The Life of a Sommelier: An Interview with Northern Fork’s Own Ellyn Cook
Tobias Roberts, September 18, 2018
For many people, wine is a gratification that helps them unwind after a long day of work or loosen up during a dinner with friends. For a sommelier, however, wine is a passion, a subject of continuous study and examination, and the focus of a professional career. While this might sound like a dream profession to many wine lover, being a successful sommelier requires years of training and continuous research into the mysterious world of wine.
Ellyn Cook is the sommelier for Northern Fork, a Chicago-based catering company that serves Chicago and the surrounding region. Among other tasks, Ellyn works with the wide base of wine distributors to create custom bar packages for the events that Northern Fork caters to. She is also responsible for creating signature cocktails to accompany the catered meals. She also has conducted mixology classes during certain events along with wine tasting and pairing dinners.
We recently sat down to talk with Ellyn to learn the details of one of the most interesting, though often misunderstood professions.
What Is a Sommelier?
A sommelier is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional who specializes in all aspects of wine service, including the art of wine and food pairing. While wine waiters simply recommend a few house wines, the role of the sommelier in fine dining is much more specialized and informed.
The profession can be traced back to 1300s England when the royal butler would be in charge of sourcing and procuring wines for wealthy lords and their households. Because wine was an important part of the daily diet that was also subject to periodic shortages, the butler would often buy heavy during the poor years for the table wine and then buy larger quantities of high quality wine in good years for the king or lord´s consumption. This tradition is similarly continued by sommeliers today as they concentrated high end bottle purchases during good vintages while settling for less-acclaimed wines for the house pours.
According to Ellyn, “a sommelier is an expert in wine and hospitality. Through wine and food, you create an experience for a guest through knowledge and passion.”
Creating that unique experience through the subtleties of each unique wine certainly requires a bit of firsthand experience. However, Ellyn admits that “though I would like to say (that becoming a sommelier) is all wine drinking, it is mostly about studying.” Everything from language, law, history, and culture to weather patterns and soil conditions inform a sommelier about the correct wine for a certain occasion. As Ellyn reminds us, “tasting, teaching, and studying wine is backed by a wealth of knowledge that goes into every glass.”
Getting a Start in an Envied Profession
Ellyn first became interested in the world of wine after moving to California and working at a wine bar. Unlike much of our industrialized food system that is focused on homogeneity and culinary uniformity, the wine culture allows each and every meal or glass of wine to become a portal that transports you into another culture. The distinct flavor of each wine reflects the unique soil and weather conditions of the region where the grapes were grown, and in some cases the natural yeasts that accompany the fermentation process are also a living vestige of the region that produced the wine.
The full experience of drinking a glass of wine also lends itself to a wine culture that creates a strong sense of community. Ellyn admits that the world of wine lovers “is a wonderful community of smart and outgoing individuals. I have met and maintained endless friendships and professional relationships through the wine world.”
Learning the Art of Being a Sommelier
So how exactly does one go from simply enjoying a glass of wine with some friends to learning to differentiate and recognize the thousands of different subtleties that distinguish a Domaine du Comte Liger from the boxed wine on sale at your local supermarket?
“Your senses and palate are like a muscle,” Ellyn explains, “and the more you use it the better it gets. A combination of practices helped me to refine my palate and nose.”
A good sommelier must know the aromas that distinguish each wine before they ever pick up a glass. For example, Ellyn asks us: “Could you describe the difference between anise, tarragon, fennel, and black licorice? All have a similar smell but the best way to find out is to smell, experience, and taste every herb, fruit, leaf, tea, mineral, and earth.”
Wine is truly a sensory experience and refining your palate takes practice. Ellyn recommends finding a group of fellow wine enthusiasts. “I have participated in a weekly wine group with fellow sommeliers and hearing what they taste and smell (in each glass of wine) makes me dive deeper and search for those notes. A group setting is ideal for tasting.”
Ellyn also recommends that amateurs “taste and smell with intention. You can drink wine your whole life and never taste it. Take every chance you get to flex your muscle.” Learning the art of understanding the intricacies of wine requires, then, a true appreciation for what is in your glass. (see more at https://winefolly.com/ )
Some Tricks of the Trade
As with all professions, practice makes perfect. After long hours of study, patient sips of wine, and weekly wine tasting group sessions, Ellyn has learned a few tricks of the trade to find that perfect wine for the right moment.
“What grows together, goes together,” Ellyn recommends. “This can translate into numerous meanings: Barolo and black truffles and pasta, goat cheese and Sancerre, Chianti and spaghetti, or Albarino and seafood. These famous pairings have a few things in common. The food and wine come from the same region and have been historically been paired together. When you get a wine from a certain region in the world, try to think of the food that would most likely accompany it for the region´s wine drinkers.”
Also, Ellyn recommends matching body with body and preparation with wine flavor. For example, if you want a big pepper steak, a full-bodied Syrah with earth and peppers notes is a natural companion. For a lemon butter chicken dinner, a Chardonnay with buttery texture and lemon aromas will naturally complement the meal.
Some Misconceptions in the World of Wine
One of the most common misconceptions that Ellyn sees in the world of wine is that price directly translates into quality. Many people mistakenly believe that there simply isn’t a quality wine that is within their budget.
Rather than focusing on price, Ellyn recommends that we novices should “focus on what you like about wine and ask for suggestions to expand and explore new areas and grapes. For example, most French wine will be expensive. If you are looking for a quality red French wine that won’t break the bank, consider trying wine from the Languedoc Roussillon region. If you love Champagne move over to Spain and enjoy Cava which is also done in the Champagne Method. If you like Sancerre don’t be afraid to try Pouilly-Fume, a Sauvignon Blanc down the road from Sancerre in Loire Valley.”
Even if all of the wines mentioned above leave you feeling more confused than when we began, Ellyn encourages people to not be intimidated to ask questions.
“All wine enthusiasts love to share about wine and help to educate others. Try new wines and grapes. Try fun pairing. Don’t take it too seriously because at the end of the day it’s still just a glass of wine.”