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California Wine: The Som(melier) is Greater than the Parts

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L.A.'s restaurants have wine lists as colorful and unique as the eclectic souls that write them.

They range from funky esoteric wine bars with lists that appear to be constructed by a committee of conspirators, to small restaurants where, much like small towns, the owner, the chef, and wine buyer are one and the same. And of course in large restaurants, there is typically one person -- the sommelier -- who oversees the list. But regardless of who is in charge of the wine list, or how vast their skill set, they all have the same decisions to make.

Being in charge of a wine program is not as simple as sorting through the ocean of wines available and simply choosing enough to fill a list. There is the matter of how to use the list. Just as a carpenter has myriad tools to use when building a house, he knows when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. A list is simply a set of tools, and a som is only as good as he wields those tools.

Knowing the menu and having a good relationship with the chef are crucial elements in constructing a good list. Knowing your clientele, and being able to adapt to their likes and dislikes is ostensibly even more important. A list is a party and should be full of interesting people with diverse backgrounds and personalities.

It is the job of the sommelier to play matchmaker, pairing a guest wisely with an appropriate wine. And it is the job of the guest to invite this daring dining dating by calling the Som over for help.

It is absurd to think of traveling to a foreign country without the help of a guidebook, and it is equally absurd to try to navigate a wine list without consulting the person who wrote it. There may be wines from unknown regions made with unpronounceable grapes that could be easily dismissed by someone not familiar. But with the proper introduction, a diner will meet a new and interesting wine that will lead to an evening-long conversation. With the right guide, a wine list is an opportunity to travel to places you have never been before without the inconveniences of a barefoot full-body scan.

So the next time you're at a restaurant faced with a mountain of unfamiliar wine choices, do yourself a favor and ask the designated wine sherpa for suggestions. This is your chance to taste familiar foods in the glow of new liquid light.

[Photo by Flickr user DiazWerks.]

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