Interview With Sommelier ALDO SOHM | Think Wine, Be Happy
Aldo Sohm, originally from Tirol, Austria, and now a New Yorker, was lucky enough to fall in love with wine and make it his profession. Ever since he discovered it at a young age, he was fascinated with this topic and kept his passion growing into a successful and joyful journey. Embracing every challenge down that road, he turned each life event into an opportunity.
“I like to have fun and not take myself too seriously, otherwise, life is not fun. I like to be a happy person,” says Aldo.
- How did you discover your passion for wine?
While attending Tourism College, I decided to work at a restaurant to get more experience. One morning, I met a lovely couple visiting from Switzerland there. They were having breakfast and were getting super excited about what they should have for lunch and dinner, and which wine they should pair their choices with. That was one of the deciding moments in my life where I started buying books and reading them for the purpose of being able to make recommendations. After college, even though no one in my family was in the wine business, my father took me on a wine-buying trip. That’s when I bought my first bottle of wine, a 1983 Darmaji, Angelo Gaja, a quite expensive and hedonist wine back then.
- What inspired you to move to New York?
I trained for sommelier competitions where you are only allowed to compete in English. At 33, I decided to leave Europe and come to the United States to improve my English language capabilities. Although I was already a three-time winner of the ‘Best Sommelier’ competition in Austria, my gut feeling was to broaden my horizon and start over in New York City. My gut feeling was right!
- You won several contests so far, contests like ‘Best Sommelier’, ‘Best Sommelier in Austria 2002’ and ‘Best Sommelier in America 2007’, which lead you to represent the US in the ‘Best Sommelier in the World 2008’ contest. How did you feel winning all these competitions?
It was certainly a journey. I started when I did my sommelier diploma and the person who ran the program was a candidate for the World Championship in 1998 in Vienna. He gave me the opportunity to come to Vienna and watch the competition, which for me was the best place to learn. When I watched the finals, I thought I would never be able to do that. The following year, I was invited to compete and told that I was the perfect candidate with the right mindset to win. It was a nine-year journey with many setbacks, which I took as tests in life. I very much appreciate what I have learned about myself while being under heavy pressure. It set me up for the job I have right now because it’s all about perseverance. No matter what kind of a day I have, I strive to do my best on this journey of achieving my dream.
Staying focused for such a long time might seem a challenge, but I was able to see where the opportunity lies, which helped me to go the extra mile. Yes, it was a lot of work, but I am not afraid of hard work. This entire experience was like a game for me and very rewarding professionally and personally.
- Every wine is unique. What kind of emotions does tasting each wine evoke within you? How would you describe the experience of drinking your favorite wine?
I recently tasted Clos Vougeot, René Engel 1937. This wine was just UNBELIEVABLE. Great wines always make you think because you recognize the fruits in it, you discover the flavors, take in the aromas, taste the acids, and experience how everything is joined together, while the flavors continually stay on the palate. With a wine like that, it’s like time travel and how much history has passed by since 1937. To me, that’s the fun part of drinking wine with a partner or with someone who shares the same passion. It is just so much you can talk about when you drink it together and that’s what I truly enjoy about drinking wine.
- Could you please describe your partnership with Zalto?
As an Austrian sommelier, it is impossible not to consider the complementing glassware. You can drink the best wine, but if you don’t have the proper glass for it, your experience is not complete. It’s like listening to music; if you listen to beautiful music on your grandfather’s speaker, it might sound good in a nostalgic sense but it is certainly not the same as with the latest technology. That likeness also applies to the wine glass and the impact on you when you are drinking an excellent wine. In Austria, there is a long tradition of glass making with a dynasty in Bohemia. Even though Bohemia doesn’t belong to Austria anymore, companies are still settled there. I got in touch with Zalto in 2007 after a wine tasting, during which I tested the glassware in different ways. Not surprisingly, Zalto is considered the best glassware in the world; I couldn’t find a better one on the market. I took on the ambassadorship of Zalto and it has been a huge success so far. Their glassware is incredibly beautiful.
- What is the perfect wine glass for you?
In today’s world, we tend to simplify everything, but you still don’t want to miss out on details. Personally, I always use the Champagne Flute at home. I also use the Wide Wine glass because I love drinking champagne from there as well. I think the universal glass is the Universal glass. I also use Bordeaux because I can cheat a little bit and get around with Burgundies as well. Those four glasses are my go-to glasses for wine. Zalto glassware is lead-free and the lightness has a sexy appeal. When you touch the edges of a Zalto glass, you feel a little bit of a limp and it is polished off, so it is sharper and the wine falls much more in front your palate. As a result, you will taste more fruit but less of the freshness, and that’s because of that one little detail. Zalto glass also has an angle that funnels it to you. Ultimately, the Zalto glass is a very powerful glass that fine-tunes all the details and enhances the flavors.
- In 2009, you started a new project with Gerhard Kracher becoming a winemaker and now you have created four labels. What kind of wine do you produce and what kind of production process do you use?
The reason I got into winemaking is simple: when I traveled to Argentina in 2008 after I won a competition, I was asked to evaluate the wine. I then realized I had never been part of the process of making it, so how could I judge it?! I shared this experience with Kracher and we immediately agreed on what we wouldn’t do if we were to make wine together. It became clear what we wanted, focusing specifically on old wines, preferably from limestone and also on Grüner Veltliner, which is the signature variety of Austria. Not even in our wildest dreams did we think then that we would have four labels but it was a natural growth. Making wines has made me a better sommelier.
- How differently do you evaluate wine now, after being both – a sommelier and winemaker? What’s the difference between before and after?
As a winemaker, you taste differently. You look for certain components in the wine, the reduction, oxidative or reductive. As a sommelier, you have to be clear on how the wine works with food, meaning you have to sort of have a bipolar brand.
- What do you think about organic wines versus traditional wines?
Organic wines have become a big trend, more so in Europe. Historically, there was a time where winemakers sprayed pesticides like there was no tomorrow. Now, it’s the opposite but the truth is typically in the middle. You cannot go from one extreme to another. I like the organic development because it gets a lot of people talking about wine. On the other hand, I am not crazy about them because when I open them at 5 pm, the taste at 7 pm is completely different. I don’t know how they age, which is a problem especially for a sommelier working with food.
- You started to work at Le Bernardin as Chef Sommelier in 2007 and you are still part of the team? You mentioned that it’s your dream job. Why?
For me, working at a Michelin star restaurant is the highest possible honor. You have to work tenaciously and consistently be at the top of your game. And again, that is a life-changing thing. When I get up in the morning I am excited and I have a smile on my face because I get to work with great food and wine. I consider myself super lucky because Le Bernardin is “my family”. That’s my dream job.
- What does the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar represent? What is its essence?
I look at the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar like I do in my living room. It’s a place to enjoy after work with a great glass of wine. Have fun, talk about wine, fashion or whatever and relax.
- Why did you decide to open Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in Midtown?
Personally, I never thought of opening a wine bar. It was never on my focus list, even though it was on my dream chart when I left Austria. After seven years, Chef Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze, owners of Le Bernardin, came to me and said, “you’ve worked with us for such a long time, you went above and beyond, so we want to reward you and make sure you stay a part of the Le Bernardin family and open Aldo Sohm Wine Bar.” With all my various projects, they thought my brand was strong enough to sustain that. With the idea of having them as partners, I reconsidered and it turned out to be a great venture. It completes me as a sommelier. At Le Bernardin, I can taste the most unique and rarest of wines on a daily basis. At Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, I have the possibility to taste everything – from modest level wines to very upscale ones – which makes it more adventurous, and I like that.
- What criteria do you apply when pairing wine with food? How does it differ from Le Bernardin?
The menu is obviously very different. There are three possible rules for wine pairing. One is the conflict when flavors don’t match. I always compare it to a relationship between human beings. The second one is when people just get along but they don’t interact. The third one is the best possible way where they connect and elevate each other, that’s the ultimate perfect pairing. At Le Bernardin, we work strongly with fish where Chef Eric Ripert creates it in an almost raw, barely touched, lightly cooked way. He works delicately and refined with the fish but he is super playful with the sauces, so I have to consider the sauce first, then the fish to work toward the perfect pairing. It is a tasting trial. I always come with a big tray of wine with variations of high/low acid and high/low alcohol just to try what works and what doesn’t with the recipe. The moment I see that something works, I fine tune it.
At Aldo Sohm Wine Bar it is different. Here, the menu consists more of tapas, home-style, but in an elevated way because Chef Eric Ripert supervises it. That’s the fun part. Food is more easily matched with the wine here. We kept the Zalto glasses, though. To have the wine perfectly delivered, you have to serve it in the best possible glass… We go that extra mile to make sure our dining guests get that extra layer of experience. It’s all about quality service. My team here has been prepared to give great service starting with a smile as the first contact is made when you enter the restaurant.
- Do you consider yourself a successful person?
People consider me successful. I am thankful for what I have, but human beings always want more. That’s natural.
- Do you have any habit or ritual to find your inner balance?
I have a passion for cycling. That became an absolute addiction.
- Our motto is “You can be, do and have anything you want” What is your opinion of such a statement?
I am trying to live this on a daily basis. In Tirol, Austria we have high mountains and sometimes our way of thinking is like that. I like hiking to get to the peak with the best view. There is no point in dreaming small. You have to dream big, and you should be careful what you wish for because you might get it. To be honest, I have a wall that I can write on, which is called IdeaPaint. I saw a slogan from a sports film where they had interviewed snowboarders. One sentence that stuck with me is: “Life starts at the end of your comfort zone.” I wrote it on my wall because it is such a true statement. That’s where the daring adventure begins.