Beer is made by men, wine by God. — Martin Luther
It’s been said that the first use of wine was to purify water. While the tannins in wine can remove impurities and enough alcohol content can disinfect water temporarily, the wine would have to be at least 60 per cent alcohol in strength. Perhaps absinthe, at 45 to 70 per cent, might do the trick but the average alcohol content of drinkable wine is only around 11 to 14 per cent.
Historical records indicate that some strong Roman merum (Latin for pure) raw wine once caught fire when a candle got too close. The Roman legions—who one would imagine indulged in some serious bingeing in their spare time—only drank a mix of cheap wine and vinegar, mixed with herbs and diluted with up to eight parts water, called posca. But everyone, including Roman children, drank wine all day, so dilution was essential. Drinking unadulterated wine was, in fact, considered uncouth.
Sommelier, in French, means “butler” and most likely derives from the Old Provençal saumalier—a pack animal driver! There are sake sommeliers, coffee sommeliers, milk sommeliers, water sommeliers and even beer sommeliers, the latter also known as cicerones.
Joe Dolce writes of film in every Quadrant.
This review appeared in our October edition.
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A contemporary wine sommelier is a highly trained steward, specialising in theory, comprehensively knowledgeable and familiar with all aspects of international wine, as well as a trained expert in wine-and-food pairings. It is an exclusive club, with only around 260 accredited Master Sommeliers in the world. The low number is due to the extreme difficulty of the Master Sommelier exam. Very few pass each year.
Once it was one of the rarest of fringe professions, along with human bed heaters (a person hired by a hotel to lie in your bed and warm it up for you), stone eaters (popular in the Georgian era—some could eat up to 150 rocks) and funeral clowns, employed in fourth-century Rome to mock the recently deceased, including wearing a mask of the dead person’s face. Then there are tooth-in-eye surgeons, who practise Osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis, a procedure of treating blindness by taking a premolar tooth, drilling it and inserting a plastic lens. Implanted into the cheek, the tooth grows blood vessels and afterwards is inserted into the eye. The body does not reject it because the tooth comes from the patient. This procedure is practised by only a dozen teams in the world.
The profession of sommelier is gaining in popularity, in large part due to films such as Kami no Shizuku (2009) and Somm (2012).
Drops of God (2023) is an eight-part fictional television series, directed by Oded Ruskin, starring French actress Fleur Geffrier and Japanese actor Tomohisa Yamashita. It was filmed in France, Italy and Japan.
The series pits the almost supernatural sensual abilities, of sight, smell and taste, of two wine experts—whose skills fall somewhere between the visualisations of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, in Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit (reviewed in Quadrant, January-February 2021), and the olfactory abilities of the gifted orphan Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume—in a nose-to-nose wine-tasting competition to become sole heir to a multi-million-dollar estate.
Camille Léger, a Parisian writer, has been alienated from her father, wine-collector and critic Alexandre Léger, for over a decade. As he lies dying, he sends a private plane to pick her up, for a meeting at his home in Tokyo, hoping for a reconciliation and a chance to discuss her inheritance. But he dies before she arrives.
At the reading of his will, she discovers that he has organised a three-part test to determine who will inherit his 87,000-bottle wine collection—the most valuable collection in the world, at $148 million—and his house in Tokyo, worth $7 million. The contest will be between her and Léger’s Japanese protégé, Issei Tomine, whom she has never met.
Camille no longer drinks alcohol, but she will forfeit the inheritance if she declines the challenge. As a little girl, her father had blindfolded her and forced her to identify wines from fragrance and taste. She developed an extraordinary gift and often enjoyed these games but was trained so single-mindedly that she grew up alienated from him.
The first test in the contest is to determine the vintage, location and grape of an unlabelled bottle.
Camille’s father has left a suggestion that she might prepare for this contest with his friend, a wine expert named Philippe Chassangre. Instead, Chassangre appoints his son Thomas to work with her. They have three weeks until the first part of the test and, as Camille cannot drink wine without suffering nosebleeds and vomiting, she decides to train based on smell alone. Thomas blindfolds her and gives her fifty aromas to study. Early childhood experiences with her father are reawakened and she correctly identifies each sample.
Issei’s grandfather, a wealthy and respected Japanese businessman, wants his grandson to drop out of the competition, which he feels has no dignity and, win or lose, will stain the family’s reputation. Issei initially agrees to comply with his family’s request but changes his mind and decides to continue.
After daily practice, Camille overcomes her physical distaste for wine enough to able to taste small quantities and spit them out, which is enough to complete the tasting part of the contest.
Both Issei and Camille correctly identify the unlabelled wine as a Château Cheval Blanc. But she incorrectly writes down the year as 2000. Issei guesses the actual year, 1999, becoming the winner of the first round.
In the second challenge, they are shown a painting titled A Glass Compote with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces and a Grasshopper by the Italian Renaissance painter Fede Galizia, and given a one word clue: link. They have a fortnight to match the correct wine to the painting.
Camille travels to Italy to research the mysterious history of the painting and finds the connection. Issei also inadvertently stumbles on the correct answer. The name of the wine had been written down on a postcard of the painting, sent from Léger, years ago, to Issei’s mother. Issei, feeling he has cheated, drops out of this challenge, making Camille the winner by default.
The final part of the test is filmed before a live audience. In the first round, Issei defeats Camille in general wine knowledge. In the second round, a wine is to be matched to a specific three-course meal and, finally, in the third round, they must correctly identify a blended wine, and reproduce the blend of thirteen grape varieties themselves, using individual wines from Léger’s comprehensive wine cellar.
The competition ends up a tie at 150 points each. But Léger has left instructions that there can be only one heir and, in the event of a draw, one additional test remains: to identify the wine called “Drops of God”. The next day, both contestants write their answers on folded pieces of paper. There is a winner who correctly names the “Drops of God”—but to reveal more would be unfair so you’ll have to watch the series to find out.
The idea, storyline and title for the series originated with a Japanese manga comic book series Kami no Shizuku, first published in 2004. It ran to forty-four volumes. It is claimed that the massive success of this comic series doubled wine sales throughout Asia, with some wines, referred to by name and normally priced around $20, selling for thousands of dollars.
In the comic, the lead protagonist was a Japanese man, Shizuku Kanzaki, a junior employee in a Japanese beverage company. The character of Issei Tomine was the same, as in the French series, but he was a wine critic. In the competition, thirteen wines had to be identified. The final wine, Kami no Shizuku (Drops of God), is never revealed; the reason given is that “every person has his own Drops of God bottle, as every person’s taste is different”.
In the current television series, the main character of Shizuku is changed from a man to a woman and the identity of the mysterious Drops of God is revealed in the last episode.
There has been a slow and increasing interest over the years in the esoteric world of wine. The hit documentary Somm (2012), written and directed by Jason Wise, followed the progress of four young aspirants preparing for the Master Sommelier exam. We saw the focused and fanatical work required and the toll it took on their personal and family lives.
Before taking the Master Sommelier exam, candidates are encouraged to have at least three years working in the food and beverage industry. The testing comprises three parts: tasting, theory and service.
In the first part, the candidates have to blind-taste, describe and identify two white wines and two red wines within thirty minutes. To do this, they need to be familiar with about 10,000 wine grape varietals and their minutiae. The theory section takes the form of forty-five multiple-choice, mathematical and short-answer questions, comprehensively covering the wine industry and the sommelier’s trade.
The final test, service, takes place in a restaurant, where candidates have to demonstrate calm professionalism, often with difficult customers, through a series of tableside tasks such as gracefully opening bottles and recommending food-and-wine pairings. They dress formally and are allowed to bring just a corkscrew, pen, paper and calculator. To pass, they must achieve a score of at least 60 per cent on each section.
Somm might well have been subtitled “I’m a Sommelier—Get Me Out of Here!” as we journey with these four aspirants on a nerve-wracking countdown to the final day of the test and afterwards.
The film won best documentary at the 2013 San Luis Obispo Film Festival.
Sequels were released: Somm: Into the Bottle (2015), followed by Somm 3 (2018), while a fourth series, Somm 4: Cup of Salvation, is in production. The popularity of these programs led to SOMM TV, a streaming service that features documentaries on vineyards and private wine cellars, and interviews with leading winemakers.
In 2020, another terrific film about sommeliers and wine was released called Uncorked.
Written and directed by Prentice Penny, it is a fictional story about a black American named Elijah who works in his father’s soul-food barbecue restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee. Elijah also has a second job working in an upmarket wine store for the owner, who is a Master Sommelier. He encourages Elijah to pursue his love for wine against the objection of his father, who wants him to take over the family barbecue business.
When Elijah tells his family that he wants to be a sommelier, his brother says, “You want to be an African?” His father asks, “Is that like a pirate?” Elijah says, “No, that’s a Somalian.” His mother supports her son’s dream and Elijah ends up in Paris studying to take the exam.
Uncorked combines the unlikely world of soul food with the upper-class domain of fine wine appreciation. The dialogue is street-wise and the film is peppered with dynamic hip-hop music.
Uncorked is loosely based on the life of DLynn Proctor, one of the four main candidates in the Somm documentaries. Proctor was an associate producer on Uncorked and worked with the actors to ensure authenticity. He was named Best Sommelier in America in 2008 by Wine & Spirits magazine and became brand ambassador for the Australian winery Penfolds.
To date, Proctor is the only one of the original four Somm candidates who has failed to qualify for the Master Sommelier’s diploma. He said, “I have taken the … exam five times, and the only thing I haven’t passed is the blind tasting portion.” It is unlikely that Proctor will keep persevering, as he told Nicole Mackay of SOMM TV, “I no longer blind taste. I simply enjoy and appreciate.”
I had an opportunity to interview three professional sommeliers for this article: Raimonds Tomsons, Carlos Simões Santos and Pascaline Lepeltier MOF.
Raimonds Tomsons was born in Latvia in 1980. He has a WSET Diploma in wine and spirits and was awarded Best Sommelier of the World 2023 by L’Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI). Only seventeen of these titles have been awarded since 1969. WSET stands for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, which was founded in Great Britain in 1969.
Tomsons got into wine in an unusual way. He said that in Latvia in the 1990s, young men had two choices: “Go into the army—or train as a bartender.”
He has not seen Drops of God, nor is he familiar with the Japanese manga comics, but expressed great interest in them. He did relate to chess prodigy Beth Harmon, however, in The Queen’s Gambit:
Yes, there are some similarities because when we taste wines, for example, blind, there are numerous flavours and theories going through our brain helping us, hopefully, to narrow it down to the right wine in the glass. Instead of different chess combinations, there are things like acidity, tannins, structure, texture, colour, fruits, etc.
Although he says Latvia has “no winemaking traditions and [is] a young wine culture, I consider [this] as an advantage because our minds are more open-minded to the wine world and we have no link with wine traditions and history”.
When I asked him why he chose wine rather than whisky, which has an equally elegant pedigree, he had an insightful reply:
When it comes to food matching it is difficult to compete with wine. Someone might hate Riesling but he might love Chardonnay—both of them are wines. But for whisky, if you do not like it as a category, there is little chance that you will like Japanese whisky and hate Scotch.
Pascaline Lepeltier was born in 1981 and grew up in the Loire Valley in France. She moved to New York in 2009 and achieved her Master Sommelier accreditation in 2014. She was named one of the “New Wine Prophets” by Time Out and a “Natural Wine Evangelist” by Food & Wine magazine. In 2018 she was voted Best French Sommelier and became a laureate of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF).
Lepeltier was familiar with the French print version of the Japanese magna series, titled Les Gouttes de Dieu:
I really liked it when it came out: how passionate it was, but also how quirky, how deep it could go into wines and how fun and light it was. I liked to discover, through the eyes of another culture, a vision created by artists with a lot of freedom. I wanted to learn how to decant like Shizuku.
I asked her if growing up in the Loire Valley gave her an advantage in understanding the influential wines of the region. She replied:
I think when you grow in a place, you feel the light, the smell, the rhythm of the seasons … I think the colour and the pace of the Loire River, running by it when I was a kid, hearing the birds, had an influence on how I perceive the wines of my home region, around Savennières. There is a very specific feeling of duration, a quality of time, that is part of me now, and that I find in the wines of my region.
Carlos Simões Santos is Master Sommelier at Vue de Monde restaurant in Melbourne—one of only five Master Sommeliers in Australia. He was born in Portugal in 1987, and has been working in cafés since he was a boy. He has been employed by many Michelin one-, two- and three-star restaurants, including the original Gordon Ramsay, in London’s Chelsea. In 2017 he won Sommelier of the Year in Australia, and in 2018 he passed the International ASI Sommelier Diploma with Gold, a certification held by only forty-five people in the world.
Santos watched the entire series of Drops of God practically “at one sitting” and he read the original manga comics many years ago. “Reading them, it was truly engaging … also because I was starting my career as a professional sommelier, I was fully immersed in it all.”
Like Lepeltier, Santos also wanted to be the main character, Shizuku. Both sommeliers must have been pleasantly surprised when Shizuku’s sex was changed from male to female for the French television series. Santos was also intrigued by the character of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and his almost supernatural olfactory abilities, in Perfume:
It still mesmerises me how it is so true that some people have this amazing ability to create, recreate, memorise and express these [sensations] in a fragrance. In fact, I am not one of these persons … I have worked very hard to gain the ability; it wasn’t as natural for me. I spent hours in markets smelling fruits, vegetables, cheese rooms, charcuteries … spent hours in the forest smelling the same tree before rain, after rain, during summer, winter or spring … with each season, new flowers, mushrooms, weeds grow and these also [present] differently from each other.
The youngest of the professional sommeliers I talked to, Santos grew up in a close family in Portugal and believes he tasted wine for the first time at three years old.
The family would sit around the table eating, laughing and drinking. During harvests, my dad, uncles and grandfather would be out harvesting while mom, grandma and aunties were cooking fresh bread, and big roasts every day.
He was mentored by Joao Pires, the first Portuguese Master Sommelier who, in his youth, was trained in martial arts and was a member of the Special Forces. He remembers that Pires pushed him “extremely hard” but today counts him as one of his best friends.
Santos has a unique perspective on Australian wines. His favourite Australian wine-growing regions are Gippsland for Pinot Noir, Clare Valley for Riesling, Margaret River for Cabernet Sauvignon, Hunter Valley for Semillon and “the new wave of Grenache from South Australia, fresher, fruitier and much more elegant than it used to be”. He particularly singled out Wendouree vineyards in Clare Valley, and Bass Phillip in Gippsland.
According to studies published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, Master Sommeliers develop “thicker brains”. Chris Mercer, in Decanter, wrote:
When the scientists compared master sommeliers’ brains to those of a control group, they found that the sommeliers had a “thicker” sensory area. Researchers in the latest study found that both the right insula and entorhinal cortex were larger and more developed in master sommeliers versus a control group of “normal” people.
A study was done in 2001 on the brains of Grandmaster level chess players. Researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany announced their findings in the journal Nature, and reported in Scientific American:
[They] measured so-called gamma-band activity in the brains of 10 grandmasters and 10 amateurs, using a new magnetic imaging technique known as magnetoencephalographic recording … They found that whereas the amateurs’ brains exhibited more gamma-bursts in the medial temporal lobe, grandmasters had more gamma-bursts in their frontal and parietal cortices. The team proposes that the use of the frontal cortex by the grandmasters, who have memorized thousands of moves, indicates that they recognize known problems and retrieve solutions for them from their memories. Use of the medial temporal lobe by the amateurs, in contrast, suggests that these players are analysing unknown moves and forming new long-term memories.
In the world of competitive chess, the rising strength of computerised chess programs (known among chess players as engines), with almost infinite memory capacity, is changing the perception of the game. At one time, chess players were thought to be more intelligent than ordinary people. But after the gross antics of Bobby Fischer, the first American Grandmaster World Champion, a blinker-visioned anti-Semite, chess players were no longer considered to have higher levels of intelligence, but rather were simply singular-minded monomaths, with extraordinary memory and pattern recognition. Then came the age of computers, with superior memory facilities, extensively programmed pattern recognition and the ability to sort through millions of chess positions per second.
It was once believed that no computer program could defeat a real human chess Grandmaster, as humans had a creative je ne sais quoi—an intuitive facility that set them apart from machines. This theory was debunked in 1996, when the Deep Blue computer program beat standing world champion Garry Kasparov, who was considered at the time the strongest chess player in history. Now, with the growth of AI, it appears that even “intuition” can be programmed.
Does this kind of technological progress bode well for the evolution of sommeliers? Both fields rely on memory capacity, the ability to effectively access learned and organised data, and deductive intuition.
With the low number of accredited Master Sommeliers, in a world that is just starting to bestow them with celebrity status, demand now far exceeds supply. Will the rise of computerised and AI “sommeliers” transform the food and beverage professions as it has done in the world of chess?
The first AI sommelier could humorously be argued to have been Robby the Robot, in the 1956 science-fiction masterpiece Forbidden Planet. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and pre-dating Star Trek by a decade, United Planets starship C-57D is on a rescue mission in the twenty-third century to the remote planet Altair IV to investigate a signal from a lost colony. Seven-foot-tall Robby, invented by the sole survivor of the colony, Dr Morbius, is sent to welcome the crew of the ship. Addressing the captain, who is dumbstruck at what he is seeing, Robby says, in his distinctive mechanical voice, “If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages, along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.”
Later in the film, the ship’s cook, who is down to his last shot of bourbon, privately asks the robot if he knows where he can obtain more. Robby grabs the bottle out of his hand, pours the last bit into his mechanical mouth-like orifice and after some whirring of gears replies, “Quiet please. I am analysing. Yes, relatively simple alcohol molecules with traces of fusel oil.” (Fusel is German for “bad liquor”.) Robby then proceeds to manufacture sixty gallons for the ecstatic cook.
As we have observed with Dick Tracy-like wristwatch phones, moon landings and space shuttles, yesterday’s sci-fi often becomes today’s reality. WineCab is the first robotically powered management system for wine collections. Its WineWall, at US$180,000, is a “vending machine” that can store, load and dispense wine. With AI technology, it is also a virtual sommelier that can suggest food pairings and identify 600,000 vintage wines.
Tomsons feels that an AI sommelier program will never be able to replace the restaurant ambience of fine dining. Lepeltier remarked:
I think my job is more about pairing a bottle and a person, than a bottle and a dish. I need to know personally the vigneron and vigneronne as well as my guests—and of course my chef’s dishes. But first and foremost the winemakers’ intention, and my guests’ desires. As long as the human mind will be as complex as it is, emotionally complex I mean, I think there will be the need for some sommeliers.
Santos isn’t concerned about competition from mechanical sommeliers:
Who is going to open the bottles? Who is going to decant the wines? Who is going to be romantic about food and wine pairing? Who is going to make the customers laugh? [Will] the machines also be recommending a digestive and a cigar, shake the customer’s hand at the end of the meal and ensure they get a reservation any time they want?
Shannon Bennett, the head chef of Vue de Monde in Melbourne, told Konrad Marshall in an interview with the Age: “A sommelier is like an investment banker. They have to be very astute. The cellar has to grow as an investment. We’re buying for ten years down the track.”
The Age’s film reviewer Craig Mathieson enjoyed Drops of God: “[This] aromatic thriller is embroiled in expert knowledge, the mysteries of lineage, and obsessive talent.” John Powers, of NPR, was more cynical:
Drops of God makes a point of telling us that the true meaning of wine isn’t found in its posh labels, but in the way drinking it binds people together. Of course, a couple minutes after somebody says this, the show cracks open a bottle that will cost you 600 bucks.
Jasper Rees of the Telegraph said: “Conceptually, the storyline is an odd blend of ultra-elitist aesthetics and cartoon psychology. Think Châteauneuf du Pulp.” But Nicholas Quah, of New York Magazine/Vulture, wrote: “Drops of God is prestige television with a pure soap-operatic heart … there’s really nothing else like it.”
Raimonds Tomsons is currently the wine director at Barents Wine Collectors in Latvia.
Pascaline Lepeltier has recently opened a New York restaurant, Chambers, and with winemaker Nathan Kendall, she initiated the chëpìka project, crafting natural wines made with original hybrid wild American grapes grown in the Finger Lakes region of New York, south of Lake Ontario. Chëpìka comes from the Lenape language (Delaware Native-Americans) and it means “root”. She once said, “Our palate is a treasure … I love helping a guest open a window onto a new taste: it is a new landscape, a new world, a very powerful and intimate power.”
Carlos Simões Santos continues to ply his excellent craft at Vue de Monde in Melbourne, working alongside his older brother, general manager Hugo Simões Santos.
In the second century AD, the epitaph of Tiberius Claudius Secundus, a courier of the Roman tribune, read:
Balnea vina Venus
nostra se Vitam faciunt
Balnea vina Venus.
Baths, wine and sex
corrupt our bodies,
but baths, wine and sex
make life worth living.
Alfonso X, the Spanish monarch who ruled as King of Galicia, Castile and León, from 1252 to 1284, said it in a slightly different way: “Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.”