Nothing makes me feel like more of an idiot than a conversation with a sommelier. In my work I sometimes get to chat with astronomers, and even when they talk about things like dark matter and the expanding universe, I feel more in my element than when someone is patronisingly guiding me through a wine list.
You’ve no doubt spoken to one if you’ve ever visited a restaurant that’s either genuinely fancy or has tickets on itself – sommeliers are those waiters who’ve done some kind of TAFE course in wine who turn up to your table and make you feel inadequate.
Their job has no English word – the wine-snob industry prefers just to use the French term, which I would argue speaks volumes about their profession.
Oh, look, I appreciate expert sommerlierage sometimes – when you get a good one, they sometimes recommend spectacular wines that prove a memorable addition to the meal. The problem is, in many respects, mine, because I know practically nothing about wine.
To prove it, here is the Official And Comprehensive Dom Knight Guide to Wine.
White: often tastes sour and a bit dodgy. Chardonnay’s a bit of a cliché and tastes dubious, especially when cheap. Don’t much like it. When I drink a few glasses on a hot day, I often feel a bit queasy.
Red: Usually prefer it, unless it’s one of those vinegary ones. Don’t really go for the overpowering ones, and I think that includes cabernet sauvignon. Merlot got a bad rap in Sideways. I quite like Côtes du Rhône , whatever that is.
Champagne: Broad yes, unless it’s too yeasty. It’s possible that what I mean by “too yeasty” is dry.
Regions: Generally prefer European reds to Australian because my palate isn’t that sophisticated, so I don’t like “bold” or “powerful” terribly much.
Palate, nose, fruit, breathing, decanting, cellaring: No idea.
The really sad thing is that I did once go to the Wine Society and take an introductory wine appreciation course, but I can’t remember anything about it except what corked wine tastes like – “yuk” is the easiest way to describe it. Frankly, if you can’t tell whether or not a wine is corked, your taste buds aren’t functioning correctly.
I had visions of being a bit of a wine connoisseur, of being the kind of guy that other people willingly hand the list to at restaurants, knowing they’ll be in expert hands. I’d pore through the menu, tut-tutting here and there and nodding appreciatively in other places, before ordering a bottle that was thoroughly excellent and yet surprisingly good value.
But I ultimately found myself conceding two things. Firstly, it was too much hard work. There are so many different varieties, and regions – it would take me years to get to a level of basic competence.
Plus, Australians are into wine. The chances of me being the most expert oenophile (a word that wine buffs use for wine buffs, because “buff” is kind of a silly word outside of the gym context) at any social gathering are fairly slim without considerable effort.
And here’s the second issue, the thing that feels difficult to admit – I don’t like wine that much.
I do like champagne, and certain reds (I’ve no idea which kind, I’m afraid), especially with a good meal. If there are glasses of wine sitting on a table, I’ll generally take one, usually the red. But if you told me I could never drink it again, I’d be absolutely fine with that.
After years of feeling inadequate whenever anyone hands me a wine list, I made the decision to move straight past wine and onto spirits. I started with gin and vodka, which are fairly straightforward and are often served with fizzy mixers, which I enjoy. And then I’ve recently cultivated a taste for whisky.
There are only about half a dozen different broad types of whisky/whiskey, as far as I can tell – I’m sure serious Scotch experts would take great umbrage at that suggestion, but honestly, it’s much less complicated than the whole of the wine universe.
In fact, I have come to genuinely enjoy the taste of whisky, which can be enjoyed in small, intense sips, and I have some Scottish heritage, so I can ramble vaguely on about my ancestors in the Highlands and the family tartan.
Most usefully, though, whisky demands respect. Whereas once people used to look down on e for being a wine ignoramus, now I simply say that I prefer spirits, and they immediately conclude that I’m the kind of guy who regularly sits on Chesterfields in hunting lodges, sipping single malts of distinction. I can work with that.
And whenever I’m confronted by a sommelier in future, I’ve figured out what to do. I shall fix them with my most intimidating gaze, and say “Everyone says you should just order the second cheapest bottle on the menu. But I’m a bit of a connoisseur in these matters, so why don’t you bring me the third-cheapest?”