How many sommeliers can you name? Two? Four? Unless you work in the industry, your personal index of wine professionals is likely a tiny fraction of your mental database of chefs, who've been made ubiquitous through glossy magazines and television shows.
"The main reason why is that wine is not visual," says Geoff Kruth, chief operating officer for the Guild of Sonmmeliers. "When you're talking about television, wine does not translate, because you can't smell it."
A new documentary chronicling four sommeliers trying to pass the Master Sommelier exam, considered one of the hardest tests in the world, is aiming to inject sommeliers' names and faces into popular culture. Metropolitan Grill's Thomas Price, who's preparing to take the exam in May, says he hopes Somm will help humanize his profession.
"We're not sitting around saying, 'Jeez, we're not recognized,' but I still roll up on tables and I can tell some tables are terrified," Price says. "I'm not the guy who walks over in a suit and scares the hell out of you."
But Kruth is ambivalent about promoting sommeliers as goofballs, gluttons and vagabonds, strategies that have propelled the careers of celebrity chefs including Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. Although Price, a contestant in the Guild of Sommeliers' Top Somm competition, describes the event as having "a very Top Cheffy format," organizer Kruth says he's stayed away from telecasting the proceedings or setting up seating for spectators.
"We haven't really done much to promote this competition," Kruth says.
The competition, now in its third year, begins with an online exam. Of the 250 test-takers, about 50 of them advance to the regional round, conducted in-person. Price, RN74's Chris Tanghe and Bastille's James Lechner are among the eight semi-finalists competing in San Francisco today for the western region win.
TopSomm was designed to reward sommeliers preparing for the Master Sommelier exam, and the payoff is equally inward-looking. While the winner earns a $1000 scholarship and a trip to the Robert Mondavi winery, Kruth says competitors are most interested in gaining the respect of their peers.
"It's been about the sommeliers," Kruth says. "It's a point of pride among each other."