Confessions of a Sommelier

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The following story is true, as told to Kevin Chesley by a sommelier who wishes to remain anonymous. All names have been changed to protect the somm, the winery, and the rock star involved…

I don’t get star struck easy. That’s a good thing, because the winery I pour at pulls in some pretty top shelf clientele. Whenever some famous actor or athlete comes in, I read their body language to see if they’re the type that wants attention, or the kind that wants anything but. If the sunglasses come off right inside the door, “looking around” to make sure they show their face to the entire room, then I know it’s time for ego stroking and a table right in the center of the crowd. The bigger the sunglasses, and the longer they stay on, the more I get that they want a private place to taste and for their presence to stay unknown. Reading that right means the difference between a healthy tip at the end or a scowl from an actress you’ve been crushing on since middle school.

A few weeks back, though, it was my turn to have trouble not losing my cool. The place was pretty empty – I think it was a Tuesday? – I had just one reservation on the books for the next hour and they rolled up early. It was a rented luxury town car, but nothing overly lavish. When that back door swung wide, though? It opened on a face I’ve seen projected 200 feet tall on massive screens on either side of his music festival stage. If I had been chewing gum, it would’ve tumbled out of my dropped jaw into the tasting glasses.

I had about twenty seconds to get it together. I won’t say who it was but, trust me, it’s someone you own music by. I’d bet a few hundred dollars you’ve been locked out of tickets to a sold-out show or, if you’re like me, you’ve spent those hundreds of dollars for a scalped rate to see him… and the show was way worth it. Imagine a room full of your favorite musicians. This guy would show up, scan the room, and say “hold my beer.” Except on this random Tuesday? He was about to say, “pour my wine.” To me! I think that I- yeah, I literally slapped myself. I must have looked ridiculous in that moment. I shook my arms out, cracked my neck, psyched myself up watching him approach the front doors. My voice was the only sound echoing out in the empty front hall: “Okay, freak out for two more seconds then lock. It. Down.”

The door opened. His sunglasses stayed on, and so did my mask of professional chill. He was flanked by an entourage of three – they didn’t look like performers, they were suits (I’d google later and find out that one of them was his manager). Ignoring my heart doing the renegade in my chest, I looked down at today’s list of reservations and read whatever totally fake name his assistant had called in, “Welcome, Mr. [Totally Fake Name]?” I put a question mark on the end, like I would with any stranger, but this one also asked: Hey, so are we really doing this fake name thing? He smiled and gave a strong nod, eyes locked with mine as he savored the lie and simply said, “That’s me.” I got the message loud and clear: Yeah. Fake name thing. With an extra helping of fake.

I got the message and swung a presentational arm out to the empty tasting area, “As you can see. We’re pretty empty at this hour. Choose any table you like.” In that moment I realized the lull was probably exactly why he had chosen that time to come. He removed his sunglasses as soon as he saw they had the place to themselves and I had their first flight in front of them before they had even shifted to get comfortable.

I’m not gonna lie to you, I killed it that first flight. The energy of pouring for this guy made me soar in the description of our 2016 Chardonnay Reserve like I was rocking one of his hit singles. Somewhere between describing the balances between fruit and oak, I think I even managed to forget that I was talking to the guy who wrote [insert one of your favorite songs here].

It was impossible to forget who he was, however, during the second tasting. Because that’s when the fates decided to hand me a hilarious challenge. Right as I bent to pour for this maestro of my life’s soundtrack, we all heard it: an instrumental version of one of his top songs started to drift out of the winery speakers. I cursed our playlist as it started… but then I realized it was the greatest opportunity my poker face could have hoped for. They all heard it too, of course. He can probably pick that song out in two notes – even in a calming Napa muzak background version. His eyes met mine with a spark of challenge. Was I going to stay cool? Man, I was cool as a cucumber in a Yeti Rambler. Dancing through the notes present in our California Zin like hanging out with my idol was just another day. I was as cool as the other side of the pillow…

… and then came the third glass. In which your intrepid narrator committed an epic fail. I always have a bit of fun describing our 2014 Pinot Noir – it’s a sure bet crowd pleaser, so I let myself get a little loose in the description. Not that day, I shouldn’t have. I should have clung to that text like a life preserver. Instead, right after going on about the layers of cherry and wild berry, I went into the description of the spicy finish and disastrously ended with, “Y’know, it closes it out like an encore at one of your favorite concerts—”

A total facepalm moment. Sure, it wasn’t much, but the lame joke flopping out was enough. A chink in the armor of staying incognito. His smile grew thin. His manager gave me a quick but clear side eye… and they all cast the 2014 into the spit bucket like our best vintage was giving them the taste of old tires or, in my case, ruined sommeliers. They weren’t pouring out the Pinot, they were pouring out me.

I panicked and fell back on an old stand-by red alert fix. Every sommelier’s first trick when it comes to trying to win back a taster. I poured the next flight way heavy. They probably got at least twice as much of our 2011 Cab Sauv in each glass than the other pours. It was a desperate move. This guy dates supermodels, you don’t win him over by getting him a little tipsier…
… and then things went from bad to full on bachelorette party train wreck.
“Rosé all day, beeyotches!”

I had been so distracted by trying to save myself from the tragedy of flight three that I hadn’t noticed the gaudy pink nightmare that was herding through the parking lot behind me. I spun on a dime and drank in what would have been a disaster even on a normal day – a bachelorette festooned in a penis hat and a dress with condoms hanging off of it – swarmed by her beehive of bubbly besties.

I realized the horrifying true stakes of the situation as soon as my music star did. If those girls saw this guy in their buzzed and ‘out of control’ state? The collective “woot” that would have echoed from their gaping mouths would have been heard from space. They were exactly zero seconds from clocking my celebrity guest and making his chill tasting into a living hell. Without thinking, I immediately did two things that still shock me.

First, I opened a leather wine club folder and held it up right in the celebrity musician’s face.

Second, I lied my to that party of girls like I was covering up a dead body. “Oh, man. You know what’s crazy? Ladies, we don’t even have a Rosé.”
We totally have a Rosé. Of course we do. It’s divine, in fact. If any of those girls had taken one step to the right, they would have seen at least forty bottles of it arranged in a dynamic pyramid. It had taken me hours to stack them so perfectly, and yet it was the last thing in the world I wanted them to lay their eyes on in that moment. Well, second-to-last thing (the first being the face of their favorite musician hidden behind my wine club book shield).

They all looked at me like I had just told them the groom was cheating (which he probably was, right at that moment, in a Vegas casino’s pool bungalow). The Maid of Honor stepped forward in righteous outrage, “You don’t have Rosé? We are going to Rosé. All. Day. I promised Gretchen.” I looked to Gretchen, who looked emotional to say the least, drunken eyes welling up and ready to burst. She was stood up at the Rosé altar and I started to stammer, “Gretchen, listen, I- I c- I can recommend—” I’m wasn’t sure I even had a rival winery I hate enough to aim this pack of angry flamingos at, but I didn’t even get a chance to finish anyway. The entire bachelorette party spun on their heels (a bit wobbly but, still, the unison was to be commended) and stomped out the front door like they were marching for women’s suffrage.

Then the place was quiet… and I realized that I was holding a wine club sign up book open against the nose of an international celebrity. I whipped the book away, worried I was about to reveal an angry sneer from my greatest hero – but, instead, his lips were curled up in a mischievous smile. He raised an eyebrow and simply said, “Thank you for that. Now, for our fifth flight, I’d love to substitute in a tasting… of your Rosé?” We all laughed and I stepped away to oblige him, swallowing hard as I had saved myself from the brink.

The rest of his visit went without a hitch. I kept my cool. He bought many bottles of wine, including a case of the Rosé. Before I knew it, I was watching one of my favorite artists walking back to his town car and disappearing from view. I let out a deep exhale that I must have been holding in for his entire visit. I went over to clean up their table, wondering if anyone would ever believe me. He had left a sizeable tip, which was certainly welcome… but then I saw the wine club book. He had written on it, rewording one of his most famous lyrics to include my name and immortalize my sommelier prowess with the rewritten opening lyric of one of my favorite songs. Easily worth a thousand times more than the tip.
Now it’s hung with pride over the bar, so everyone can see the proof of who the favorite somm of their favorite musician is. It’s noticed often and I’m proud to talk about it if I ever pour for you in person. If I do, however, you have to keep it between us… because I never want to face the wrath of Gretchen again.

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