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A TALK WITH CAT SILIRIE: how NOT to be the only "wine-person" working in a restaurant

Neither Catherine nor I can stand to remember how long we’ve known each other. Suffice to say we were much younger when first we met. Almost children. I still had loud flowered neckties.

For readers beyond Boston, Catherine was until very recently the Wine Director for all of the Barbara Lynch restaurants, a group encompassing everything from an oyster bar to a Trattoria to a dress-up high-concept fine-dining venue, among others. Catherine created and maintained a singular wine program taking each venue’s particular vibe into account. She did this very much as a sort of savant, outside the matrix of the MS protocols. (She by no means “rejected” them; she simply didn’t find them necessary to accomplish what she set out to create.) Catherine proceeded as came naturally to her. And as her career widened she grew in both stature and influence – there is barely a restaurant wine professional in Boston who’s never been in her nexus.

We were simpatico right away. And starting then and continuing through the many years that followed, we grew to be friends, and we drank a ton of wine together. And in all that time I can’t remember when (or if) we ever talked about what we were drinking using the usually prevailing wine speak. Each of us knew how to manage that lingo if we had to, but together we never had to. It felt natural, and so neither of us asked the other “Have you noticed we don’t talk about wine the way most 'wine-people' do?”

Each of us has been described as “visionary” but in my case I reject the term. I never had a vision a priori and set about to enact it. Whatever big-picture “visions” I may have developed arose from the details of the work. Put it this way: I was selling German and Austrian wines, and in order to do that I needed to make the meta-case that these types of wines were things to be cherished, and in order to do that I needed to find a way to describe both the larger picture and the larger values underlying them. Even later on with Champagne I started by discovering that something cool was happening that most people didn’t know about. I began by telling the small story and only then perceived the widening concentric circles in which the story was occurring.

Catherine was always visionary but I never assumed it was deliberate. I probably saw her through my prism. In any case I was wrong. 

CATHERINE: I propose that we look at use of the word /concept "vision" because it was very intentional of me to cultivate vision. Now I’m not calling myself a visionary; that’s different. But my vision was intentional; certainly by 1998 where it was a question of “survival” to reimagine the role as a “ Restaurant wine person“   It really was a very long planned vision which I began cooking up during my year and a half  sabbatical in Alaska and then for a further incubation  period after that, at my fathers house in Florida. Incredible time to be able to look from afar at this business and how I could find my way back into it in a way that I could thrive in a way that I could be happy.

TERRY: Can you say what that looked like at the time?

CATHERINE: My concept was to become a “ Behind the scenes yet still impactful”  wine director. It turned out to be difficult because if I do try to say so modestly, I had already created quite a cult of personality for myself as the wine person on the floor especially in an era when young women wine personalities on the dining room floor were VERY few.

TERRY: Did you know you could do it, or did you not know you couldn’t do it?

CATHERINE:  Let’s call it youthful courage or do-or-die determination, plus I had culture starvation after living in Alaska, plus I  believed I could teach armies of servers thru the years ha ha. But I did go into it with a strong conceptual aspect.

TERRY: It’s sort of a reinvention of the idea of “sommelier.”

CATHERINE: In effect. What I wanted to do was to integrate  the many  other tasks of FOH restaurant persons in Boston that I endeavored to 'bring in'...from general managers, floor managers, bartenders, but especially  servers, servers, servers.. and then the many servers who became wine vision was to be inclusive and to OPEN up the wine conversation to front-of-the-house and the entire enterprise instead of the same old one single person holding all the keys to the treasures of wine knowledge.

TERRY: In that case we have to talk about language, because I’ve found that the prevailing wine-speak is actually a barrier for empowering people to be comfortable with wine, especially when they’re “on stage” as it were. What have you found to be the limits of language in dealing with wine? I mean, both as an individual, a professional and as someone who managed wine programs and service across a number of different types of restaurants?

CATHERINE:  I was motivated at the start of my career in wine  by the limits of language God, even the words to describe the very work I do are unclear and polarizing to others ..including my own family haha be it “sommelier" or 'wine steward'  or even "wine director" or "wine-tradesperson"… You’re right: the language is counterproductive. Most restaurant guests are NOT in any sense wine-professionals. So there has to be a way to speak with guests about wine that is an actual, real mutual communication for servers and  guests. For instance, if a restaurant serves a hundred people a night, seven nights a week,  only perhaps twice a week there’ll be one person from the wine trade or a serious wine collector that “speaks in the language of the wine-trade”. Which is not an official or standardized language in itself either! No other guest speaks in wine trade-like language.  They have no pre-established language in which to speak to their server about wine, nor does the server wish to speak to them in  a 'foreign tongue.” I deeply wanted to open the possibilities of communication so they'd actually be satisfying for BOTH the restaurant server as well as the guest!

TERRY: So how do you square that circle? How do you impart “wine knowledge” to your servers so they’re empowered and comfortable with it, and how do you create a vocabulary by which they can help their guests? This isn’t often easy, in my experience.

And that will launch us into part two, a discussion of the uses and limits of language to manage wine, from Catherine’s position at the point-of-sale in contrast to mine as a writer. Kindly watch this space.

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