Pascaline Lepeltier earned the title of France’s best sommelier in 2018, the same year she also obtained the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (a revered distinction for people working the food and wine sector in France). In 2022, she opened the restaurant Chambers in New York City, where, the Michelin Guide says “she has built a wine program with adventure, back vintages and surprising affordability in mind”. The following year, she represented her country at the ASI Best Sommelier of the World competition and finished 4th.
Acknowledged around the world for the deep respect and passion that she has for wine and for hospitality, Pascaline Lepeltier is an icon in the French wine world, and beyond, with more than 70,000 followers on Instagram.
An avid learner, she teaches for the Wine Scholar Guild and has compiled her thoughts on viticulture and wine in her book Mille Vignes, Penser le Vin de Demain, to be available in English at the end of this year.
In this conversation, we discuss why it is still important to learn wine facts, even with google in your pocket, and explore the most efficient ways to lever this knowledge in a professional environment. Pascaline develops her thoughts on tasting and why, in order to teach for tomorrow, we need to totally change our current approach.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
How and where did you learn about wine?
I got into wine quite late, after university study, when I was roughly 23 or 24. I got my education in France in the city of Angers where I grew up. When I decided to switch from philosophy to, first, restaurant study and then wine study, I really wanted practical education, to enter what we call hospitality school in France. I could not, because I had too many diplomas. My first moment learning about wine was when I was doing my MBA in Hospitality Management, which I did roughly for a year and a half.
When I decided to become a sommelier, I was 24. I went to do an apprenticeship, which is one week in school and three weeks as an apprentice in a restaurant. So I did that school for one year and then that’s it for my official wine education.
It was still a moment when, especially in France, education was extremely structured and it was very difficult to [move between] different categories of education.
I was already studying philosophy. This was extremely important in my career because it taught me how to learn, how to think and they how to absorb an extremely large amount of information in a very short amount of time.
My year doing my diploma was extremely easy in term of theory. You’re learning your geography. So there was that and a little bit of the rest, accounting, and talking about wine. I realized I was really, really bad at the rational approach which was, of course, tasting, understanding what was happening in your glass — where does it come from? Why does it taste like that?
And the second side was the human side of working in a restaurant — just carrying a glass or carving a chicken, which I was terrible at. But beyond that, how to interact with guests, with your team, with a chef and with the producers. I was so scared and so shy. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in all that field of skills. I gained a tremendous amount of respect for a set of skills that are, in fact craft. They are really talents that are really not only useful, but beautiful to practice.
I gained a tremendous amount of respect for a set of skills that are, in fact, craft. They are really talents that are really not only useful, but beautiful to practice.Pascaline Lepeltier
Maybe the floor skills are not as recognized compared to cooking skills today.
Absolutely, you’re right. And it’s one of the reasons why we have a big vocation crisis today — it’s because we are seeing [working the floor] as more like a servant. If you are working in the front of the house of a restaurant it’s often because you have no other skills. It’s kind of the job you’re doing just to make a bit of money and doesn’t really require anything. The Maître D [maître d’hôtel] used to have more recognition but it’s barely the case today. We are really talking about the craft of restaurants and gastronomy — there is no recognition of what it is. People are just basically, “You are going to serve me for an hour and a half and basically I can ask you pretty much everything I want”.
Did you learn about the business part of running a restaurant as well?
I barely learned that in school; basically you start in a brigade and you become a junior sommelier and then a sommelier. I learned about all the financial and economical aspect when I was doing my MBA. Honestly, I was just thrown in. My first job lasted almost 10 years and took me from France to Belgium to the US where I didn’t have anybody to teach me how to do it. So I had to learn on my own. I really think mentorship is a key and I really wished I could have had six months to a year with somebody else, just to allow me not to make mistakes or maybe to go a little bit faster.
We don’t usually define the purpose of education, but one side thinks of education as a mean to pass down knowledge. But the other side sees education as preparing a new generation for the changes that are to come. How do you see both meanings being balanced in wine education?
This dichotomy really for me makes sense. I totally agree on this difference.
They are calling for different ways in how to educate. There’s one that calls for memorization of all the facts, and the other one is more about questioning, thinking and creating. You are very active on the competition scene and competitions require a lot of memorizations of facts and figures. There’s Google in everyone’s pocket. Maybe we shouldn’t need to learn all those facts?
It’s what I’m going through right now because for the competition I still have to learn so many facts and data. For me the question is about the why. I have a very good memory. I can memorize very easily. So on that side, it has never been very complicated for me, but then I realized — why do I need to know that?
I’m not trying to teach my students all the data there is. I need to teach them why these data are what they are. Why today you have this blend, why today you have this style, why today you have this geographical limits. To make them connect the dots.
I’m not teaching my students all the data there. I need to teach them why these data are what they are.Pascaline Lepeltier
The problem with the way we are learning about wine today is where we are making objective and almost universal and timeless fact and data that per se have been evolving extremely quickly over the last 200 years. And we are just seeing a very specific time lapse of that. And we’re never taught why [things came to be this way].
And I really believe the education we have and the way we are learning about a certain standardization of wine, comes from a vision of appreciation built around the concept of appellation, and the idea that there is standards of quality that have to be as objective as possible to structure the wine market. It gives us the understanding that there are absolutely objective quality standard. And that’s a problem.
Why do we still learn these standards of quality [or simplified wine styles]?
Today you need to understand this fact because it’s what your professional level is appreciated upon.
If I want to pass my exam and then if I want to have a communication with my colleagues — or even when I see the promotion that is done by certain major marketing stores — you realize that you need to have this common aesthetic canon.
And if a wine doesn’t taste like it is supposed to, it’s no good, it’s not approved, it’s not the right thing and so on. The wine standard becomes a concept, and words to describe it have to be simplified to the bare bone. There’s a paradox because wine is the absolute opposite. The wines we are talking about are absolutely unique. And yet we are teaching the absolute opposite. We’re teaching larger standards defined by larger concepts, defined by words that in the end don’t mean anything (‘lemon lime,’ ‘bright acidity’).
The wines we are talking about are absolutely unique. And yet we are teaching the absolute opposite. We’re teaching larger standards defined by larger concepts, defined by words that in the end don’t mean anything.Pascaline Lepeltier
So for you, one part which is I need to know the facts. I need to understand my currency, because I need to be able to exchange within a trade that takes those facts as the currency. But then there is my own personal appreciation that I need to develop.
Absolutely, you have the international common language that you need to know to speak. On the other side, you can go extremely deep and you still have that standard currency.
Wine is in constant movement it’s absolutely infinite. It’s absolutely unique every time, I understand that it’s a lot to grasp, and that it can be scary, which is why we simplify it too. We have a human need to structure our environment and to make stuff as simple as possible, to be able to communicate.
But wine is complex. And when you accept that this is just the way it is, it’s extremely stimulating. You’re accepting the complexity of the world: a weight is lifted and suddenly you can go for what makes this all incredible.
The reason why I do my job is because I’m dealing with a product that I is going to make me feel incredibly alive with a level of pleasure, a level of attention that is unbelievable. This is fascinating and this is what I want to give to my guests.
The reason why I do my job is because I’m dealing with a product that I is going to make me feel incredibly alive with a level of pleasure, a level of attention that is unbelievable. This is fascinating and this is what I want to give to my guests.Pascaline Lepeltier
And if I go back to the commercial side, having that appreciation and that discernment allows you to create a unique experience for your guests and that makes business sense. Is that correct?
Absolutely. And I think this is my job. My job is really to understand my clientele, each of them every single night at every single table.
This is what I’m looking to do, to make them feel good by drinking something that I believe has been produced in a very specific way. So they leave the restaurant feeling good and maybe they’re going to come back.
My business plan, my career, the restaurant I work into, have been decided on my ability, my freedom to be able to pick these wines, to create this experience for people.
The skills that you had to develop on your own — the human relationship, the appreciation of those great wines that allow you to then create great experiences — is there a way we can speed up the process?
I think we need to rethink how we are teaching about wine for sure. For wine education, we go right away about just learning all the regions of the world.
We absolutely don’t know how to taste today. It’s really a problematic things, but people are working on that, which is very interesting.
One of the good thing about the WSET is that it breaks down those learnings into small units that can be quite quick to learn when you start and it’s very basic. So to rethink education, do students need more time to learn or is it really a matter of just how we present the information?
I think it’s both. It’s a matter of how we present the information, which once again, understanding French wine is not learning every single appellation by heart. That’s not understanding French wine, that’s not understanding Italian wine or understanding American wine. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not because I know all my AVAs in the US that I understand American wine. There are different histories, different contexts, different ways to sell.
You need to learn why AOC were created, and how French approach it, yesterday and today. This is what matters.
What about the tasting part?
Today you look at the color and you try to assess something out of it and you smell . Your first smell and your second smell, and you’re going to talk about what you’re smelling and all this fruit and blah blah. And then you go to palate and there is this compound, there is a texture and so on.
It doesn’t explain you how your brain is going to work. It doesn’t tell you that we’re all absolutely different. Do you realize that we are tasting all the time, but we never calibrate our palate? We don’t learn about our own palate. So somebody is saying, oh my God, this smell like pepper, and everybody around you is “oh yes, pepper” and you don’t smell pepper. And that’s simply cause you can’t.
Do you realize that we are tasting all the time, but we never calibrate our palate? That’s insane. It’s like asking a sports person not to warm up, or not knowing their own bodies.Pascaline Lepeltier
There is no taste education at school. So let’s go back to the fundamentals. Let’s go back to test what one can smell. It’s okay if you’re high here and low there, because we’re all different. Let’s start: you know that you’re sensitive to that. You’re not sensitive to that. You calibrate. Instead of starting with a wine, we should start with something a little bit different.
I have no idea about my pH sensitivity. That’s insane. It’s like asking a sports person not to warm up, or not knowing their own bodies.
When we are training to taste, we are taught to taste through benchmarks. You need to build your library of taste. But this, to me at least, makes less and less sense.
Yeah, the benchmarks as we think about it don’t exist anymore.
How do we build our library if we don’t have any benchmark anymore?
First, before blind tasting wine you need to recognize wines that are really made with a sense of place versus the wines that are not made with a sense of place. That’s the number one, where the quality of the farming allows the plants to grow grapes that can be transformed by fermentation, versus a wine where grapes have been shaped to feed to a market with a certain taste and a certain profile.
That’s the very first thing you need to discriminate. And I really believe you can discriminate that. That’s the absolute number one. And we are not taught that. I believe you don’t need a lot of education to make the difference, because it’s the same thing with food.
And then you create your benchmark with saying, oh, that’s how blocked Malo should taste like in a Chardonay. That’s the contact with the lees. This is the aromatic compounds that are brought out during this type of fermentation. And then when you start to have that, you start to get the keys to understand how certain grapes and certain techniques lead to certain profiles.
Then you try to have the same grapes made in multiple ways, and you try to make it sparkling, still, skin, sweet and all. Then suddenly you have a database that you can play with and understand.
Unfortunately, we ran into a technical issue and the podcast recording was cut short. But Pascaline and I continued talking, and she authorised us to publish some of her thoughts that came after the recording had stopped.
What is the role and place of blue-chip wines in the future of fine wine? What if we can’t taste them anymore? Is that a problem or not at all?
I think it’s always important to be able to taste what is considered as the best expression of something, the best in its category. What I notice though, is that these wines have changed. Because of what they represent — in terms of status, in terms of financial value — estates can’t take any risks any more. The wines have to be good every single year. They have to perform, and to perform at the level and at the style that they are expecting to perform. They have a maximum level of control. I understand the reasons behind this, but my experience of them recently is that these wines don’t touch me as much as they did before, they don’t resonate the same way. They used to be the ones who gave me great emotions; now they are the ones that I need to know. It’s a bit different.
[Blue-chip] wines have changed. Because of what they represent — in terms of status, in terms of financial value — estates can’t take any risks any more. The wines have to be good every single year. They have to perform, and to perform at the level and at the style that they are expecting to perform.Pascaline Lepeltier
We had a recent podcast where we explored the nuances between excellence and extraordinary. And excellence being doing what other people do, but doing it better. And extraordinary is totally changing your mindset and your reapproach, to create something new, something that didn’t existed before. And it seems to me that what you are describing, that a lot of those classic wines have gone from the realm of extraordinary to the realm of excellence, which is not a bad thing. They maintain consistency in the excellence of they’re doing and that is a really, really hard thing to do. But they’ve lost that uniqueness that made them not even fighting in the same category as other wines.
Exactly, that’s totally this.
Are there any other skills sets that we need to focus on so that we can accelerate the training of people to work in the hospitality side?
Psychology and communication skills. We are not trained in psychology in general, and yet for us sommeliers it is at the heart of the job. Of course it can come with experience, but I must admit I learned a lot with my coaches preparing me for the competition, and it helped me a lot on the floor. Also my coaches worked with me on my presentation and communication skills and I really improved my approach on the floor too! So it is a big plus. Communication also in terms of adapting to various levels of knowledge, different languages, etc.
We should know a little more about health and nutrition. Once again for our guests, but also for us, working in the food and wine industry, dealing with alcohol every day.
Additional Resources on Education:
- Rethinking Education: Shaping the Future of Trade
- Leading the Way Towards Positive Change, One Step at a Time: Five Ways to Become an Effective Mentor
- The Purpose of Education in a Changing World: In Conversation with Tamar Gendler
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