Americans have not been big wine drinkers historically, so sommeliers (aka wine stewards) have not been commonplace. There were French sommeliers in New York in the 1870s and later, but it’s likely they were wine merchants and specialists in maintaining wine cellars rather than part of restaurant staffs.
Nevertheless the fine restaurants of the 19th century, such as Delmonico’s and some hotels, made a point to offer wine and almost certainly had someone on their staff capable of ordering, storing, and recommending wines to diners.
But, however many or few wine experts worked in American restaurants, they were put out of business by the advance of Prohibition. Their numbers gradually grew after Prohibition ended in December, 1933. By that time the restaurant industry was hanging by a thread and eager to get back into profitable business with the sale of wine and spirituous liquors.
Articles from the 1930s reveal just how unfamiliar the American dining public was with wine. A columnist mentioned that the Fred Harvey company was busily creating a wine list for its deluxe restaurant in Chicago’s Straus building in the months leading up to Repeal. The story ran through a few basic pairing suggestions such as whites with fish and reds with beef, adding, “One never drinks beer at a swank dinner.”
Restaurants that planned to serve wine, such as Karl Eitel’s in Chicago, were furiously stocking their cellars then. Two days after Repeal, Eitel’s waiters scrambled to catch up with customers who ordered wines that were out of stock. They were instructed to offer orange juice as a substitute for the missing vermouth. Eitel himself expressed annoyance at the waiters’ lack of knowledge about how to chill wine properly (ice has to melt a little before it will cool a bottle).
At Repeal, French wine shippers had hopes that the U.S. would expand their market, but according to one insider, the ambassadors they sent to this country came back full of pessimism, convinced that Americans much preferred liquor and soft drinks.
The relatively few restaurants wanting sommeliers usually had to hire Europeans, as they were the ones with the finest training, or any training at all. The Vendome in Los Angeles, for instance, brought a sommelier from Monte Carlo’s Hotel de Paris in 1934. But even a couple of years later there were said to be fewer than a dozen professional sommeliers in this country.
And it was already evident that the popular attitude toward them was less than worshipful. For a start the word sommelier was a barrier which, in the words of one wit, “can’t be correctly pronounced unless you’re either drunk or French.” [See Word of the Day cartoon below for a guide] And the chain worn around the neck suspending an oversize key and tasting cup was often ridiculed – except as jewelry for women, who were said to make off with them. Their attractiveness inspired the jewelry maker Monet to produce a simplified sommelier-style necklace and matching bracelet in the 1930s, which remained popular into the 1950s.
The happy sommelier in this country was one who managed to get a dedicated tip from guests who truly appreciated his (rarely her) recommendations. Few newspaper columnists showed respect for them, excepting O. O. McIntosh. In 1938 he explained that he loved the rituals associated with the sommelier’s work, such as twirling bottles in an ice bucket, displaying labels, wrapping bottles with napkins, and extracting and sniffing corks. He declared it “a magnificent ritual and one the gallop of American life should not trample.”
It was more typical for commentators to make fun of it all. One made suggestions on how to respond to a sommelier’s proud display of a bottle: “. . . it is good to respond by fitting a monocle to the eye, studying the label and issuing appropriate clucks and ‘hmmms.’ This has become an obligatory art form in certain restaurants . . .”
The sommelier’s primary role in the view of the restaurant industry was to get people to buy wine by the bottle. Behind the scenes, in industry journals and books, the depiction of wine sales could be crudely oriented toward profits, with the sommelier’s skill directed toward an estimation of the diner’s insecurity or wish to celebrate. A 1968 book on wine merchandising in restaurants saw a skilled sommelier as “merchandising in motion” and useful for “giv[ing] class to your restaurant.” And a trade magazine article on how to merchandise wine in restaurants carried the tagline, “A Meal Without Wine is a Meal With Less Profit.” As was demonstrated by comparing two checks (shown above), wine drinkers were said to be fond of pre-dinner cocktails also.
One of the strongest motives for restaurant guests to value advice about wine was, and undoubtedly still is, not to look foolish in the eyes of others. A Napa Valley winery owner reported that an experimental wine tasting he held for his Harvard Business School classmates in the 1960s revealed that “They weren’t particularly interested in learning anything about wine, except for how to order it without being embarrassed.”
In 1940s NYC, sommeliers were still rare and could mostly be found at luxury restaurants such as Jack & Charlie’s 21 Club, The Colony, Chambord, Pierre’s, and El Morocco.
Their numbers likely increased in the 1950s, but were there really any golden years for sommeliers? Not if you asked NYT food critic Craig Claiborne. He declared in 1961 that sommeliers had lost their status, and were no longer involved in buying wine and supervising restaurant wine cellars. “The number of old school sommeliers in New York can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” he declared.
Some sommeliers, perhaps in reaction to ridicule, tried to avoid being showy. The French sommelier at Maxim’s in Paris (in Chicago), despite the honors he had won, stayed in the background and rejected wearing the long chain with a key because he found the custom pretentious. Judging from her 1972 advertisement, Georgette of Baton Rouge LA also departed from the traditional sommelier costume.
In the 1970s waitstaff captains at New York’s Four Seasons took over the role of sommelier. They were trained by one of the restaurant’s knowledgeable owners and given wine at their meals so they would be familiar with it. This would have satisfied critics who complained that many sommeliers had never tasted the wines they recommended.
Today, Las Vegas may have the most sommeliers in this country, however I’d guess that most restaurants elsewhere have done away with the costuming and ritual, relying instead on trained servers to make wine recommendations.
© Jan Whitaker, 2023