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8 Secrets of a Sommelier

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Find yourself getting flustered when it's time to put in your drink order? Throwing a dinner party, but not quite sure how to please a crowd? We spoke with Ceri Smith—Wine Director at April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman’s Tosca and one of Food & Wine magazine’s 2014 Sommeliers of the Year—about why the rules about reds and whites don't always apply, how to settle on the right beverage for your favorite dish, and how much you should really be spending on a bottle of vino when you hit your local wine shop.

1. Want to learn about wine? Take it slow.

Really slow. Smith stresses that pros who have been in the business for decades are still constantly learning and being exposed to new things.

To kick start your own education, Smith, who also owns San Francisco's Biondivino wine boutique, suggests honing in on a region. Then comes the fun part. “Taste as much as you possibly can, and expose yourself to the point until you get bored,” she says. “Then pick another region. Don’t try to bite off everything. You’re not going to learn all of Tuscany, or Campania, in six months.” Overload on information, and you’ll likely forget everything when it comes time to put your newfound knowledge to use.

2. There's no need to sign up for one of those fancy classes.
 

Sommelier certification courses are a source of controversy in the industry. There are no uniform requirements for becoming a sommelier. In fact, a number of sommeliers working on the floors of some of the country’s most prestigious restaurants didn’t receive this kind of exam-oriented wine education. For those who choose to go that route, the culmination of all that coursework is certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers. This is pretty rarefied air, as there are just 147 Master Sommeliers in North America. Even more comprehensive is a Master of Wine certification, which covers all aspects of the wine business, from production to tasting to importing and distribution. (There are only 372 Masters of Wine worldwide.)

Smith, for her part, is largely self-taught. Early in her career, she worked for a wine importer. “He’d have two Barberas, for instance, from two different producers in two different regions, and I would sit down at the end of the day and taste them,” she recalls. “I would take all of my books, and I would read anything I could find, starting with the most complicated book and moving to the most simplistic definitions, to really reinforce the information.”

Today, she continues her education by reading anything and everything she can. Smith counts David Lynch ("his Vino Italiano was kind of like my Bible"), Matt Kramer, Kerin O'Keefe, and Hugh Johnson among her favorite authors.

3. Think outside the region.

If you're cooking for a group, the easiest way to ensure that your wine complements your menu is to stick to one region. "That's a really simple way to look at it," says Smith. "If it's a Northern Italian dish, generally the wine from that area will pair with what you're serving."

But there are plenty of ways to get more creative. If you're dishing out something that isn't specific to a given region, the sommelier suggests taking into consideration how you plan to season your meal. "I put olive oil and lemon on everything," Smith says. "If you finish with lemon, that probably means you like acidity, and any kind of acidic wine is going to pair better than something fruity or heavy."

The most important thing is to make sure your selection doesn't overwhelm your main course. "It's like balancing colors," Smith notes. "You want to give the same weight to your food and your wine."

Serving a rich cut of meat? "If you have steak, I like serving a Sangiovese, because it's got acidity. It kind of cuts through the fattiness of the steak. On the other hand, you would never pair a heavy, oaky Chardonnay with a light salmon."

Spicy foods present their own challenges but, as a general rule, Smith says heavier picks work best. "I'm not a huge Primitivo fan, but I love it with big, spicy ribs. They just fit together."

4. Don't get hung up on what you think you know about reds and whites.

Smith concedes that the old rule about red and white wines—that reds balance out heavier dishes while whites work best with lighter fare—generally holds true. But there are plenty of exceptions to said rule, especially when you take into account the weight of your meal (see above.) "There are a lot of fresh, light red wines that would be beautiful with tuna, swordfish, or any kind of meatier fish," explains Smith. Conversely, "There's a grape from Piedmont called Timorasso, and it's got so much complexity and richness and texture to it without being oak aged, and it's beautiful with a pork chop."

Looking for something completely different? "Orange wines pair beautifully across the board with everything," Smith raves. "It's a white grape made like a red wine, so you get all of the structure and all of the flavors, but it's more savory in a sense. It's really fun."

5. Don’t like something? Speak up.

The sip you're given after you've committed to a bottle is really about "checking for correctness," Smith explains—that the wine hasn't oxidized, or there aren't bits of cork floating around your glass. But if everything checks out and you still can't get into it, you don't have to finish the bottle. "If the guest says, 'No, I really hate this,' I always think it's the role of the sommelier to correct it, make them happy, and ask questions," she says. "A good sommelier should never make the guest feel intimidated, or like they don't know anything about wine, or that the sommelier is always right. The guest is always right because the guest is the one who has to enjoy the pick, you know?"

6. Wine terminology isn't everything.


Smith has no patience for fellow experts who hide behind fancy wine terms. “Nobody wants a sommelier who walks up to the table and says, ‘Oh, excellent choice. The truffleness and the blah blah blah of the such and such...’ Wine is supposed to be fun!”

When she talks to customers, Smith makes an effort to describe a wine’s flavor profiles in a way even the least experienced wine drinker can understand, and she makes sure to ask lots of follow-ups. "I tend to ask really basic questions. 'Do you like light or brighter, richer or fuller, deeper or darker?' If they give me a blank look then I say, 'Okay, imagine you're standing in front of a fruit stand, and there are a bunch of plums in front of you. Do you want the red ones or the black ones?' If they say red, that means they want something lighter with more acidity. If they say black, that tells me they want something darker and juicier." A good sommelier, says Smith, will lean on "easily translated" visuals like those.

7. You can drink well on a budget. (But maybe avoid those $5 bottles …)

“You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good bottle of wine,” Smith insists. The most important marker of quality isn’t price point, but the size of the producer behind a bottle. The smaller the operation, Smith says, the easier it is for them to focus on quality control. “I liken it to baking bread,” she explains. “You can bake one loaf of bread beautifully. You can extend that same recipe to five loaves, maybe up to 15, 25, or even 100, but when you start making 5,000 loaves, that recipe is going to lose something.” To compensate, larger producers will introduce chemicals or blend their products for a more homogenous flavor. “People are always like, ‘I get headaches from red wine,’” Smith says. “It’s like, no, you get headaches from the chemicals that have been added to your $5 bottle of grocery store wine.”

Of course, patronizing the little guys means paying (slightly) higher prices. Still, Smith says there are plenty of high quality products put out by smaller wineries available for around $15.

8. Don’t write anything off.


Convinced you don’t like Cab? Give it another shot, says Smith. It could be that you just didn’t like that particular producer’s Cabernet, or the way the grapes taste when they’re grown in a given region. “It’s important not to generalize,” she says. “Always have an open mind. If when you're ordering you say, ‘I’m open to trying different things,' then you’ll have a much better experience than saying, ‘I’ll have your...’ or ‘Give me your...” In other words, the more specific your knowledge, the easier it will be to settle on something great the next time you’re out to eat or browsing the selection at your local shop.

In order to figure out what you do and don't like, "the best way to learn is to taste and try things as much as possible,” Smith says. “If you go out with a friend and they order one glass, you order a different one. That way you can taste both!”

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7 Hangover Cures Backed By Science
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Science has a lot to say about bogus hangover cures (coffee, hair of the dog, and saunas aren't doing you any favors), but not as much about which treatments are legitimate. That's not for a lack of trying: The quest to banish the headaches, nausea, and dizziness that follow a bout of heavy drinking has been going on for centuries. We still don't know how to prevent hangovers or how exactly they happen, but if you're feeling miserable after last night, there are a handful of science-based remedies that might ease your pain.

1. ASIAN PEAR JUICE

Have some extra Asian pears at home? Run them through your juicer before your next night out. According to researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, just 7.4 ounces of Asian pear juice is enough to soften the blow of a hangover. The scientists say that the juice interacts with enzymes that break down alcohol, speeding up your metabolism and leaving less surplus alcohol for your body to absorb. There's just one catch: The juice must be consumed before you drink anything else in order to be effective. Apologies to anyone currently reading this through heavy-duty sunglasses.

2. MUSIC

Anyone who's ever suffered through a massive hangover knows that sound is the enemy. But while your roommate's 9 a.m. tap dancing practice might exacerbate your symptoms, music may have the opposite effect. Research has shown that listening to music can provide relief to migraines, which are similar to hangover headaches. As long as the music is pleasant and suits your taste, it should help to drown out the chorus of pain playing in your mind. Head sensitivity isn't the only symptom music helps with: According to researchers at the University of Edinburgh, listening to your favorite music also eases pain. There hasn't been research specifically on hangovers, but at the very least it should hide your pained cries.

3. SPRITE

If you're looking for something to nurse your hangover, skip the bloody Mary. A team of Chinese researchers found that Xue bi, the Chinese version of Sprite, is actually the best beverage to combat the lingering side-effects of alcohol. Of the 57 drinks tested, Sprite was the best at helping enzymes break down acetaldehyde, the metabolized version of ethanol that's blamed for some of the nastiest hangover symptoms. The scientists also identified which concoctions you should avoid: A drink containing herbs and hemp seeds was the worst offender, as it actually prolongs acetaldehyde metabolism instead of speeding it up. (We should also caution that this test was done in a lab and might not be applicable to actual drinking scenarios.)

4. PEDIALYTE

Although not the primary cause of your hangover, one of the many ways alcohol can leave you feeling worse for wear the morning after is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic—it makes you pee a lot more than you would otherwise. If your fluids are depleted when you go to bed, you can expect to wake up feeling groggy, achy, and all-around not your best. Water is the simplest fix for dehydration, but for more extreme cases, there's Pedialyte. The drink was originally developed to rehydrate kids sick from vomiting and diarrhea, but it's marketed as a hangover treatment for adults as well. It contains nutrients, sodium, and other electrolytes—all things that can nurture your body when it's dehydrated. It won't cure the hangover, but it might help alleviate the worst of it.

5. ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DRUGS

If your first move when you're hungover is to reach for a bottle of aspirin, you have the right idea. Anti-inflammatory drugs may not do much to stop the underlying causes of your condition, but they can suppress your symptoms long enough for you to get out of bed without feeling like your head's been replaced with an anvil. On top of easing headaches and muscle pain, there's another reason these pills are good for hangovers: They may directly combat alcohol's inflammatory effects. But there's one over-the-counter painkiller you should never take while or after consuming alcohol, and that's Tylenol. Any drug that uses acetaminophen will only further abuse your recovering liver.

6. EGGS

The best way to tackle a hangover with food is to eat while you drink. Chowing down after the damage has already been done may distract you from your turmoil for a short while, but it won't soothe your physical symptoms. There are a few exceptions: Eggs, for example, have hangover-fighting potential thanks to a special ingredient. The food is packed with cysteine, an amino acid that breaks down the drinking byproduct acetaldehyde. So whether you prefer to enjoy brunch out or at home, make sure your meal includes eggs in some form.

7. HONEY ON TOAST

While you're at it, put some honey on toast next to your omelet. According to Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry, while it won't cure a hangover, the breakfast can help alleviate the symptoms: "The best breakfast is toast and honey (or golden syrup) which provides the body with the sodium, potassium, and fructose which it now needs." The BBC talked to a junior doctor about this hangover remedy and he recommended adding banana. While he cautions it's an acquired taste, the doctor explained, "Bananas are a high source of potassium—an electrolyte that gets depleted when you go out on the binge. The honey will give you that spike of sugar in your bloodstream and that energy rush to help you get back on your feet."

BONUS: DRINK LESS

While this is definitely the least helpful of all suggestions, in 2005 an article in the BMJ looked at 15 studies of hangover cures, noting that "the paucity of randomised controlled trials is in stark contrast to the plethora of ‘hangover cures' marketed on the internet." Their conclusion? "No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practise abstinence or moderation."

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11 Secrets of Bartenders
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Spend enough time at your local watering hole and it becomes apparent that the person slinging drinks behind the bar is so much more than just a human recipe book. They’re flavor experts possessing saint-like levels of patience, who can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. With that in mind, Mental Floss spoke to three bartenders about the one thing you should never order, how to stock your own bar, and the best way to approach the attractive stranger you just locked eyes with.

1. THEY'RE SMART ABOUT WHAT THEY SPEND MONEY ON.

Berkeley, California-based bartender Nat Harry suggests considering a drink's recipe before you shell out for top-shelf liquor. “Any time you have a spirit that’s going to be the star of the show, like in a Manhattan or a Martini, you’ll probably want something a bit nicer,” she explains. “But if you’re drinking a cocktail with aggressive or spicy mixers, like a Moscow Mule for example, that is not the time to order Ketel One or Belvedere."

According to a bartender at NYC’s Gordon Bar, whiskeys and tequilas are generally worth spending a bit more on. "The quality with both spirits does ramp up quickly," he says. "And the difference between top shelf and well is very noticeable."

2. THEY DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND.

A smartly-dressed drunkard chats to a young lady at a bar in a theatre scene from 1933
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The customer is (almost) always right—but when they aren’t, you won’t hear it from whoever’s serving them drinks. “I don’t really judge people based on their orders, aside from an ‘Ooh, you just turned 21,’” Courtney Cowie, a Long Island-based bartender, says. “I’m a strong believer in liking and drinking whatever you want.” Harry adds that she does her best to put her own preferences aside when she steps behind the bar: “With experience, you realize the important thing about being a bartender is giving your guest a good experience. If someone orders something I might not find palatable, I’ll try to make the best version of that drink possible.”

3. BUT THEY WILL ROLL THEIR EYES OVER CERTAIN ORDERS.

Of course, there’s one (boozy) exception to the aforementioned rule: anyone who sidles up to the bar and orders a Long Island Iced Tea. “Even if you used all premium spirits, mixing all those flavors together will never be anything more than a hot mess,” Harry says. “Is there a decent amount of booze in there? Sure. But most cocktails, either by virtue of proof or volume of spirits can achieve that for you, and spare you the hangover you’re gonna have from all that sugar.” The Gordon Bar bartender agrees: “You know immediately their number one goal is to just get wasted.”

4. THEY DON’T MIND CREATING SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR YOU.

A barman at the St Mellons Club near Cardiff mixing cocktails for the Carlyle cousins, 1936
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 All three bartenders agreed that creating personalized drinks for customers is one of the best parts of the job—“It makes me feel respected!” says Cowie—with just one caveat. “I love it, but if I’m totally slammed behind the bar, that’s not a good time for a personalized drink,” Harry says.

If you're set on trying something different, get ready to field a few questions: “I always ask right away what they normally drink and what flavors they like, and then if they want to be adventurous,” the server at Gordon Bar says. “I like to get people out of their comfort zones.”

5. IT’S OK TO ASK YOUR BARTENDER TO TRY AGAIN … USUALLY.

Just not feeling the drink in front of you? It’s OK to ask for another. Says Harry, “I think customers are always entitled to a mulligan. I hate to watch someone pull a series of tortured faces if they aren’t enjoying something.” But that rule generally applies only if the bartender’s the one who led you astray. “The exception is when someone tries to order something ‘experimental’ and I try to talk them out of it, and then said experiment results in a yucky beverage,” Harry explains. “If you want to come up with crazy drink combinations, that’s what your home bar is for.”

6. ANYONE CAN INVENT HIS OR HER OWN SIGNATURE BEVERAGE.

Jessica Mitford with her husband Esmond Romilly behind the bar of the Roma Restaurant in Biscayne Bay, 1940
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 If you’re a beginner, Harry suggests following this simple formula: “It’s a safe bet to start with a base spirit, 80 proof or higher, a liquer, citrus, and then a sweetener if needed, or even bitters. After you get comfortable following the rules, you can start breaking them.” The most important rule of all, according to the source at Gordon Bar? “Always taste as you go!”

7. "MIXOLOGIST" IS MORE THAN JUST A PRETENTIOUS SYNONYM FOR "BARTENDER."

As the Gordon Bar employee notes, “A mixologist is more like a chef in that they spend a lot of time researching ingredients and comparing flavor profiles.” Unlike with sommeliers, there’s no single organization governing the profession. While there is currently a movement in favor of formalizing the training and certification process, most mixologists just learn on the job. As Harry puts it, “Every good mixologist should start by trying to be a good bartender first."

8. LOOKING TO PLEASE A CROWD? HERE’S WHAT YOU SHOULD KEEP AT HOME.

If you're setting up a home bar for the first time, there's no need to run out and buy one of everything. “Always have vodka, and then one whiskey, either a bourbon or a rye,” says the anonymous NYC-based bartender. “Those are essentials. And then a couple of bitters—like Angostura or Regan’s Orange—and high-quality club soda and fresh juice.” Harry suggests making your own simple syrup, too—”It’s cheap and easy, and lasts a long time in your fridge”—but as far as equipment goes, you can skip the elaborate gadgets and gizmos. The only “specialty bar tool” you really need, according to Cowie, is a shaker.

9. THEY COME READY TO CHAT.

Men gathered around a bartender, 1950
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 Even the most introverted bartenders know the small talk they dish out is almost as important as the beverage they’re stirring (or shaking). “We know a little bit about everything: sports, music, and pop culture usually have you covered,” Cowie says. “But if all of the above fails, we just ask questions.”

10. YOU CAN LET THEM PLAY CUPID.

Bartenders rarely mind helping their patrons make connections. “For folks who don’t want to stroll up and start chatting with a perfect stranger, ask the bartender if they can buy the person they like a drink,” Harry suggests. “I phrase it like that because I like to check in with the object of their affection before I start making it. Maybe they don’t want company, or maybe they’ve already had too many. But most of the time, it’s a yes, and they move down the bar to thank their benefactor.”

11. YES, THEY’RE PROS AT PREVENTING HANGOVERS.

A woman suffering from a hangover circa 1956
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 Experienced bartenders try not to get to a point where a hangover will be an issue, because they know there's no magic cure-all. “The best remedy is preventative care—one glass of water per every two drinks,” Cowie tells Mental Floss. “But if the deed is done, try energy drinks, lots and lots of water, and a huge breakfast.” Harry agrees that getting something in your stomach is key: “Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich and a Coke. Bonus points for hash browns.”

This story originally ran in 2015.

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