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January 7, 2019updated 02 Nov 2022 10:20am

New Horizons: Vegetarian and vegan sommeliers

By Gemma Price

Gemma Price delves inside the world of vegetarian and vegan sommeliers and explains how the popularity of meat-free dining may influence in positive ways how all of us eat out

It goes without saying that eschewing animal products doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate good wine. It’s also possible to be a vegetarian or vegan sommelier and work in restaurants with meat-driven cuisine.

Self-taught Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon— currently director of events at upscale Michigan-based grocer Plum Market, and a vegetarian since she was 20—says that wine professionals who follow a plant-based diet aren’t at a disadvantage if they have an understanding of food-and-wine-pairing principles and are prepared to work closely with their colleagues on the floor and in the kitchen. “It certainly hasn’t fettered me in any way,” she says.

Hristian Iliev—an advanced sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, certified sommelier by the Culinary Training Academy, and meat-free for ten years prior to starting his professional training in 2003—agrees. “If you have a great understanding of cooking, preparation, flavor profiles, and obviously wine, it’s not an issue at all,” he says.

That said, vegetarian and vegan wine professionals—each of whom defines those labels as specific to themselves—are still a rare breed. Iliev, who currently works as head sommelier at American-Italian restaurant Carbone in Las Vegas and typically follows a vegan diet with the occasional addition of milk and eggs, says he’s never met another vegetarian sommelier.

Triffon, already something of an outlier—she was the first woman to sit and pass the Master Sommelier exam in the US, doing so in 1987, the first year it was offered there prior to the Court of Master Sommeliers being established in America— says she doesn’t know any other Master Sommeliers who have been vegetarian throughout their adult lives. “And I think other [food professionals] find it surprising, interesting, maybe even odd,” she admits.

Principles and preparations

So, how does a vegetarian or vegan sommelier differ from their meat-eating colleagues in their approach to wine selections for meat-focused cuisine? The short answer is, not as much as you might think.

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Whether the dish is vegan, vegetarian, or contains meat, the underlying principles of food-and-wine pairing are the same. The type of protein, if any, will of course be an important consideration, because it has its own characteristic flavor and texture—dry-aged beef is very different from veal, for example. But once a sommelier has that dialed in, he or she will focus more on the manner of the preparation. Is it grilled or seared? Poached? Raw?

“If you’re having steak, each one of those preparations will lend itself to a separate group of wines—you’re looking for different tannins. You’re not necessarily going to have the same Cabernet or Shiraz recommendation that you would have with a grilled steak with something that has been braised or boiled,” says Beth Hickey, an advanced sommelier at Heartwood Provisions, a Seattle restaurant that specializes in food-and-beverage pairings and who eats a predominantly vegan diet (but says she can’t turn down fresh mozzarella).

The level of heat, creaminess, acidity, sweetness, seasoning, and so on all come into play. “Let’s take something like a veal Parmesan, which I’ve never had in my life. The dish is obviously very fatty and oily, so I’m going to bring something that will counteract that richness,” says Iliev. “The meat, to me, is almost going to the very last point.”

For a vegan or vegetarian sommelier, figuring out how the various elements of a complex dish interplay, and then finding the perfect wine to complement that experience, can be trickier than factoring in the influence from the protein. “I used to work for [Alain] Ducasse for many years, and [one of his] signature approaches to a dish was that he would use the same element—asparagus, say—and would present it in the same dish in three different ways—let’s say raw, puréed, grilled,” recounts Iliev. “Sometimes when you have a lot of different techniques in the same dish, that, to me, turns into a challenge.”

Tasting and talking

Of course, the most expedient way to understand a dish is to taste it. Some sommeliers who identify themselves as vegetarian or vegan will sample elements of a dish, filling in the gaps by applying their memories of eating meat in the past, as well as tasting theory.

Madeline Triffon, who follows a vegan diet at home and occasionally includes dairy, mainly because it makes it easier for her to eat out, says she doesn’t have a philosophical objection to tasting meat and seafood dishes. “I always felt like it made my life much easier in terms of food and wine harmony— contextualizing it and making specific recommendations,” she says. “I take one bite but not the second bite, put it that way.”

Beth Hickey says that while she avoids the main meat component, she’ll taste sauces periodically—even if she knows there’s some animal protein in there—to ensure she lands on the right pairing. “I’ve had elk, I’ve had venison. I can still remember those flavors, so I’ll go for the sauce,” she says. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite, but [my vegan diet] is my personal choice, and I want my pairing to be authentic.”

Maintaining a dialogue with the chef is part and parcel of the job for any sommelier; leveraging chefs’ palates—and those of other co-workers—is the logical next step for vegetarian or vegan sommeliers trying to get to grips with a dish that they can’t or won’t taste.

“If you have a basic understanding of pairing and a great relationship with a chef or co-worker […] and say, ‘Tell me, when you take a bite, what dominates,’ so that then you really understand what they’re perceiving, then I think you can successfully pair wine with food that you’re not experiencing,” says Triffon.

Iliev—who won’t ever taste dishes containing meat—says he spends a considerable amount of his professional energy bridging the gap and that he’ll ask another sommelier or the chef if he’s ever stumped. “I’ve built enough confidence in myself to say that I can do this very successfully,” he says.

But one thing Triffon says that vegans or vegetarians, sommeliers or not, need to bear in mind is the unique way that animal protein interacts with tannins; she’s never been able to replicate in the vegan/vegetarian world how a bite of simply prepared beef softens savagely drying tannins from a youthful Barbaresco or Barolo. “It’s almost a shocking experience and really eye-opening in the flavor search,” she admits but adds that while working in a French restaurant might pose some challenges for a vegan sommelier, they’re not insurmountable.

All sommeliers, of course, routinely have to offer wine list selections or pairings for dishes without being able to sample the food. For events such as a special dinner or a wedding or festival, the sommelier will have the menu—or at least, a rough idea of the menu—ahead of time but won’t get the chance to taste any of the dishes before the chef cooks them on the night, and maybe not even then.

And like anybody else, sommeliers have personal dietary preferences and requirements. If an omnivorous sommelier was allergic to peanuts or shellfish, or had an ethical or religious objection to a certain dish, he or she would have to rely on co-worker insights and tasting theory rather than actual tasting to offer an authentic pairing.

When Beth Hickey was faced with a horse-meat dish in her Court of Sommeliers advanced exam, she leveraged her knowledge of classic pairings. “I would never have eaten horse even when I was a carnivore, so if you take it in the other direction, it didn’t stop me. I just knew that [Amarone] was a classic pairing, so for me it was a no-brainer.”

But she adds that while committing classic pairings to memory is useful, it’s important for any sommelier not to get too comfortable with the theory. “Sometimes your relationship with the wine changes as time goes forward, so it’s always good to check back in with those classic pairings, and it’s good to have a few non-traditional pairings in your back pocket as well,” she says.

Reading and listening

Books on food-and-wine pairing are always a great resource to tap for inspiration; in a pinch, a vegetarian or vegan sommelier can apply the tasting principles found there to recommend a great wine for a given dish. Triffon recommends fellow Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein’s seminal book Perfect Pairings, written for consumers but a fantastic tool for anybody interested in food-and-wine harmony. In her former role as wine director for Matt Prentice restaurants, Triffon advised the group’s owners to buy a copy for every chef and sous-chef in the company.

Hickey recommends What to Drink with What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, and Taste Buds and Molecules by François Chartier, a former sommelier at El Bulli, who takes on pairing at the molecular level. “Dairy Pairings and Perfect Pairings are classics as well. If you’re committed and you don’t want to taste meat, then that’s fine. But if you read those books and take them to heart and listen to your network of friends and mentors in the industry, you can figure it out,” she says.

And, of course, a guest’s preferences trump everything else. A sommelier can have myriad ideas for wines that would be delicious with a given dish, but ultimately it’s listening to guests and understanding what they like that steers sommeliers to the best selection. “Sometimes we get very deep into food-and-wine pairing, but I like to make it more understandable for people. Just get something you like to drink. If you don’t like it, it’s not going to work out,” says Iliev.

Looking beyond the main ingredient

As vegan and vegetarian principles become more important to more people—the Vegan Society reported in May that more than half a million Britons are now vegan, a sizable jump from the estimated 150,000 vegans in the UK ten years ago, with a further one million following a vegetarian diet—and more omnivores opt to switch out cuts of meats for more plant-based options, more emphasis will be placed on harmonizing wine with vegetarian and vegan preparations.

Omnivorous sommelier Andrea Morris, who started a new role at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group this summer, says her previous role at chef John Fraser’s Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant Nix in New York has taught her a lot about looking beyond the protein in a dish. “I think that rather than focus on the [main] ingredient in the dish, we should ask, ‘What are the accompanying flavors?’” she says. “But that stands true whether it’s vegetables or fish or meat.”

Iliev says that training on food-and-wine pairing is still fairly meat-focused and that he, for one, would welcome more formal training in how to approach vegan or vegetarian cuisine, because it’s harder to do. Once you take meat out of the equation, you also remove the “rules” of building a dish around it, and the flavor combinations become endless, making it tough to tackle. “The flavors [can] come from mushrooms or other vegetables, sauces, spices, or herbs, so I think that to build a wine pairing around that, people need a little training.”

For now, wine programs for vegan/vegetarian cuisine aren’t on the same footing as those for meat-driven menus and often aren’t as much of a focus for vegetarian and vegan restaurants as they are for a steakhouse, say. Iliev says that while his place of work, Carbone, offers a vegan tasting menu, it doesn’t offer wine pairings for it, though he’s happy to do ad hoc pairings for vegan diners who want that experience.

Even the concept of vegetarianism and veganism in the context of wine selection can be a minefield of moral dilemmas. While enophiles love to use “meaty” references—cherishing a New World Cabernet for its blood-pudding and game notes, or ruminating on the love-it-or-hate-it pungent barnyard aromas in a Côte du Rhône—it may also be that their favorite wine is actually made using animal protein.

At the end of the winemaking process, many producers fine or filter the wine to stabilize it before bottling; while some fining agents are vegan, others are derivatives of animal products: gelatin from boiled bones, egg albumen, isinglass from fish bladders, chitosan from crustacean shells, or casein from milk. (Some Mediterranean countries traditionally use bull’s blood, though its use in wines destined for the EU market was banned during the BSE crisis.)

While none of the fining agent remains in the wine—and producers aren’t required to label which fining agents, if any, were used—many vegan authorities take the stance that because animal products are used in the process, the final product isn’t vegan or vegetarian, much in the same way that some sugars don’t qualify because they’re filtered using bone charcoal.

As a strict vegetarian sommelier, Iliev asserts that all wines are vegan/vegetarian because there are no animal derivatives in the final product. “I can support this statement by saying that my wife is extremely allergic to fish—if you have fish oil on your body and she touches you, she breaks out—but she has no allergic reaction to any wine [fined with isinglass]. I use this as my proof that none of those agents is in the wine.” But this isn’t alas the case for all allergy sufferers: A European Food Safety Authority Journal paper in 2011 reported that allergic reactions were found in wine drinkers who were allergic to eggs and given alcohol fined with albumen.

Even in the context of day-to-day agricultural practices, vegan/vegetarian principles can be tricky to apply. Soils inherently have animal products in them—crustacean shells and so on—and some of the critters that live where crops are grown will fall foul of harvest machinery (although some wineries use vacuums to remove bugs along with leaves from the fruit before it reaches the press).

People who choose a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle also tend to be attracted to more naturalistic food-production methods— organic foods, grown in soil fortified with manure, and biodynamically farmed produce that incorporates rituals such as burying cow horns of manure at key points of the property. While some vegans might have an issue with the use of animal waste in viticulture, the alternative is produce grown with pesticides that kill everything in the vineyard.

Ultimately, it comes down to where an individual draws his or her own line, and those who care deeply about their principles often make it their business to be well informed about what goes into what they eat and drink.

Identifying vegetarian or vegan wines

A vegetarian or vegan restaurant that serves exclusively vegan or vegetarian cuisine often won’t offer a list of certified vegan or vegetarian wines—partly because the restaurant doesn’t want to make those philosophical decisions on behalf of its guests, and partly because those certifications are prohibitively expensive for smaller producers to obtain, so few wines have them.

“If I bought only wines with a vegan certification, I’d probably have had the shortest wine list in New York,” says Morris, adding that she doesn’t mark selections that are inherently vegan or vegetarian, nor organic or biodynamic, because she doesn’t want to add a logo that might influence a guest in what would otherwise be a more objective choice.

Of course, many diners at Nix on any given night are not vegan or vegetarian, or they choose to avoid meat for reasons other than ethics, but there probably will be some strict vegetarians or vegans among the clientele. When serving wine at a vegetarian restaurant or taking care of a vegetarian or vegan guest at any restaurant, how would a sommelier identify where an individual guest’s priorities lie, and—even more important—is it his or her place to say anything?

Morris says that it’s never come up—though most of her favorite wines aren’t fined, so if someone did ask, she’d know exactly which ones to recommend. And she wouldn’t feel it necessary to bring up production techniques that might not jibe with a guest’s principles, because she’d trust that if somebody cared deeply enough, he or she would have done the research. “I want it to be a dialogue. The last thing I want to do is make people feel uncomfortable with the choices they’ve made,” she says.

Iliev says that while he personally considers all wines vegan, he sees it as his responsibility as a sommelier to keep tabs on the vegetarian and vegan wines in the cellar—that is, the ones that aren’t fined with animal derivatives—so that he could present options to any guest who requested one. “At the end of the day, we want to get people happy and excited about wine and to provide a good service. If this is something that’s important to them, why not make them feel comfortable?” he says.

If you’re looking for vegan or vegetarian wines, you can check the label—some producers, such as Bonny Doon, state explicitly that their wines qualify. So, too, do large supermarkets such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer in the UK; other retailers keep a list of suitable wines that you can reference. Premium wines will often have “neither fined nor filtered” somewhere on the bottle—underscoring that a wine is of such high quality that it doesn’t require stabilization before bottling is great marketing—in which case you can also be confident that no animal products were used to process the wine.

But given that winemaking methods can change from season to season and the marketing materials might not keep up, to be completely sure, you have to go straight to the horse’s mouth and ask the producer—or a sommelier who will go the distance for you and contact the winemaker directly. “Frankly, between us chickens, who are you going to believe, other than the winemaker? I would believe it if it’s David Ramey telling me,” says Triffon, adding that understanding and catering to a guest’s vegetarian or vegan principles is akin to understanding any other preferences in a hospitality setting. It’s just good service.

The next exciting shift?

As vegetarian cuisine becomes more popular—and animal protein becomes considerably more expensive—sommeliers will increasingly need to work with more plant-based dishes alongside meat dishes tableside, often demonstrating the versatility to work with both at the same time.

Hickey anticipated that her recent Master Sommelier service exam might incorporate exactly this kind of situation. “I wouldn’t be surprised if during the course of the exam I were asked to pair at the table, four at the table, for three people who are meat eaters and one person is going to go for vegan dishes or vegetarian dishes, and to have the flexibility to be able to orchestrate the pairings. I can totally see that scenario happening,” she says.

And—as well as leaving vegetarians and vegans feeling better served—sommeliers becoming more au fait with vegetarian cuisine is good news for avid carnivores, too. A more intimate knowledge of plant-based accompaniments can add an extra edge to the pairing for a meat dish.

“No one can claim that one wine is the best pairing for a steak—Bordeaux versus California Cab versus… Brunello,” says Andrea Morris. “Meat is the wine-friendliest food in the world, so you really have to start paying attention to what it’s served with if you want a really stand-out pairing. And when was the last time you ate just meat? There are always vegetables on the plate.”

More chefs being more creative with vegetables and plant-based cuisine will only inspire more interesting dining experiences across the board. Iliev would even go so far as to say that innovation with meat-free cuisine will be the next exciting shift in dining. “I believe it’s the future. When you have to build a menu on plant-based dishes, there’s a lot of experimentation. And when that happens, great things come out of it.”

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