Wine editor Lettie Teague goes undercover at a New York City restaurant and learns there's more to being a sommelier than small talk and sturdy shoes.

 

Many people would define a sommelier as someone who knows a lot about wine but not much about jewelry--how else to explain the silver-plated cup-on-a-neck chain? After three nights working alongside Tim Kopec, wine director of Manhattan's Veritas restaurant (who wears a tie, not a tastevin), I'd add a few more attributes: the stamina of a marathoner, the tact of a diplomat and the callused feet of a door-to-door salesman.

It was my feet that first failed me after a recent stint on the Veritas floor. Oddly enough, Tim hadn't mentioned anything about feet, although he did name "a strong back" as his number one criterion when auditioning a sommelier. After all, the sommeliers at Veritas (three, not including me--an astonishing number for a 64-seat restaurant) carry as many as 160 cases a day down to the cellar and four dozen or so bottles back up every night. It's one reason why Veritas may be New York's greatest restaurant for wine (though it's pretty fabulous for the food, too--chef Scott Bryan is a 1996 F&W Best New Chef).

Second in importance, Tim continued, are a candidate's computer skills. The Veritas list--more like a leather-bound Bible--features about 3,000 selections, many of them drawn from the private cellars of the restaurant's owners, Steve Verlin and Park Smith. The software created to keep track of it all seemed complicated--at least to me, but that might have been on account of my age. After all, as Tim said, an ideal sommelier is "someone in their mid-twenties." (Tim is 36, though his rock star–length hair makes him look younger.) People in their twenties, he opined, are more likely to be software conversant.

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