by Ron Washam

Sommeliers without borders

Larry Anosmia, Master Sommelier, had a vision. He knew there were millions of people around the globe suffering, and suffering in unimaginable agony, simply because they didn’t have access to a sommelier. In many cases, they may have had access, but lacked the fundamental ability to palm a twenty-dollar bill and slide it gracefully and inconspicuously into the hand of the tastevin-wearing restaurant ATM. But, for the most part, it was people all around the United States, and the rest of the world, who, day after day, had no one to ask what wine was appropriate with their meal, who often sat on street corners in the worst parts of the world, like Dallas, begging passersby for wine pairing help. We’ve all seen them on freeway on-ramps, disheveled and desperate, holding cardboard signs reading, “PLEASE! Need money for a Somm. Food is getting cold. Smile if you love Natural Wine.” Without basic sommelier care, life is bitterly empty and cruel.

Anosmia wanted to give back, bring a little Sommshine to those dark, despairing souls. He’d spent a long and distinguished career in the wine business. Among other things, Anosmia was credited with creating the first Glass-by-the-Wine program, which worked by having the restaurant customer order a particular glass, which the restaurant then filled with whatever leftover wine they had laying around. This innovation is far and away the most common program in restaurants today. Successful, and now thinking about his legacy, beyond being the first sommelier to have his DNA grafted onto a clone of Pinot Noir so that the resulting wines smelled of self-importance with a whisper of Wine Away, Anosmia had an epiphany. He would devote the rest of his life to helping those around the world who didn’t have the basic human right of access to a sommelier. And just like that, Sommeliers Without Borders was born.

You might think that a life devoted to wine is sacrifice enough. That the selflessness of a sommelier, his lifelong dedication to helping others at the expense of his very liver, his courage and indefatigability in the face of nearly unendurable industry wine tastings, his every moment dedicated to helping those less fortunate understand the error of their ways, is enough for one person to give. And then you remember that there are saints who walk among us. Saints who care for the starving and the terminally ill; saints who work tirelessly for abused and abandoned creatures of every species; saints who never hesitate even a single moment before offering to help choose an inexpensive wine to go with the meal recently foraged from a dumpster. Really, there’s only one conclusion. Sommeliers are just better than us. Ask them.

“I saw a need,” Larry Anosmia, MS, said, “and I decided to do my best to address it. I only wish I could do more. Too many people in the world go to bed hungry every night, and the only thing that goes with poverty is a decent glass of Riesling—just a QbA, nothing fancy. But how do you get them that information? That’s what I set out to do.”

Calling upon all of his friends and admirers, Anosmia put together a group of wine professionals that was the envy of the industry. The names read like a Dictionary of Hubris. Bobby Stuckey, Kevin Zraly, Raj Parr, Aldo Sohm, Larry Stone… What they didn’t know about wine you could write on the pin of a head. That original core group began the juggernaut that is now Sommeliers Without Borders, a juggernaut (or, as the winos say, “Jug, or not”) that is changing the world one wine pairing at a time. And at no cost to the most tragic and needy among us, the unfortunate many who have never even spoken to a sommelier. Stop and think about that for a moment. Never even spoken to a sommelier. Just try to imagine that, if you can. What seems to us like a basic human right is denied to millions and millions of uneducated palates. We can turn our heads and look away, like when our urologist tells us to cough, or we can decide to do something.

Anosmia assembled his volunteer somms in the neediest, often most dangerous, places. One of their first destinations was an Applebee’s in Fresno. Word spread around the community that Sommeliers Without Borders was in town, and soon the local natives were lining up to see the sommeliers. At first, the language barrier was a huge problem. The sommeliers would dispense their wisdom, but it soon became clear that no one knew what they were talking about. Nothing out of the ordinary in that, the language of sommeliers is famously hard to understand, and was used during World War II to confuse the Navajos. But soon the thousands of folks who had lined up in Fresno, patiently waiting for a moment they had never dreamed possible, a first encounter with a living sommelier, began to understand. You don’t need to know what a sommelier is saying so much as you just need to nod your head and agree. This is the healing gift of our sommeliers. That long ago day in Fresno ended in tears for many of the natives, tears of gratitude. “For us,” Bobby Stuckey said, “it was moving to be so revered—and yet it just felt right.”

Now Sommeliers Without Borders, with the help of contributions and countless volunteer hours, is international in scope. They are there when doctors and nurses and oral surgeons repair the cleft palates of poor Africans in the Ivory Coast to then teach them how to sniff, swirl and spit. They live by the caveat that you can give a man a glass of wine and get him drunk for an afternoon, or you can teach him the 100 Point Scale and make him a pompous dick the rest of his life. They are there when tsunamis make meals too salty for ordinary wine pairings. In fact, wherever culinary disasters strike, Sommeliers Without Borders is there, not seeking publicity or acclaim, but just to help. “I only wish,” Larry Stone told me, “we could have been there for the Donner Party.”

Ron Washam is a recovering sommelier and former comedy writer, who also judges at many major wine competitions, whether he’s invited or not. He blogs regularly and rather pathethically at HoseMaster of Wine.

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