Peter Birmingham, Sommelier Extraordinaire
on 16/03/11 at 4:22 pmBooze News
Peter Birmingham is a sommelier extraordinaire. He’s the type of wine guy you are lucky to run into when confronted by a mystifying wine list, or book, presented to you at the table of a hot restaurant. Peter decodes the list with a sixth sense for his customer – are they adventurous? only comfortable with the familiar? a novice who needs guidance? And Peter has that cool, unflappable demeanor that signals he’s seen and heard it all.
I had the chance to sit down with Peter and have a freewheeling chat about his life as a sommelier and thoughts about the wine business…in no particular order.
You would think that after work, the last thing a sommelier would want is to look at another glass of wine, but then Peter and friends – fellow sommeliers – take the chance to catch up informally in someone’s home for a sommeliers’ taste summit where they are able to focus on new wines and wines that might never reach their own wine lists. A chance to destress, I would imagine, with some doozy customer stories.
With Peter’s insight, he could probably teach a psych course in how to read a customer. He says it’s a delicate balance of knowing how far, and where, to go with someone when they’re ordering wine. He has to consider the wine’s relationship with the food, and how the price of the bottle affects the end of the bill. And here’s where it gets interesting. The control of the end of the bill is a major calculation by the customer. When he/she orders both the wine and the food, the customer has already decided that they will pay whatever it takes, for the food. They then estimate how much they want the bill to be, so the wine has to fit into that calculation. They don’t order the wine and then see what food will pair with it. For them, it’s usually all about the food. As a result, Peter has to often keep the lid on, in terms of recommendations, as he’s found that the sweet spot for selling from the wine list is $40 – $65. So much for adventure in wine tasting.
Which brought up the subject of corkage. I thought that corkage was simply bringing in your own wine and paying a corkage fee; thought it was probably more cost effective if you had a kickass bottle of wine that would cost mucho bucks on the wine list and you would have a bottle you definitely knew you wanted. But, not so much. Corkage has a trickle-down effect. When there are nine bottles of corkage to one bottle that’s purchased, it influences negotiations for salaries. Salaries used to be based on “betting on the come”. In other words, compensation was calculated on how much wine you sold. If the customer brings in their own wine, then that affects the wine steward’s income. How? In that case, the restaurant owner gets the upper hand when offering salaries since fewer bottles are being sold, less money is being made and, ta da, the wine guy takes the hit. So much for corkage.
While there’s tremendous interest in becoming a sommelier, the chance to expand one’s wine knowledge is rather limited since the sommelier is now performance driven. Follow this: if you “can’t sell the product (because of corkage), you can’t earn the income based on selling the wine list. Therefore, you can’t really learn to experiment with new wines because you can’t have an adventurous wine list (if no one’s going to buy because of corkage) which leads wine stewards to have to go to large tasting events to get the opportunity to taste a lot of wines.” It’s not the same as being able to explore obscure, or off-beat, wine to bring in to the restaurant. You’re pretty much restricted by the tasting opportunities. Who knew that a simple act could have such reverberating consequences.
And, now it’s back to Psych 101. The sommelier also has to think about massaging the client’s wine that they have brought in. Again, reading people is a talent – to smile kindly and validate the customer’s ‘sensational’ choice, to offer a gentle critique, and…what to do when you’re offered a taste? The truth may not be the most diplomatic route. It’s a balancing act and so much more than just taking a wine order and bringing the bottle to the table.
Moving right along to Peter’s palate, a palate that must have tasted thousands of awesome wines. Peter said that he didn’t have the palate of his youth any longer, time is taking its toll, “I’m getting older and now it’s a race between my hair, my teeth and my taste buds.” While his palate may have diminished somewhat, his palate memory for certain wines is fresh and sharp. To wit: A blind tasting at one of the afterhours wine summits, he tasted a obscure wine that hit him like a ton of…grapes?! A wine he would never forget and identified as the’78 Knight’s Valley. His buddies were duly dazzled by his spot on identification. What they didn’t know was that this wine was indelibly impressed in Peter’s mind and palate having poured that wine by the glass in ‘84 more often than he cares to remember. Ah, palate memories.
Peter testifies to having a pioneer spirit about wine. He mentioned wines from Georgia (not the state, the country) that have been around for 6500 years, and wines that have yet be discovered. If anyone will find and taste new wines, it will be Peter Birmingham, sommelier extraordinaire.
By Boozenews Editor: Judi Laing