What's it like being a sommelier?
I knew once. I was one. Then, like childbirth, you forget the pain, the odd-looking equipment and red stuff splashed all over the floor.
This week, twenty five years on, I returned to service. And the memories of swollen ankles, angry recriminations and peculiar tongs came flooding back. Oh yes, and being dismissed high-handedly by people who hold their knife like a pen.
And with that you see how swiftly we descend. Diner vs sommelier. The very word sommelier brings out the worst in us. People view sommeliers as insufferable wine-popinjays, too grand to carry dirty plates. The sommelier senses this. And responds by critiquing your cutlery skills and your husband's "natty" dress sense in the wash-pantry. OK, so that's me doing that. I'm not proud of it.
Which is why we start this week's recommendations with a book: Bianca Bosker's Cork Dork.
It's a first-hand journey into the world of sommeliers and their weird obsessions. A brilliantly written one too. By turns funny, eye-opening, slightly disconcerting and then funny again. Read this book and I defy you to look at (and talk to) sommeliers the same way again.
Because what you'll find is that (for the most part) sommeliers - dare I say, we - are here to help you find the right wine, for the right occasion, at the right price.
So picture your sommelier.
Maybe that's a bit ambitious. Something more... realistic?
Okay, split the difference.
Your pictured sommelier is ready to use their expertise to turn the two plus two of your food and drink purchase into the five of a memorable experience. In doing so, you must trust us. Surrender a little control for your greater good.
Trust us when we try to gently suggest "the Pinot Grigio you ordered Mrs Holds-Knife-Like-Pen, will disappear under the food you ordered. What you need is something like The Wine Foundry Godello 2016 (Aldi, £6.49). More zest for food. But the same scented softness that you like." She didn't, and wasn't happy. But that's her loss. And Mr Natty-Little-Suit's loss too. I know I said "good choice, madam". But that's my job. Fibbed for your pleasure.
Our job isn't to just pour your favourite wines, nor to make you drink our favourite wines either. It's to find your new favourite wines. But we know you don't know what it is yet.
This means trying wines you've not had before. Like the somms' favourite, Grüner Veltliner. The problem with Gruner Veltliner is it looks like a German, sounds like a German and we don't think we like wines that are German. As it happens, anyone who tries Markus Huber's Morrisons Grüner Veltliner, Niederösterreich, Austria 2016 (£8, Morrisons) will find this is dry, elegant and stone-fruity. Like all the best Grüners it has a twist of pepper on the back palate that makes it perfect with summer food. (Anyone who searches for it online will find the autocorrect for this wine is Grindr Veltliner, which brings up an altogether different set of search results.)
Another variety you may be gently motioned toward is Furmint. Royal Tokaji Dry Furmint 2015 (£9.99, or £8.99 on the mix-six deal at Majestic) is the place to begin. It's one for anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc but would like more grown up flavours of quince and linden and/or doesn't want to douse their food in aromas of gooseberry and asparagus wee.
(Incidentally, this week Lidl announced a new range of Hungarian Furmints coming into their already impressive wine department. Although not everyone is happy. Fans of Twitter-handbags-at-dawn-stroppiness like me will enjoy this thread immensely).
Good sommeliers don't encourage you to drink odd or unusual for the sake of it. We've done the hard tasting, so you don't have to. Not all grapes thrive in new locations. But we've discovered Albariño DOES thrive in the hills of Uruguay, as Bodega Garzón Colinas de Uruguay Albariño, Maldonado, Uruguay 2016 (£8, Sainsbury's) amply shows, with a friendly stone-fruit and salad complexity. It also gives you the opportunity (with apologies to Homer Simpson) to look at the bottle and declare "hey there's a wine here from You-Are-Gay". It's an old one and not a good one, but what were you expecting? Mark Twain?
Sommeliers are obsessives. Trainspotterish in the pursuit of the weird and wonderful in wine. So do indulge us occasionally. It's worth putting up with 30 seconds of a lecturette on the complexities of cement-egg fermenters if you get to enjoy Zorzal Eggo Malbec, Gualtallary, Argentina 2015 (£16, Marks & Spencer). I can hear you already, sucking air between your teeth and wincing at £16. But this has a silkiness to luxuriate in, a vibrancy to the fruit and an energy that makes you smile. It's our job to know that involves vast cement eggs and the rotation of the earth keeping solids in suspension and... I'll stop speaking now. Enjoy your wine sir.
Perhaps it's the ritual that doesn't help.
The presenting. The ceremony. The wondering what you're looking for when you sniff at it. (If you're wondering it's the wet rag/cardboard smell of a corked wine. If you think you can smell it, send the wine back). All this implies that you have to choose something expensive. But don't be afraid to enjoy the ceremony without the flash. Good wines are good wines no matter the cost. And good sommeliers love it when someone recognises - or encourages them to recommend - one of their better value choices. I've just written a list with something very similar to Wine Atlas Bobal, Utiel-Requena, Spain 2015 (£4.98, Asda) on it. It's a treat, all juicy, fun and fleshy. And great value too.
And that's all we have time for. I'm back on the floor in ten minutes. Gently advising. Encouraging. Supporting. We're here to help you. Don't sneer. Oh, and let us pour...