There are reasons Gilles Szumacher is still a sommelier at 74. For one, he adores the gig – after all, another day at Casanova gives him a unique opportunity to taste wine he couldn’t normally afford. He says the best wine he’s had hit his lips while working: a ’47 Cheval Blanc, a $12,000 Cabernet Franc from his native France’s St. Emillion region.
“I love my job,” he says. “I really love what I do here.”
I call Szumacher at 10:15pm (he takes the call because we worked together as sommeliers). Many 74-year-olds would’ve been asleep hours ago. He tells me why he thinks he cuts a memorable figure. “A lot of people remember me for a particular reason,” he says. “I don’t just open a bottle of wine and disappear. I go back to be sure that everything is good.”
Casanova operations manager Jean Hubert has another theory. “Because of his age and his French accent, people just naturally trust him,” he says. “They trust the whole package.”
They also sense his passion, which might be most evident when he’s in the wine cellar, the hand-dug space that holds more than 30,000 bottles and has earned Wine Spectator’s Grand Award repeatedly. His tone changes, falling octaves into a reverential whisper. He cradles bottles of wine as he would an infant – but when he’s not holding wine, his hand gestures take on new vigor.
The cellar tour is also a veteran sales technique that allows him to diagnose budgets and likes and dislikes precisely, and to upsell them on the wines tucked in the gated section of the cellar.
Further techniques put customers at ease. When he senses price limits, he points at numbers to avoid awkward financial conversations. Though he loves suggesting spendy wines, he avoids forcing his favorites, and instead listens to the flavor profile they want, flips through the 1,800 options and narrows things down.
His passion fuels a strong work ethic. He arrives to work precisely 45 minutes sooner than he is scheduled to take reservations and go through the night’s guests – espresso in one hand, pencil in another – starring the VIPs whom he will ensure get their desired table and the right waiter personality.
His crisp appearance, meanwhile, befits the son of a tailor; in fact, Szumacher still alters and mends his own clothes.
The Jones New York suit he wears stays nicely arranged despite the restaurant bustle. Even as he keeps a mental note of the six exotic orders he’s been given – and nine other tables scour wine lists – he betrays none of the urgency of the moment, calmly gliding around like a duck.
Quick Sips A unique individual like Gilles Szumacher certainly has a unique take on wine. He shared some of his favorite insights with the Weekly.
• Don’t be afraid to try new things. Pinot, Chardonnay - great. But there is a world of Vementinos, Frappatos and Tannats out there to embrace.
• Live it up. “Don’t be afraid to go a bit higher on wine,” he says - or in other words, you don’t need to drink too much wine if it’s really good. Droplets can be savored for hours (but if you do want a bargain value, he contends, aim for Chilean Cabs at Trader Joe’s).
• Take sides. Try a Napa Cabernet against one from Bordeaux. The revelations will be deliciously distinct.
• Admit wine is medicine. “My ex-father-in-law was in an accident in France,” Szumacher says, “at the hospital they gave him half bottles of Bordeaux.”
(Not that he’s always the picture of poise – he’s not afraid to let less experienced staff have it. “If I don’t agree with something, I’ll tell you to your face!” he says. “I won’t go behind your back to managers like some waiters do.”)
A bottle of Chateau Lynch-Bages Cabernet Sauvignon from France’s Pauillac region sent him wineward. He recalls sipping this heart breaker when he was 18, living in Paris.
“I had never experienced any wine like that before,” he says. “At that time, it was the best wine I’ve ever drunk.” It was also an early taste of what would become an almost-half century career.
After he married his first wife, a French chef, he moved from France to New York to begin a tailoring business. When they heard about the chance to buy a small restaurant in Philadelphia, they jumped at the opportunity.
After five years, he moved on to Los Angeles. From there, he worked at two of L.A.’s finer celebrity restaurants, Chef Wolfgang Puck’s My Maison and The Mustache Café, where he served the likes of Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Oprah Winfrey (no wine for Winfrey; she ordered a Coke).
Ultimately, though, he couldn’t resist the charming cypress-tree-covered town he’d once visited before, and found a match in wine-worldly Casanova. A decade into his stay here, he admits that the life he loves is the only one he knows: “I can’t imagine what life would be like if I wasn’t a sommelier.”
The money helps. “Gilles sells more high-end wine than anyone around here – he’s heavy!” says Kris Harriman, Casanova’s wine director. “When some of the high-end guys come in to spend money, they ask specifically for him.”
And there’s another reason Szumacher won’t soon fade into the retirement horizon: He’s only improving with age. Stopping would be like uncorking a ’05 Chateau Margaux prematurely.
“I’ll do it until I can’t go on anymore,” he says.
CASANOVA Fifth between Mission and San Carlos, Carmel. • 11:30-3pm; 5-10pm. • 625-0501.