A lot of guys find sommeliers intimidating, and for good reason: Male ego dynamics revolve in part around competence. I know there are a lot of guys out there with no ego issues, and perhaps even more who simply have a good grip on their ego issues, but I know also that there are plenty like me, who have experienced the annoyance at having to confront, again and again, men who know vastly more than we do (female sommeliers are less threatening, in my view). I’m talking about that moment in the expensive restaurant, when you’re treating your lady and you’re wanting to feel good and competent, and the guy walks over and—as happened to me last night at Cyrus in Healdsburg—picks up the bottle of wine you brought and gives it a once-over.
The problem with this moment is not just that some percentage of male diners have ego problems similar to my own and have to struggle to stay relaxed and detached and secure, but that sommeliers are human, too. This means they are equally vulnerable to the ego dynamics at play. In other words, a very secure sommelier will have nothing at stake in humiliating you and will want only to shepherd you toward a positive experience. But a less secure sommelier will, consciously or not, feel the power inherent in his position. He will get a certain satisfaction from confronting, at table after table, on night after night, men from all walks of life who know much, much less than he does about something of great importance within the limited terms of the evening.
This satisfaction will exacerbate the anxiety of diners like myself. Until said diners, in muttering the word sommelier again and again, hit upon a mnemonic device that deflates the whole thing. I’m thinking of Katie Couric’s apparent mnemonic for remembering the name of the president of Iran: I’m a dinner jacket. In my case, it’s a simple matter of saying smellier three or four times in a row, until my date and I start giggling. Once we’re giggling over something as dumb as that, I know we’re on our way to a fun night.