As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a sommelier. To me, being a sommelier was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the restaurant for an after school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in a town of nobodies - they weren't like anybody else, they did whatever they wanted, they opened Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses, they had double helpings of foie gras, they sipped pre-war Bas-Armagnac; in the summer when they drank on the patio all night after service, nobody ever called the cops.
I was the luckiest kid in the world - I could go to any vineyard, stay with any vigneron. I knew everybody, and everybody knew me. Wine reps would stop by with bottles of Chevalier-Montrachet and toss me their wine key. I mean, here I am, this kid, I can't even pronounce Irouleguy, and I'm drinking Chevalier. For some people the restaurant was supposed to be a part time job, ah but for me it was definitely full time. That's all I wanted to do. You see, some of the waiters could never understand, but I was a part of something, I belonged in the cellar, I was treated like a grownup. Every day I was learning terroir, a cru here, a lieu-dit there, I was living my fantasy.
People looked at me differently when they knew I was with somebody. I didn't have to wait in line anymore for an allocation, the distributors knew who I was with, and they would come around and give me a six-pack no matter how many other accounts were waiting, I was taken care of first. At 21, I was drinking better than most of the grownups in the neighborhood. I mean, I had more premier crus than I could drink, I had it all. One day, one day one of reps dropped off a silver ice bucket for Champagne. You know why? It was out of respect.
It was a glorious time. The sommeliers were all over the place. It was before 9/11, and before Mendoza decided to take on Barossa and start a war. It was when I met the world.
There was Cat Silirie, and Alicia Towns Franken, and me. And there was Smile Muscles Savona, and Mikey Formaggio, and then there was Sandy Block who taught at BU, and his guys Wild Hair Nesto and Alex The Tough Guy, and then there was Scott Fraley, who was a lady killer and like Derrida's brother, and you had Dreamy Eyes Deary, and Beth Cleary who had a great pairing for Chicken Franchese, and Marky Two Times, who got that nickname because he told his staff everything twice, like "Pour the Pinot Noir into the Burgundy glasses, the Burgundy glasses." For us, to live any other way was nuts. To us those goody good people who didn't drink wine, and had iced tea on a fancy night out, and worried about their credit card imprints getting stolen, they were dead. I mean they were suckers, they had no sense of fun. If we wanted to try something we just sold it and poured a taste. If anyone complained twice they got a table so bad next to the bathroom, believe me they never complained again. It was all just routine, you didn't even think about it.
Sunday night was for the girlfriends, but Saturday afternoon at the restaurant was always for the staff tasting. Everyone was there. We'd open up four or five bottles and somebody would talk about how one of the wines danced on the tongue like Sammy Davis, Jr., or how it was like a kiss from Nat King Cole. Somebody would say that and then somebody else would tell them that they should be more careful how they phrased things, 'cause customers could get the wrong idea.
In the restaurant, staff meal was always a big thing. We had a pasta course, and then we had a meat or a fish. Somebody always did the prep work for us, there was a system, and there was this bread that was sliced so thin it was like somebody used a razor. You know, when you think of a restaurant, you think of rows and rows of customers and the waiters bent over them, but it wasn't like that for sommeliers, it really wasn't that bad. I mean we owned the joint.
You see, the hardest thing for me is leaving the life. I still love the life. We were treated like PPX VIPS. We had any reservation we wanted, for any place in town, just for the asking. I had paper bags filled with Chambertin corks in the kitchen, I had rare Islay scotch by the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away: free mid-courses, comp dessert wine, the invites to a dozen wine tastings all over the city. I'd sell 20, 30 grand over a weekend, and then I'd either blow through two cases of Champagne in a week, or I'd find another go-to to serve to those who had heard good news from their Wall Street bookies.
Everything was for the taking and now it's all over, that's the hardest part. Today everything is different, there's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. I can't even get decent food. Right after I got home I wanted hand made, triple x flour Spaghetti with romanesco cauliflower and I had to settle for egg noodles from a local delivery.
I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
I had wanted to be a sommelier.