SAN FRANCISCO - My day in the life of a sommelier started in the cramped quarters of the wine cellar for the Fifth Floor Restaurant in San Francisco, where I helped Emily Wines - yes, that's her real name - restock her upstairs bar.
Wines is the head sommelier at Fifth Floor, and lucky for me, she has quietly begun to welcome the public for behind-the-scenes glimpses into her rarefied world. Seven years ago, she joined Fifth Floor, the Hotel Palomar's signature restaurant, and helped her predecessor, Rajat Parr, create an impressive 1,400-bottle wine list that has won Wine Spectator's Grand Award several times. Now she is spearheading an ambitious program that includes theme tasting seminars, classes in wine and food pairing, and a weekend sommelier experience for hotel guests.
What I began to learn in that cool, dim storeroom is that the business of being a sommelier is a lot less mysterious ("Deciding what you should drink doesn't have to be intimidating; it should be about what you like") and more ephemeral ("wine is a living thing that constantly changes, especially after you open it") than I'd thought.
Wines aims to do away with the intimidation factor, and her friendly, unassuming manner and ready smile make her the ideal teacher. She's equally at ease choosing bottles for snobby businessmen as she is clambering up a floor-to-ceiling rack dressed in a suit and high-heeled boots. "Lots of practice," she told me with a grin as she grabbed an out-of-the-way selection.
A busy day starts in the cellar, pulling wines to replace those sold the previous evening. The conversation starter that particular morning was a $1,550 bottle of 1982 Cheval Blanc, a vintage red Bordeaux blend purchased the night before by a customer who may have been showing off for his girlfriend. When I asked what makes aged bottles so special - don't they turn into vinegar at some point? - Wines gave me a tutorial in wine, pulling down a 1937 German Riesling. If a wine is well bottled, she said, it will have an evolving palette of flavors that lasts for decades.
"This one will probably have a bit of an orange-peel flavor. As it ages, the wine becomes a lot more complex and not as sweet. The sugar molecules get longer, and it becomes a whole other wine." The sweetness of a Riesling, she added, helps preserve it.
Oenology aside, the fun part of being a sommelier, of course, is tasting and selection. That afternoon, Wines was trying out Chardonnays - she wanted a new wine for the restaurant to sell by the glass - and we headed upstairs to meet a vendor and do some sampling. (An added perk about a San Francisco sommelier experience: You can easily head north to Napa or Sonoma to continue your education in local wine.)
Fifth Floor occupies an elegant space in a 1908 landmark building, with zebra-print carpeting, velvet banquettes, and a focus on contemporary French food. Though it recently lost acclaimed chef Melissa Perello, a two-time James Beard nominee who also was named one of Food & Wine's 10 Best Chefs three years ago, the restaurant still serves up a sophisticated dining experience. Included in the wine package is a "flights and bites" tasting menu supervised by Wines. (The previous evening I tasted a dessert trio of peanut butter soufflé, goat cheese fritters, and white chocolate parfait, accompanied by a gorgeous Muscat, a Hungarian Tokaji, and Graham's 10 Year Tawny Port.)
Crucial advice to remember during a tasting: Spit, spit, and spit. As Nicole Blakeley, the vendor, lined up glasses on the white tablecloth and began pouring, Wines pointed at the silver spittoon between our chairs. "You'll still get a little drunk with the alcohol soaking into your gums, but at least you won't be incapacitated," she explained. "There's a lot to get through today."
And so we bravely set off to find a bigger, oakier Chardonnay to complement the delicate white Burgundy that Wines already had on her list. We swished, spun, sniffed, sipped, and spit. Wines decided one Chardonnay was too clean and crisp, and deemed another slightly corrupted by the floral, jasmine quality of Viognier grapes. At the end of the hour, with the room spinning ever so slightly, we had a winner: a Foley 2005 Chardonnay from the Santa Rita Hills that Wines described as "toasty and creamy, but still balanced." She ordered three cases, and I asked for some water.
Afterward, I accompanied Wines to a class on Rhône Valley varietals at the Grand Café, located at the Hotel Monaco, a sister hotel to the Palomar (they are both Kimpton properties). She peppered the tasting with historic tidbits: a wine-growing area that took its name from a castle built by popes when the papacy left Rome in the 14th century (Chateauneuf du Pape); the wine Thomas Jefferson liked (Hermitage).
Then it was back to Fifth Floor to join the staff for "family dinner" - a trough of orzo with tomatoes, Roquefort, and olives - and house lineup, where menu changes were discussed. An hour later, we landed back in the kitchen to taste the evening's new dish, a creamy garlic velouté with cranberry beans and bacon, and to choose a wine to pair with it. Wines pulled five bottles to try; the dish's starchy smokiness overpowered the Riesling, and the sauvignon blanc was too tropical. When she asked me what I thought of the Chardonnay, I told her that its oak struck me as a weird flavor combination with cream and bacon. Though garlic has a green taste that usually is more white-friendly, we decided on a Bourgogne, a red that featured interesting characteristics that didn't compete with the food.
Out of the fluorescent brightness of the kitchen and into the candlelight of the dining room, I was briefed on the secret language of beverage service: bottles on coasters vs. bottles on bare tablecloth (a coaster meant that the bottle had been presented to the table), and whether or not a table had been "bubbled" (did they get their Champagne?).
In the dining room, everything was about theater - from the music and lighting to wine presentation and timing of courses - all well coordinated to make customers feel special.
Back into the storage room we went to track down a bottle for a guest, and I remembered something Wines had said that morning when she pulled down a rare 1893 Château d'Yquem white that had turned yellow over time. "This one won't last long when you open it," she said, turning over the bottle and showing me the cracked label. "At first, you'll probably get a very tight, barnyard smell. But an hour later, it's like dried rose petals. It's an adventure, and you won't know until you open it."
Bonnie Tsui, a freelance writer in San Francisco, can be reached at bonnietsui.com.