Letter to My Younger Somm Self

Photo credit Torsten Schmidt

Don’t let anyone tell you those rocks are a waste of time. 

Twenty-five years from now, sitting in a Koblenz classroom on your first day of wine school, you will be grateful for each and every one of them. Because there in the heart of German wine country, those stones and their secrets —  though you don’t know it yet — will be the foundation keeping you steady among your more experienced classmates, those vintners’ sons and daughters who boast seven, ten, 15 generations in the business, and counting. All while you are still trying to locate the Mosel on a map, and looking up “prädikat” under the table in your pocket dictionary. 

And because the only word you’ll catch is “petrol”and not Riesling, you’re going to walk out of that room thinking: “Germans are really obsessed with their cars!” 

On the long road ahead, you will eventually train your ears, both to this strange language and the people who speak it. But on that day, with the call of the vine-studded Loreley just beyond the classroom window, you will be grateful for the long road behind. The one that started in “the Granite State,” with the summer of rocks. The one where you learned that hard stones when struck together don’t break, they spark. And the spark of that summer will fuel a lifetime of curiosity, even when life, love, or German tries to get in the way.

Use the quiet to hone your other instincts. Sight and movement, smell and taste, without the distraction of your own voice.

So start crushing every rock you can find. Right now you’re all mosquito-bitten legs and olive-hued summer arms, and it’s a way to pass the time while mom is in nursing school. Lean in. Stretch out. A geology teacher might say: Igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic. But you need to get comfortable in a different kind of classroom, the kind that only children have the time to frequent: the unfettered outdoor world, where loose pebbles teach you the practical differences between granite, slate, and limestone. Strike those stones together and watch the way they shatter and split from the sheer strength of meeting, in a microcosmic reenactment of the subduction of the earth’s tectonic plates all those million of years ago. A force of erosion you are.

Breathe in the way they smell outside, and again on the inside, once their secrets are exposed. At high noon when they’re hot to the touch; and smooth and damp under the cover of pine after a summer rain. And again at nightfall, by the light of the fireflies, to teach you to trust your nose as much as your eyes. Listen to how they crumble between the worn pads of your fingers, now caked in stony dust. And when others try to persuade you to throw those rocks into the tumbler to make them shiny and smooth, beautiful but impenetrable, perfect but opaque —  don’t listen. It’s what’s inside that matters.

Trust your instinct, always. Especially when it’s informed by your nose. Because those vintners’ sons and daughters will struggle to get past their own preconceptions and taste and see what’s really in front of them. While for you, a clean slate is a clean slate.

© Torsten Schmidt

And while we’re at it: let’s give a shout out to your nascent palate, too. Your parents will shake their heads in frustration every time you deconstruct a sandwich into its components: the bologna, the tomato, the lettuce, and even the yellow teaspoon of French’s mustard scraped from the slices of bread. To them, you are simply a peculiar child. But you know that it’s not about liking something or not, rather, together it is just too intense, a needlessly confusing conflagration of flavor. Your joy comes in savoring the elements. 

Soon you’ll learn to identify the elderberries that grow at the top of the hill. Plucked off the bush in the heat of late summer, they’ll introduce you to the midnight blue coexistence of ripe and bitter. Later, when you taste your first Blaufränkisch, you’ll be prepared.

Or that honeysuckle vine you seek out not to satiate hunger but rather for the single drop of nectar at the base of the pale trumpet blossom. That will fuel your appreciation for the liquid gold that you will come to know as Trockenbeerenauslese.

Keeping that spark alive through the years requires fuel, and you’ll never be in short supply of a challenge. Do yourself a favor and when you travel to Germany for a one-year-turned-lifetime European adventure, pack a corkscrew in place of those language tapes. Use the things you don’t understand to connect the dots. Tiny circular blots of ink, otherwise known as umlauts. Don’t be afraid. As with all things language, the magic happens in the space between, and sometimes above, the letters.  

Time — like grief — is neither linear nor absolute. Starting lines and finish lines look uncannily similar.  

Embrace the power of your forced silences, those times when words fail because you haven’t learned them. Like the rocks and the fireflies, use the quiet to hone your other instincts, rely on other senses. Sight and movement, smell and taste, without the distraction of your own voice. 

That’s how you’ll eventually leave behind that Koblenz classroom. And pass the sommelier test. At which point you’ll think you’ve made it: job lined up, gold-stamped certificate in hand, internship already behind you. 

But time — like grief — is neither linear nor absolute. Starting lines and finish lines look uncannily similar. So listen closely as part two of my advice is going to sound really counter-intuitive.

Stop focusing on the wine.

Like the elements of that sandwich, the fermented grape juice is only one part of a bigger whole. Your inner child is a natural at pulling things apart and putting them back together. Lean in there, too.

It’s part of what makes you ready to put wine into the context of life rather than the other way around. In fact, whether it’s literature or music, the off-kilter analogies that may seem to make sense only to you are the ones people will remember. 

You’ll learn that what separates a great somm from a good one is not her ability to recognize or recite a vintage, a vineyard, a law. A great somm understands how to connect the dots in the quiet spaces between those data points, the spaces between life and wine.

© Torsten Schmidt

That’s what will make a taste of the 1914 Chateau Margaux with the torn label one of your most indelible wine experiences. Before tasting, of course, you’ll know it will be transcendent. Yet you will fail to grasp exactly how transcendent. Or, more importantly, why. 

When that nearly century-old wine flows into your glass, mahogany hued, it won’t smell like any wine you’ve known before. A mixture of wet wood and damp mushrooms, dried blackberries and old earth. As soon as the oxygen hits the liquid, you will sense it starting to fade, the clock ticking on its ability to express time and place, the connection between “then” and “now.” And you’ll have the tools to take it in, thanks to a summer spent crushing rocks and trusting your gut.

But you will make one mistake: you’ll want to preserve it, you’ll want to stop time. You will pour the remainder of your glass into the only container you can find, a cheap plastic water bottle. And when the evening is finished, you will bike home, and shake your husband awake. “Taste it!,” you will plead, “before it is gone.” But it’s already left, and his experience will be but a muted echo of yours. You’ll learn then the immediacy of art; grasp the race against itself for immortality. And understand wine’s place in that world, and in yours. 

And so when mom, who will be gone far sooner than anyone thinks, calls out on one of those summer evenings, when time paces impatiently, disguised as night at the forest edge, and the film of a childhood’s worth of geology lessons hangs in the air, stop to give her a hug even as you plead for a few more minutes to smell the rocks, taste the dust, and connect the dots in the fireflies of the summer night sky.

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