very important.”

Parr shared a story of working as an intern for a winery and being assigned to box wine bottles. He used the opportunity to post notes with wine terms and study while he worked. Today, Parr owns two California wineries and serves as wine director for Michael Mina Group’s 20 restaurants.

Conclusion

If you live in the US, like Burgundy and visit California wineries and restaurants frequently, this is the book for you.

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