Sommeliers and wine buyers live in exciting—and demanding—times. The world of wines available to us has never been so vast, and while that opens up tremendous opportunities to build exciting, dynamic wine programs, it also requires a great deal of time and effort to stay on top of seemingly infinite possibilities. In speaking to fellow sommeliers and wine buyers around the country, I found a range of approaches that they employ to ensure they balance their desire to learn with scheduling limitations—that is, the regrettable reality that none of us can spend dozens of hours a week tasting (and still do our jobs).
For most buyers, tasting opportunities come in two main forms—group and one-on-one. Larger trade tastings are often organized by specific distributors or by a regional trade organization. These walk-around tastings can be a good way to compare similar wines from different producers, or to get a handle on a distributor’s portfolio and style. They’re also invaluable to newcomers to a market. “When I first moved to L.A., I went to a lot of larger-scale tastings to get a sense for what certain distributors have, much like I did early on in my career,” says Jordan Egan, the beverage director at the soon-to-open Simone in Los Angeles, who previously worked as a sommelier at The NoMad in New York.
Elsewhere, in Las Vegas, the sommelier Matthew George at Rivea spends between 5 and 10 hours a week tasting, both one-on-one with his sales reps and at larger-scale events hosted by distributors and other groups. One of the unique aspects of wine buying in Las Vegas, he says, is that distributors often hold tastings off the Strip late at night, after restaurants close. While George’s 1,800-label list tilts toward French classics, as you’d expect at an Alain Ducasse restaurant, he cited the CVNE Monopole Clásico as a bottling that a rep had turned him on to. Made by blending a small percentage of Manzanilla sherry into a more traditional white Rioja, it’s a thoroughly unique wine he may otherwise not have discovered.
That kind of personal relationship with a sales rep can be truly powerful and rewarding for a buyer. “I prefer one-on-ones because they are more personal, and I feel that I can take my time and ask a lot of questions,” says Lindsey DeSmidt, wine director at Park Tavern in San Francisco. “When there are a limited number of wines, I dig deeper into the producer, cuvée, and nuances about the region, which I find to be more beneficial than skimming the surface of a broad variety of wines.”
The main challenge in a market like San Francisco is to prevent tasting-appointment overload. DeSmidt meets with at least 30 reps regularly, though she has about 100 distributors represented on her list. “There are so many out here, and they just keep on coming!” she says. DeSmidt looks to strike a balance at the classic American tavern, with a focus on stateside as well as some international labels. “I try to represent all of the classic wine regions,” she says, “to keep the list fun and interesting.”
In nearby Oakland, Josiah Baldivino, co-owner of Bay Grape, echoes that sentiment. When I asked him how many distributors he works with, his response was simply, “Dude, a ton.” At Bay Grape, which stocks 500 to 700 labels, Baldivino has limited time for tasting, which he laments. “I like tasting new things,” he says, “and meeting with reps is the best way to try new stuff.” He relies on his years of experience in the market and strong relationships with sales reps so that when he sends out email queries in search of specific bottles or options in a given category, he gets immediate results.
Similarly, Egan recommends developing strong relationships with one’s reps. “One thing I discovered early in my buying days is to rely on my reps,” he says. “Creating great relationships is one of the most crucial aspects to the job. If you get a good [rep], they’ll tell you who has something, even if it’s not in their book.” For his list at Simone, which is set to include upwards of 300 labels, Egan is looking to the classics of France as well as some of his neighbors in Santa Barbara.
Even though distributors are the main conduit for wine buyers to taste and purchase wine, they’re far from the only educational resource. DeSmidt points out that “there are many publications, like The Somm Journal, Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and the San Francisco Chronicle, that I read on a regular basis to keep up with new trends in the market,” which is key for keeping her 300-label list alluring and innovative. Travel and winery visits are also crucial components, though these can be costly and time consuming.
Finally, plugging into the network of sommeliers and buyers in a given market is key. Everyone I spoke to talked of the value of tasting together and sharing information, an experience I can attest to as well. I often learn about a wine in my tasting group only to add it to my wine program at a future date. While each wine program has unique contours and challenges, a good buyer will look to learn and explore wherever he or she can while avoiding the burnout that can come from endless or unstructured tastings. It’s as much a necessary skill as a good palate or table presence—and like those, it’s a skill that takes time to develop.
Zach Geballe is the sommelier at Seattle’s iconic Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Tom Douglas Restaurants. He is also the wine and spirits columnist for Seattle Weekly and the host of the wine-focused podcast Disgorged. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Kaitlin, and their dog Willett.