When news came out recently that Fifth Floor Restaurant in Hotel Palomar was modifying its culinary concept to become more relaxed and less structured, I wondered if that reconcepting would affect its wine program, including the luxurious 1,400-plus bottle wine list, compiled by wine director Emily Wines.
Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to get a firsthand glimpse of Fifth Floor’s treasure trove of wine by signing up for the Sommelier-for-a-Day program. Organized by Wines, it was an experience I recall with the kind of wistful fondness generally reserved for an unforgettable trip to an exotic locale.
I had heard about “vocation vacations” – people taking a day or a week performing their dream jobs. But spending vacation time to “work” as a cowboy in a rodeo, a sports announcer, a racecar driver, or an animal trainer did not appeal to me, even during the worst days of slogging through convoluted legal briefs, negotiating with sleazy opposing counsel, and placating temperamental clients. That was before I received an Urban Daddy e-mail advertising the Sommelier-for-a-Day program at Fifth Floor, working alongside master sommelier Emily Wines. Long after I deleted the e-mail, I kept daydreaming about a possible career in wine, the thing that I consistently turn to when I am celebrating a victory, when I am relaxing with my husband, when I am stuck with my nagging mother, and when I am awake. I have interviewed enough sommeliers to understand, at least intellectually, that the job is not all glamorous and involves a great deal more than just tasting and choosing wine. But pretty soon I became like the character that Arnold Schwarzenegger played in Total Recall – a construction worker who obsessed about a vacation away from himself as a spy from Mars (who was actually an interplanetary spy who had been brainwashed into believing he was a construction worker, but I digress), and I could not stop thinking about sampling a day in the life of a sommelier. So for $250 and a day away from my regular job, I got my dream escape one Thursday at Fifth Floor Restaurant.
Wines has designed an experience tailored to be a form of vacation, with just a hint of the actual amount of work involved in being a sommelier. My day started at 1 p.m. when she greeted me in the bar area to give me a tour of the dining room, kitchen, back office, and the restaurant’s three primary wine storage areas.
She then presented me with my very own waiter’s corkscrew. When I confessed my phobia of opening wine, developed from years of shredding capsules and breaking corks, Wines patiently gave me a quick lesson on how to open a bottle, Court-of-Master-Sommelier-style: the label remains facing the guest at a 45-degree presentation angle while the capsule is artfully incised and removed below the lip and the cork gently pulled without any popping noise (even for sparkling wine), with the bottle never touching the table except to be placed on the silver coaster after tasting and pouring. Wines then had me practice on a number of bottles to be opened for staff tastings and for those wines to be served by the glass later that evening.
Shortly before the late afternoon arrival of several wine distributors for their tasting appointment, Wines spent some time composing a series of blind tastings for a fellow sommelier who was studying for the master sommelier examination. She poured the same series for me, gave me the tasting criteria and testing notes, and allowed me to taste alongside her colleague. Even though I was only auditing, I could not help but feel mounting stress for the poor sommelier sitting across from me – swirling, sniffing, tasting, and spitting while trying to verbally hit all of the required elements of the tasting exam within the allotted time. As I later observed Wines offering her critique and testing tips to the sommelier, the realization hit that this tiny, soft-spoken woman with cherubic features possesses the palate of a master. Not only did she pass the rigorous master sommelier examination on her first try, becoming one of only 15 women in the country to hold the title of master sommelier, Wines won the prestigious Remi Krug Cup, which is awarded to the highest-scoring candidate passing all three portions of the exam in the first attempt.
Following her meeting with the wine distributors, Wines allowed me to assist with a few real tasks, including placing inventory-tracking bar code stickers on newly arrived bottles, and updating the wine lists by removing sold-out selections and incorporating new ones.
In addition to the bottles housed in the glass-fronted refrigerated cellar in the dining room, a second repository of wine lockers is located in a nearby room not used for guest lodging due to its close proximity to the kitchen traffic. The third storage area is located on a lower floor around the corner from the service elevators. A favorite game between Wines and her assistant sommelier is Which Three Bottles: In the event of an earthquake or other disaster and you can only save three bottles, which three would you pick? Apparently their selections change from day to day, and looking at Fifth Floor’s wine list, that was hardly surprising; I would perish in the ruins trying to make up my mind.
After an efficient staff meal of rib-sticking, killer-spicy pasta with tomatoes, peppers, and ground pork, details of the evening’s menu and notes on certain reservations of special requests were discussed at the preservice meeting.
As diners began to fill up the dining room and lounge area, I did my best to refrain from being too much of a hindrance to Wines and the service staff. Occasionally I was allowed to open and pour wine, but generally just walked alongside Wines as she helpfully but unobtrusively offered wine advice to diners, graciously laughed at the same joke repeated by a diner after one too many glasses, and pretended to learn something new from a self-professed wine expert about the virtues of Right Bank versus Left Bank Bordeaux. Wines gently chided me from carrying more than one wineglass in my hand to avoid the appearance of sloppiness. She also demonstrated how to extract a long cork from a bottle of 1989 Cheval Blanc in its tilted basket cradle without disturbing the accumulated sediment.
At the end of the evening, I was treated to anything I wanted to taste from chef Jennie Lorenzo’s creations, paired with wines selected by Wines to accentuate and complement different aspects of each dish.
At that point, the day came to a close for me, while cleanup and closing tasks remained for the rest of the staff. As much as I enjoyed myself, I was not overly sad for my vacation day to end. My feet were killing me. And if this had been a real job, I would have been fired before the end of service for being slow and clumsy, despite the extensive help and guidance of the highly professional service staff.
So I am not likely to turn in my telephone and computer-chained existence for wine bottles and corkscrews anytime in the immediate future, but I can now open any bottle of wine almost effortlessly. I also keep thinking about what three bottles I would choose to save from Fifth Floor’s list …
Fifth Floor Restaurant:
12 4th Street (near Market) in the Hotel Palomar, 415-348-1555, www.fifthfloorrestaurant.com.