The image is as indelible as a love scene in a Hollywood classic, except it was played out in real-life restaurants across America for decades: the scowling sommelier with the silver tasting vessel hanging around his neck, a stiff man with a stiffer French accent, a very large nose and the tendency to keep it as high in the air as his standards. And then, seemingly overnight, a new generation of Americans took over—and wine-selling in American restaurants hasn’t been the same.
For dozens, if not hundreds, of people attracted to wine service as a career, the sommelier’s job is at heart a dream come true. By a certain point, they know enough to know how much they don’t know, and they can use their good-sense, anti-pomposity American approach to disentangle the grape from the smokescreen that cliché had built up and maintained around it. For such men, and increasingly women too, the approach of master sommelier James Tidwell of the Four Seasons Las Colinas between Dallas and Fort Worth should be inspirational.
“We are in the hospitality industry,” Tidwell tells me matter-of-factly. “Part of our job, and certainly what we wish to aspire to, is being as gracious to people as possible. We do this through the lens of wine, helping people choose better and more interesting wines. We’re here to facilitate. It’s not hard to realize that being the classic stereotype is not beneficial.”
Today’s sommeliers come into the profession by as many routes as there are people. Tidwell started out unusually enough, growing up in north Louisiana with an anti-alcohol evangelical preacher for a father. Even so, both his father and his mother were teachers, along with many other members of his family. This teaching in his blood became part and parcel to first learning and then sharing his knowledge and passion for wines. It also propelled him to a degree in international trade and finance at LSU and finally to chef training at the Culinary Institute of America. However, once Tidwell set foot in a restaurant’s “front of the house,” where the guests spend their time, he never ventured seriously into the kitchen again.
During his 13 years at the Four Seasons (“a lifetime in this business,” he laughs), Tidwell has gathered most certifications it’s possible to get, joined then-fellow Texas sommelier Drew Hendricks to launch TEXSOM to enhance knowledge and communication in the field, and tasted his way through most of the best wine regions on earth. These include France, of course, along with Italy, most of South America, Australia, New Zealand and California, plus lesser-known wine places like Portugal, Japan for sake, Greece, Lebanon and Mexico. Israel may be a destination soon.
“Everybody comes to wine at a certain place,” Tidwell says of the customers he takes care of night after night. “Some people want to stay where they are, and others want to move along the path. My job is to do the best I can to give people what will make them happy.”
Tidwell recommends pairing Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin de Pays de l’Hérault Blanc, France 2012 with the Pan Seared Halibut found at Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas.
This multi-faceted diamond from the south of France offers something for everyone and the ability to pair with a variety of dishes. This is a perfect match with the richness of halibut and the warm flavors of the dish.