In the second chapter of the debut tale, A Study in Scarlet (1887), Dr. Watson narrates his dismay that his new roomie did not know the Copernican theory of earth’s motion about the sun.
Furthermore, Holmes promises to forget this new information as soon as possible, little caring “whether the earth revolves about the moon or the sun.”
At the close of this short novel, the start of 61 tales in all, Holmes explains to Watson that he thinks in reverse, a way to analyze an outcome by assembling a chain of links going backwards. General knowledge to him is so much attic clutter. One’s mind needs space to solve problems, and as noted the path of planets is just clutter.
The second novel, The Sign of Four, (1889) continues the demonstrations of Holmes’s particular gifts making his point that powers of observation and deduction, coupled to knowledge, create the compound of his skillset as the world’s foremost “consulting detective.”
Put together Holmes strikes me as sommelier of crime. As one of the handful of literary creations who also lives outside of the fictional universe that gave him substance, Holmes is a curious embodiment of late Victorian surroundings and values, though its morality and stuffiness are often considered under an arched eyebrow, starting with the author, Arthur Conan Doyle.
He spawned imitators like Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey in the period between the world wars; and thanks to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Americans invented his opposite–the tough, hardboiled shamus navigating the mean streets of the West Coast’s two most prominent cities.
Holmes and Watson, like Hamlet and Horatio, Dante and Virgil, are the most enduring fictional beings in the Western canon, the prototypical buddy movie guys. They don’t babble on about rights or justice in the abstract; they solve problems that dispense just solutions to persons in need.
It is as if they come to the rescue of diners in a high-end restaurant with a wine list as long as the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britanica.
Through his chain links of causality, he is also the master of flexible induction, as if he constantly reviews assumptions and observations. “Many observe,” Sherlock explains, “but do not see.”
Holmes may err along the way. But with Watson riding shotgun, in the end everyone comes home alive by popular demand, except the bad guys.
The analogies pertinent to the sommelier’s oft touted powers of unraveling the mysteries of wine come to mind.
The steward of the cellar needs a remarkable recall to start. This is more than classification of bottles by varietal and vintage. It surpasses knowing brix at harvest, alcohol by volume, and the identity of the winemakers.
The recall is augmented by a sympathy for food. As Spitbucketeer Amber LeBeau wrote after a garish forage in Las Vegas, the sommelier’s principal contribution to a meal is knowing what work with what and its relative value to the diners.
I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it[….]
No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing
It seems rather easy to parallel a sommelier’s ability to observe and deduct on the fly the components presaging a satisfying meal with the extensive knowledge of wines and wine science to ensure a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps the somm does not handcuff malefactors in the denouement, perhaps does not retire to a pipe filled with shag stored in a Persian slipper, but there is a sense of doing the job without demur from the intimidated or scatterbrained people with lots of cash trying to pair wines with food they’re likely not taking home in a pooches bag.
If deconstructing crimes to affix opprobrium is the work of 221B Baker Street, its parallel is to reverse in the progress of a diner the qualities of a chosen wine to myriad dishes prepared infer one kitchen autocrat.
The chain of causality linked by the sommelier works from the sense of place intrinsic to those vines, their flowering, ripening, harvest, crush, fermentation, aging, bottling and storage as if a time lapsed series of photos are displayed to show an evolution of sorts. The testing of the sommelier, bare bones, is built on association and memory to train the mind and palate how this time lapse will make a meal better.
Beyond this, a sommelier is a warehouse clerk and reference librarian, as proven to me in the cellar at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, by my tour guide, the sommelier at the time. He had a story for every bin. I could use his eyes at home. Nor is the scavenger hunt all. There is the additional knowledge of cellaring the wine and following the bottles’ peaks and valleys as it is laid up. Here the applied knowledge exceeds the bounds of deduction of qualities to inferences about taste as experienced and the maturity of the cellared wine.
Here is the point the great detective’s hooded eyes brighten and the game once afoot is now played out.
For years I dismissed out of hand the rigors of the sommelier training as superfluous, almost like earning a scout merit badge. Then I began to count up dozens of meals with wine attended to by a sommelier. As a wine auto-didact, I want to screw up a wine selection on my own. But that’s a waste of precious resources writers oft find in short supply—ample time to make the right pick and the money to carry out the mission.
I now see the sommelier as Vladimir Nabokov saw himself as writer; a magician explaining a trick while performing another. So, too, am I getting the razzle-dazzle over wines put into play by sommelier whose self confidence almost immediately becomes conspiratorial with diners.
The sommelier has succeeded table side service for Caesar Salad, Tournedos Rossini, or Bananas Foster. He or she is the new floor show, a cherry atop a mound of a whipped cream dessert.
In this version of Gourmet Guerrilla Theater, staff runs the risk of too much showing off, so wines no matter how well paired, deft somewhat obscured. This is my big problem with prix fixe wine dinners high ticket restaurants put on for their high rollers.
I think sommeliers ought not show off, as Dr. Watson at times out of dismay or frustration, chastises his immortal imaginary friend.
It is the background informing the wine in tandem with the ritual of serving it that gives reign to the imaginative potential of introducing a particular wine to a meal at a particular establishment, employing Sherlock Holmes’s unique if skewed sense of his world to bring a little order and satisfaction to the problem of what to drink.
A clue in one tale involves three half-consumed glasses of a wine. The dregs help solve the riddle of the crime. Elsewhere, Holmes shares a Montrachet with his erstwhile buddy. In another, they share some claret. But in the resolution of the stories as a whole, Holmes retreats from the scene in knowledge of his accomplishment, itself the reward. So, his powers of observation do not emulate the mimicry of trained monkeys or insistent parlor tricksters. Sherlock may not work for tips, but he is often rewarded for his reticence. It is the best lesson he can impart to a wanna-be sommelier.
The famed sleuth also points out that too much evidence gets in the way of the essential proofs. A sommelier ought remember the TMI rule when recommending wine.
The tastevin the sommelier wears is suspended from a chain. We can imagine it as a tip of a deerstalker hat, and it’s not so elementary, my dear Watson.