Every lunch and dinner, five days a week, you’ll find me ping-ponging between Le Bernardin and Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. It takes me just forty steps to get from one to the other, but there’s a world of difference between them: At Le Bernardin, a fourstar restaurant in New York City, diners order from a 40-page, 900-bottle wine list, with prices that stretch into the five figures. At the wine bar, where people hang out on stools and couches, they’re selecting from a much tighter list, with glasses starting at $11. Well, maybe they’re not that different after all—I’m asked many of the same questions at each: What should I order with my food? What should I try if I usually drink X? Can I find a good value in my price range? There are wine novices and connoisseurs at both places. It’s my job to help them find the perfect glass. But I can’t do it without them.
While young customers who have saved up for a meal at Le Bernardin might feel a little nervous about showing a guy with a weird-looking silver cup around his neck how little they know about wine, they open up at the wine bar, letting the questions flow. I love this curiosity—it’s what wine is all about. And to be honest, without those questions, I can’t help a customer find that perfect glass. I wanted to write a book that not only teaches people the basics of wine but also gives them the tools they need to get to know their palates—what they like and don’t like— and the vocabulary to help them describe it so they can go into a restaurant, wine bar, or store and dial in the bottle or glass that will delight them.
True, wine has lots of snobby associations and tons of words and details to memorize. But it doesn’t have to be intimidating. You really just need to know a handful of words and a smidgen of geography to be on your way. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll never know everything there is to know about wine. Luckily, I believe that the only way to learn—besides researching like crazy—is by making mistakes. So let’s start drinking!
(Or, How an Austrian Kid Who Hated Wine Ended Up the Wine Director of a Three-Michelin-Star Restaurant in New York City)
How I ended up the wine director at Le Bernardin is still a mystery to me (and my parents). But as I’ve learned over the years, life takes amazing turns when you’re open to challenge and adventure—and, of course, lots of hard work. And luckily for me, wine is one of those things that guarantee a nonstop journey of knowledge and pleasure: I’ll always be happy to keep learning, sip by magical sip.
When I was a teenager in Innsbruck, Austria, I wanted to be a chef: My friend’s dad cooked on a cruise ship, and I admired that free spirit. I went to a tourism college to study with a world-champion chef, but all that screaming in the kitchen was too much for me. The last two weeks of my summer internship at a restaurant, they were short-staffed, so they made me wait tables. I was in heaven. Even the chef said, “Oh my God. If we’d known that, we’d all have been better off!”
My first front-of-house job, at the age of nineteen, was at a hotel in the remote valley of Ötztal, Austria. I was happy to be earning my own money and to have time to mountain bike on my days off. It wasn’t until my third job—at a high-end resort where I worked breakfast, lunch, and dinner—that the idea of a career in wine really clicked for me. There was a Swiss couple who were so enthusiastic about food and wine, they would talk about what they would eat for dinner while still at the breakfast table. I’d never seen anything like it! One day, they asked me what they should drink with their meal. I had no idea! So I bought some books on wine and read as much as I could between services. I could have bullshitted them, but I was curious about what sparked their passion.
It turns out it sparked a passion in me, too. I couldn’t believe how much there was to know about wine. The regions and kinds of grapes seemed infinite. There was an artistry behind winemaking, and so much history, too. All my colleagues wanted to hang out during break, but I was like, No, no, no. I’ve got to finish this book before dinner! Around this time, my dad, who would have a glass of wine or two from Austria or Italy on the weekends, took me with him to buy wine. I researched like crazy and used the money I’d saved to buy a bottle of 1983 Darmagi by Angelo Gaja. It was a hell of a lot of money—about $400 in today’s dollars—but that was all I wanted in the world. I was under the spell of great wine.
By the time I ended up at a five-star resort in 1992, I was special-ordering books and crossreferencing them. Although guests were ordering bottles for $20 to $50, I started reading more about classic benchmark wines. Soon, during tastings, I began looking for tannins, looking for alcohol, looking for fruit from every sip. Then I began going to tastings after work with people I befriended from other restaurants. Sometimes we’d drive an hour to the Riedel glass factory to do their glassware tastings, marveling at how the shape of their Burgundy wineglass amplified the fruit of that variety. I saved and bought multiple sets from the second-quality shelf.
When I was twenty, I worked hard to get a job at Hotel Arlberg Hospiz, which had a legendary wine program. They were known for having one of the biggest cellars for largeformat wines, especially Bordeaux—eighteenliter bottles of Château Margaux, six-liter bottles of 1924 Château Palmer, that kind of thing. There, I worked with my mentor, Adi Werner, and also befriended the cellar master, Helmut Jörg. I asked to join the tastings he did for clients. He let me, as long as I set them up and broke them down. I didn’t miss a single one. We tasted not just in Austria and nearby Northern Italy but deep into France, America—all over the world. (I’ve always found foreign things more interesting.) My friends couldn’t believe I was spending all my free time doing this and wasn’t even getting paid. But the deeper I got, the more fascinated I was.
My father sent me to Florence for a summer to learn Italian, the idea being that sommeliers should speak at least one foreign language. I also assigned myself the task of drinking wines from every village in Chianti. For the first time, I was able to taste the differences in terroir
—the actual soil in which the grapes had been planted—and by August, I could tell you blindfolded which village the wine came from.
Copyright © 2019 by Aldo Sohm with Christine Muhlke. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.