Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sergio the Sommelier

What’s it like to work as the sommelier in one of the best restaurants in the world? At our dinner at Bras (, we were lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the sommelier, Sergio Calderon. He’s been with Bras now for 20 years.

Raised in Cordoba, Argentina, Sergio fell in love with a woman from France and followed her back there. They’re now married, with children. Like so many people that you meet in the wine business, Sergio has a lot of passion for what he does. Working with the Bras family in the Aubrac is a natural fit for him. As in his native Cordoba, the landscape of Aubrac is rugged and hilly, devoted to cattle ranching. The passion that the Bras family has for cuisine matches his obvious passion for wine.

Working as a sommelier is hard on family life. When he's at home during the day, the children are at school. By the time the children come back home, he’s off to work. And maintaining the huge wine cellar at this Michelin 3-star restaurant demands a lot of travel. The restaurant closes at the end of every October for 5 months. During those winter months, Sergio is on the road. Before admitting any wine to the cellar, Sergio visits the vineyard and talks to the winemaker about viticulture and vinification. This work is all to be able to tell the story of each wine to his clients at the restaurant.

During a tour of the wine cellar, Sergio talks about the three skills that a sommelier must have:

First, select the wines on the winelist and be able to describe them not only in terms of flavours, weight, and structure but also varietals, viticulture, and vinification.

Second, work with the chef to match wines with the food, and describe to the client why that match works.

Third, the most important skill: to be a psychologist: understand the client and their desires and motivation; is the client there for business, with family, for a romantic evening? Do they want something familiar? Something prestigious? Something new?

For Sergio, being a sommelier demands psychology, intuition, and improvisation.

I’m curious about what changes Sergio has seen in 20 years as the sommelier at Bras. The biggest change is the greater appreciation of wines from other regions, the globalization of wine. Twenty years ago, clients ordered Bordeaux and Burgundy. Now, they are either willing to try lesser-known regions or, like us, actively seek out wines that just aren’t easily available back home.

When I ask him what wines are under-appreciated today, his answer at first surprises me: Bordeaux. Although Canadians still regard Bordeaux as a premium brand, in fact Bordeaux produces a lot of wine for domestic consumption – ordinary, mediocre wine that it has become the everyday wine of France. When dining out, the French no longer view Bordeaux as a treat. By contrast, the top wines of Bordeaux are in demand around the world. These trophy wines have become too expensive, even more expensive in restaurants, except for the rich.

I notice that Sergio and his team all use Laguiole corkscrews…and they’re all one stage corkscrews. Of course, I have to ask, are there no two-stage Laguiole corkscrews? He looks puzzled and says no. As I already know, corkscrews are levers and the key to using one properly is to pull up from the end of the handle. The Laguiole corkscrew is weighted so that the lever is more effective, and two-stages are unnecessary.

The next morning, we’re back at La Forge de Laguiole to find a corkscrew for me. There are dozens of different corkscrews, with handles of all kinds. I select a matte black handle and, free of charge, they engrave my name on the handle. I have my prize! [Several days later, I use my Laguiole corkscrew for the first time. True to Sergio’s endorsement, it works effortlessly! It’s better than any other corkscrew that I’ve tried before, even better than a two-stage corkscrew. Yes!]

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