Rise of the alternative sommelier not to be sniffed at

Mr Riese, the only water sommelier in the US, does exactly what a wine somm does, but with water. In June, he was a judge at a water-tasting contest in Guangzhou, China.
Mr Riese, the only water sommelier in the US, does exactly what a wine somm does, but with water. In June, he was a judge at a water-tasting contest in Guangzhou, China.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/MARTIN RIESE

There's now a new wave who pour coffee, sake, water and even hot sauce

NEW YORK • In June, five international water sommeliers judged the second water-tasting competition in Guangzhou, China. They swirled, sniffed and sipped about 70 different brands of the simplest beverage on earth, and awarded gold, silver or bronze medals.

One of them was Mr Martin Riese, the first and only water sommelier in the US, who does exactly what a wine somm does, but with water: understanding its taste complexities, selecting a list of waters from around the world for a restaurant, and pairing them with food. "Most people," he says tartly, "are doing water wrong."

You can roll your eyes, but this is a real job, and one of many. There's now a whole new wave of sommeliers who pour beverages other than wine - including cider, rum, sake, tea, coffee and even hot sauce.

As the image of somms has gone from snooty and supercilious to glamorous and hip, the world's 236 master wine sommeliers have become bona fide celebrities, like Michelin-starred chefs. No wonder "somm" is fast becoming the shorthand for just about any knowledgeable specialist in a restaurant who traffics in quaffable tastes and aromas and advises on what goes best with what.

Calling yourself a tea somm, for example, underscores the idea that tea deserves the same respect as wine - especially when top examples cost as much as US$1,000 (S$1,380) for about half a kilo.

A FARCE

Terms like water sommelier or even towel sommelier - I've actually seen this - strike me as more farcical than relevant.

MR GEOFF KRUTH, president of GuildSomm

Mr Riese, certified in Germany by one of the few schools for water specialists, has created water menus for the Patina Restaurant Group in Los Angeles. His top picks for water: Denmark's Iskilde and Spain's sparkling Vichy Catalan.

Brooklyn in the United States, meanwhile, is home to the world's only somm for hot sauce. When Heatonist, a shop with 120 varieties, opened last year, co-owner Noah Chaimberg started calling himself a somm, because, he says, "it's a term people understand".

His expertise comes from tasting 6,000 examples and hosting pop-up pairing events.

Do master somms, who pass rigorous exams to earn their status in the wine world, approve? Their Washington DC symposium a couple of weeks ago featured a discussion on somm expansion.

"It proves people are finally comfortable with us - it's the highest compliment," says Mr John Ragan, wine director for the Union Square Hospitality group.

Ms Pascaline Lepeltier, who presides over wine at the newly reopened Rouge Tomate restaurant, is flattered and points out that sommeliers originally had a wider role at the table than just wine.

But Mr Geoff Kruth, president of GuildSomm, is less than enthused. "Terms like water sommelier or even towel sommelier - I've actually seen this - strike me as more farcical than relevant," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'Rise of the alternative sommelier not to be sniffed at'. Print Edition | Subscribe