OF HAUSTORES, WINE CRITICS AND SOMMELIERS
Updated: May 13
Through the millennia, viticulture, winemaking and wine appreciation advanced and spread as a consequence of the dedication and passion of all people involved in its production, trade and consumption. Since the classical age, wine typically required
knowledgeable persons who could grow, store, transport wine and also guide, advise and educate about it.
Passion for wine, in ancient Rome, lead to the selection and appointment of “Haustores” (latin “haustio”: drink, savor) who were wine experts in charge of tasting and separating the wines based on certain features like color, body, structure and taste. They worked in coordination with the “Arbiter bibendi” at formal dinners and banquets with specific responsibilities such as, among others, to arbitrate the amount of water and spices used to cut and flavor the wine.
With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AC, Haustores disappeared. Agriculture as a whole, and subsequently grape growing, entered a period of crisis where wine making techniques barely managed to survive only because of the tenacity of few catholic monks living in secluded monasteries scattered throughout Europe who, by preserving wine knowledge, safeguarded the traditions of vine tending thus, carried on the production of wine both for liturgical reasons and for the consumption of the clergy and the nobility.
At the start of Middle Ages, wine had gradually found again its way to the tables of kings, aristocrats and rich merchants. The newly recovering industry needed not only better means of production, storage and transportation but also the constant care and supervision of dedicated people capable to handle wine in all its different aspects, from the vineyard to the table.
The persons who were responsible for transporting wine along the merchants routes throughout Medieval Latin Europe were known as “saumiers” (latin “sauma”: saddle, pack animals). In time, the term evolved into “saumeliers or soumiliers”, that is, the expert responsible for the purchase, maintenance and transportation of wine. Philip V of France, in 1318, codified the term “saumelier” as the professional in charge of buying, transporting and serving wine in his Country.
In the period, the focus on wine reflected also in the European literature: Pier de Crescenzi, an agronomist from Bologna, wrote in 1303 the Liber Ruralium Commodorum where viticulture and winemaking in his region were described in detail.
“Della qualità dei vini “- on the quality of wines - was a work by Sante Lancerio, a 15th Century sommelier ante-litteram and wine adviser to Pope Paolo III, detailing his long and thoughtful experience in the Papal Court in a series of flavor memories that can be considered the beginnings of Italian enological literature.
The Venetian explorer Marin Sanudo mentioned in his 1532 “Diarii” that “somogliers” provided him with expert wine counseling about the best wine selection available in Veneto markets.
Later on, his countryman Gaspare Contarini, in his 1625 “Relazioni degli Ambasciatori Veneti al Senato” mentioned a “somilier de corpo” who happened to be an individual of noble family with extensive wine knowledge. The term “somigliere” was recorded in written form also at the House of Savoy, the Italian royal family, where “somiglieri di bocca” had to be routinely appointed for wine procurement and service while - at the same time - providing wine education for the royal family and its noble guests.
In the 16th and 17th Centuries, progress in glass making allowed the creation of more resistant bottles, making glass blowing less expensive. During the period, the use of corks and corkscrews re-emerged and the relative manufacture got perfected. Glass bottles became popular as they offered another important advantage in the eyes of wine insiders: suitability for long-term storage and aging.
As a result, during the Renaissance, when the pleasures of the palate were rediscovered and wine was obviously part of the new enjoyable and sophisticated way of life, more differently skilled individuals had to be designated to select and buy wine, store it in cellars, maintain it, taste and serve it at the table by possibly even matching it with the food as well.
The latter was Bartolomeo Scappi's expertise, a celebrity chef for Popes and Cardinals throughout the middle decades of the 16th Century. His genius was recorded in the world’s first illustrated cookbook titled “Opera dell’Arte del Cucinare”- published in 1570 - a nine-hundred-page treatise that included thousands recipes introducing - for the first time - the concepts of food and wine pairing (!) and terroir (!!).
Wine was still a substitute for undrinkable water in the 18th Century, a time when there was no medicine as we know it today and water supply was unsafe to drink. As a direct consequence, the consumption of wine, and its appreciation, started to rise also in response of a quality demand. Grapes and vineyards began to be known and classified based on their features and characteristics while the fame of winemakers was built on the quality and originality of their products.
“Picolit”, a little-known white Italian wine grape grown predominantly in Friuli, is a typical case study. It enjoyed in the 18th Century a high reputation among the royal courts from England to Russia thanks to the dedication and efforts of Count Fabio Asquini of Fagagna, north-west of Udine, who wrote a treatise on Picolit. The Count surrounded himself with a group of wine experts and wine lovers ultimately managing to raise the awareness of Picolit in all major courts of Europe, an early example of successful target-marketing. In 1762, he undertook a large-scale trade, selling several thousand bottles of Picolit which, strongly identified with its regional territory, became a myth inspiring many winemakers to come.
19th Century was a century of great lows and highs for viticulture. It was the age of phylloxera which, in the last quarter of the century, wiped out almost all European vineyards. However, scientific enquiry innovating all speculative fields, the phylloxera resistant American rootstock was eventually grafted to European Vinifera vines thus saving the Old World wines. At a great rate, industrialization caused urbanization, cities grew and the construction of roads and railways created new needs and possibilities. Wine areas that had previously produced only locally suddenly changed into regions with national and international importance. At the end of 19th Century, just three countries; France, Italy and Spain, accounted for 85% of world wine production.
By then viticulture and wine making were studied thoroughly: in Italy, prestigious wine schools were founded in 1870’s such as the “Scuole di Viticultura e Enologia” in San Michele (Trentino, 1874), Conegliano (Veneto, 1876), Avellino (Campania, 1879) and Alba (Piemonte, 1881), among some of the oldest in Italy.
In the 20th Century, the two World Wars slowed down the wine industry until the postwar recovery and the following strong economic growth of the 1950’s and 1960’s when, in the wake of a renewed interest in wine, the profession of the sommelier started to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.
In the same decade, the New World countries entered in the wine industry and became players in the world wine market introducing some production and marketing innovations and so further reviving the figure and role of the sommelier.
As the wine market grew, wine experts, critically writing on specialized wine magazines, managed to connect to a range of concerned consumers specifically bridging to their needs. Promotional events, such as wine dinners, wine tastings and wine fairs prompted the lifestyle of the average wine consumers and increased, as a result, wine sales in restaurants, stores and supermarkets.
In the early 1980’s, Robert Parker, among the first generation of wine critics, devised a point system where each wine was given a mark out of 100. Not only was this system easier to understand, but it also allowed consumers to make direct comparisons between wines. Though the intention of the 100-point system for rating wine was based on the idea of advocacy for the consumer, it had in fact a collateral effect. The new wine scoring methodology pushed the producers to plant varieties deemed more likely to score higher points, in the attempt to achieve the style of wine Parker and other wine critics liked. Wine merchants started selling wine based on its scores instead of its objective qualities.
At this point, you may understand why wine exploded as an industry and how, in all its new articulations - almost spontaneously - favored the rise of an elite of wine intellectuals, wine scholars and wine professionals who suddenly seemed to have acquired the power to influence the very core of the wine industry.
It really looked like sommeliers, in their historical connotations, were no longer needed as more and more customers and wine lovers began to consult wine magazines and wine guides before buying or ordering their bottles. Not much later with World Wide Web, internet applications such as Delectable, Vivino, Wine Searcher etc. became instantly popular allowing users to easily pull up on their smart mobiles ratings, reviews and tasting notes from the picture of a wine bottle’s label, thus - apparently - making any specialized “advisers” unnecessary.
After Robert Parker, the following generation of wine critics also pretended to be the arbiters of taste, trying to fill the void which will always exist between wineries and customers’ palates. Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni, Luca Gardini and James Suckling are among the world’s best and most influential wine critics who, together with authoritative wine magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, Decanter and Wine Spectator, today still influence tastes and trends in the world of wine.
Meanwhile many wine lovers understood what Anthony Trollope - novelist of the Victorian era - had already discovered in 1880’s: “wine is mainly valued by its price, not by its flavor”. In the last decades globalization and new consumption styles gradually turned the wine market into a wine mass market. A mass market naturally creates quality niches generating and multiplying knowledgeable consumers at the same time.
As wine grew in popularity around the world throughout the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, more mature consumers sought out information and advice on what wine to drink regardless what wine gurus, critics, guides, magazines and apps might or might not say.
It was, and still is, the time of wine guilds and associations, which used to train only professional wine servers and sommeliers but now are being sought also by many individuals for personal improvement. We live in an age in which everyone can voice their opinions through the social media and so a new generation of wine passionate has emerged believing in the Old World’s craft of the Somms (sommeliers).
And for these very simple reasons: Somms have always been trained in wine selection, wine service, and wine and food pairing. Now they also specialize in communication, management, sales, public relations and wine education as well. Somms listen to you and figure out what bottles they have that you most probably will like. They will not sell you the most expensive wine, but instead the most exciting wine for the food and the price you are up to. Somms take you on an unexpected journey by suggesting unknown wines that pair with the food in front of you. In short, Somms are the rock stars of the culinary world. They are thorough wine professionals and the archetypal wine brand ambassadors.
In the Philippines, the very first Sommelier association was organized in 2014 through the registration of Philippine Sommeliers Inc. (facebook.com/philippine.sommeliers.inc) which managed to create a number of sommeliers from different walks of life. There is still a long way to go...
I stand with Luigi Veronelli, the visionary Italian oeno-gastronomist and wine philosopher who used to say: “The sense of taste, by itself, is not sufficient to create relationships between wine, food, palate and culture; only through education you will obtain pleasures that are not only "sensory and sensual" but also reflections of your soul…”.