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Q & A with Aldo Sohm

Aldoportrait.jpgIt’s not often the world’s best sommelier gets punked by Frank Bruni.  Just another day at Le Bernardin apparently.    Fortunately, Aldo Sohm loves challenges, which might explain how he earned the title, “Best Sommelier in the World.”  Sohm entered the competition on a whim and held has his title four years in a row.  He isn’t one of those people who claims they’re “born with a wine palate.”   In fact, he hated the taste the first time he tried it.   And up until he was 19, Sohm stuck to dessert wines because regular wines were too sour for him.    

He grew up in Austria, where he attended a hospitality high school and quickly fell in love with the culture of sommelier competition early on in his career.  Especially winning.  Aldo Sohm moved to New York to work with Kurt Gutenbrunner before moving on to Le Bernardin, one of the finest restaurants in the country.   His biggest challenge is coming up with reds and whites that complement chef Eric Ripert’s delicate seafood preparations.  He’s never afraid of reds and even does red pairing dinners.  Sohm’s advice: “Try the wine on its own and also with food. It might
show you two different faces

What did you want to be when you grew up?
All kinds of jobs that boys often want to be…helicopter pilot, chef, etc.

What was your first job in food?  What did you learn?
I did an internship in the kitchen of my hospitality high school.  I learned the basics of the restaurant industry, but it also opened my eyes to the fact that there was much more to learn.  My love for the industry definitely wasn’t born there, but in my next position I truly caught the bug.

When did you have your first sip or glass of wine? When did you decide to pursue a career in wine?
I tried it with my family at around age 10 or 12, but I remember I didn’t like it at all and thought it tasted sour.  I preferred dessert wines, somehow it went down more smoothly!  When I was 19 working as a waiter in a restaurant, I would get questions from customers and during my afternoon break I would do reading, so that I could answer them properly.  And I started going to tastings and tried to learn as much as I could.

Some sommeliers can blind taste a wine and immediately tell you the year and the vineyard it was produced on.  Is your experience similar or do you think that’s a learned skill?
In competitions, this is what we tried to achieve, but I also learned how difficult it is and how easy it is to fail and say something wrong.  In my opinion, sommeliers often put too much focus on that and miss some other aspects, like service and communication with customers and wine pairings.  What I like in blind tasting is that you are neutral.  It enables you as a young sommelier to look at labels neutrally because at this stage you tend to follow your preferences.  And once you see a “big” label you automatically follow that instead of tasting a wine more analytically.

Last month, Food & Wine Magazine ran
an article in which you had to deal with the world’s “worst customer”
(Frank Bruni.)  What were you thinking during the
ordeal, and how did you react when you found out?
I was focusing and listening to his needs. I was
obviously tricked and got set up and I didn’t question what was going
on. We don’t question and we meet the needs to our best possible
abilities. It’s that simple. It was definitely an extreme
case but I love challenges – that’s why I enjoyed doing the
competitions, so for me it was fun.  It was like a lighter version in
real-life of the competitions. 
I was certainly surprised when I
found out the truth but at the same time I was honored.

Rumor has it that you entered the World Sommelier Competition on a whim and won first place.   How did you manage to pull that achievement off four years in a row?
Actually, I did decide last minute to enter but I trained for about 6 weeks prior (while working full-time, so it was no joke every free minute was spent studying) and I brought about 10 years experience in competitions to the table. Passion, love, wanting to get better, pressure of the expectation—that was how I pulled it off.

Any tricks of the trade or tips on tasting you can impart in readers?
Take your time.  Give the wine time to speak for itself.  Don’t taste 10 wines at a time.  Give wine time to develop in the glass. Try the wine on its own and also with food. It might show you two different faces.  

How have you changed the wine list and made it your own? 
Of course, I put my signature on the list.  But I didn’t rush that. I took time to read the customers and understand what they wanted and then I made the necessary changes.

Where do you eat and drink on your nights off?
At home. Ardesia Wine Bar, or if I have a hard evening
then Apotheke. And I love Terroir.

If you had one last meal, what would you eat and what kind of wines would you pair with it?

I am very much alive and therefore I have a hard time to think about my last meal!  But if you nail me down right now, it’s Thai food with a dry German Riesling…or my native country’s wine…a Gruner.

Do you encounter many difficult guests at Le Bernardin?  Is that a challenge for you or just an aggravation?
No we are very fortunate – we do not have difficult guests at Le Bernardin.  As for the Food & Wine article, it was definitely an extreme case but I love challenges.   That’s why I enjoyed doing the competitions, so for me it was fun.  It was like a lighter version in real-life of the competitions.

Some people still stick with white wine when they’re eating fish.   Considering that Le Bernardin is a seafood restaurant, do you find it more challenging to sell reds?  Do you ever do all red pairings for dinner?  What red would you drink with scallops sashimi or oysters?
Yes.  We do serve a lot of red and I also do quite a few red pairings. So I use red wines where I can, but I don’t put on pressure because it has to make sense and work.  For example, with scallop sashimi, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going with a red there—and oysters, once I had oysters with grilled sausages and drank Bordeaux with it and it was delicious.

How about the nori-crusted skate with poached oysters?
You can do red with this dish, but the playing field does become more narrow with a dish like that—and it’s clearly more difficult but it is doable.  I could do a Pinot Noir from Flowers with it.

What are the most important principals your sommeliers must live by?
Reinvent yourself constantly.  Listen to customers’ needs and work it out so that you give your input but the customer is still happy. Be inspiring and live what you love. Be inspiring for your co-workers.

How do you go about choosing wine for guests?   Do you have go-to bottles for every dish or do you pick according to the specific tastes of each guest?
I ask them what their preferences are, what do they normally drink, are they open to discover something new.  Of course I have bottles where I know I am safe but every customer is different and has different preferences so I adjust. It’s a hard question to answer because there’s no set formula and I approach each situation openly.

Do you cook or just drink?   What
are some of your favorite bottles?
cook and drink.  Some favorites: Meursault Luchets Domaine Roulot 1996.  I love Chablis especially from Ravenneau, but I also
enjoy inexpensive wines such like the Muscadet Gy Bossard (Domaine de
L’Ecu) Expression d’Orthogneiss 07. For obvious reasons I love red Burgundy but I’m
always open to discovering something new.

Other than Le Bernardin, whose wine programs do you admire?
Alto, Veritas.

Any plans to write a wine guide in the imminent future or perhaps a wine bar of your own?
I’m quite busy lately, I haven’t thought about it – but thank you for putting the idea in my head!

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