The problem with most food debates is they're inherently unwinnable. Partisans can debate the relative merits of eastern Carolina and western Carolina barbecue until the hogs come home, but it's ultimately impossible to prove that vinegar's better than ketchup.
With that in mind, I'll refrain from comparing the Seattle food scene to its counterpart in Houston, where I recently spent three days feasting. I honestly can't tell you if salmon's better than brisket, and I'd wager any fair-minded eater would reach the same conclusion. But I'm happy to weigh in on wine service, which is roughly a hundred million times better in Houston.
I have no idea how many restaurants I've visited in Seattle, but I've eaten out five or six nights a week for a year-and-a-half. Over the course of those meals, I've not once been approached by a sommelier. I assumed perhaps that was because I looked young or poor, but master sommelier Thomas Price, head sommelier at the Metropolitan Grill, says my experience may reflect how few local restaurants employ a sommelier.
"I laugh with all my colleagues here about how there's Canlis, (Wild) Ginger and the Met Grill," Price says. By contrast, Katharine Shilcutt, food critic at the Houston Press, estimates 40-50 nicer Houston restaurants employ a sommelier -- or a very educated general manager who's primed to fulfill a similar function. Even accounting for the population differences between the two cities, that's a startling statistic. And it's all the more surprising since Seattle is, as Price puts it, "sort of smack dab in the middle of wine country." Although Texas is valiantly trying to promote its wine growers, nobody would mistake the state's hill country for the Yakima Valley.
But the sommelier story isn't best told with numbers. I'd rather introduce you to the men who poured our wines at Oxheart and Underbelly, two leading restaurants in a city where the Iron Som crown is considered among the most prestigious titles attainable in the food-and-beverage industry.
Oxheart's sommelier, Justin Vann, is a bespectacled blogger who's compared the feeling he gets after drinking a great Japanese whiskey to the way "a really good punk show might make you want to punch someone in the moshpit in the face." And while that sounds intense, Vann's service style is self-effacing and caring, two attributes rarely associated with Seattle soms. (Both qualities are taken so seriously in Texas, where the som culture's the envy of wine pros nationwide, that a Texas Sommelier Conference attendee this year wrote an article entitled "What Pastors Can Learn From Sommeliers")
Vann had designed an all-white pairing for the seven-course meal on offer at Oxheart the night I dined there, but he was quick to ask whether I'd miss having a red. The pairings as planned were terrific, but Vann's skill really shone when dealing with my husband, who doesn't drink wine. Vann had recently purchased a set of non-alcoholic beverages for a special dinner, and spoke about them with the enthusiasm lesser soms reserve for bottles with triple-digit price tags. He had tasting notes for Mexican coke.
"We're there to take an experience from one that's good to one that's great," Price says.
At Underbelly, Matthew Pridgen - who, like Vann, wears glasses and a checkered shirt to work - is officially the general manager. But his picks were perfectly tailored to the food on the table and the people seated around it: He poured a 2006 Sattler St. Laurent that had everyone cooing. It was the ideal example of a wine most diners wouldn't think to request: When faced with a family-sized platter of red meat, very few eaters automatically order up an Austrian red. As Price nightly witnesses at Met Grill, diners typically go for big reds so reliably in the presence of beef that he's forced to pour Brunellos with shellfish starters. "Personally, I find that horrifying, but my philosophy is always 'guest first'," he says.
Still, at the Met, sommeliers typically don't interact with guests unless they've expressed interest in ordering a bottle of wine. At Underbelly, Pridgen bounds around the room, offering his services to anyone who looks thirsty - even if they also appear young and underfunded.
As Price explains, wine's a given in Texas: In Seattle, many eaters don't consider it an essential element of a great meal. And, if they do, they're unlikely to cede decision-making to a sommelier. Whether it's because the diner thinks it would be uncool to defer to a restaurant staffer, or because the sommelier fails to correctly read the customer, happy stories of Seattle eaters being introduced to unexpected pairings by a trained professional are exceedingly rare.
It's a genuine shame that Seattle doesn't have a strong sommelier culture. It would be wonderful if new restaurants put more thought into not just their wine lists, but their wine service, funneling the young, geeky energy that's now concentrated on beer and cocktails into wine appreciation. Our city is lucky to have great food and great wine - its diners deserve professionals to help them link the two.