I was asked this question recently by a good friend of mine Carol Paterson-Smith. Very soon, she will be launching her own website Alpha Female and I will be her ‘Wine Guru’ providing advice to her clients.
The primary role of the sommelier within a restaurant is to assist you making the right choice of wine. However, what is the right choice? Remember, always bear in mind, whatever the situation you are the guest and therefore the customer. A good sommelier will make sure that you feel comfortable and provide you with good advice appropriate to your individual needs, whatever you are eating, your mood and circumstances etc. For instance, you may be at the restaurant for a particular occasion. Be it a first date, a memorable dinner or celebration, a business lunch or just a quick bite to eat and a glass of wine, the sommelier should be able to find a wine which suits your taste and meets your requirements. For the past year or so, I have been involved in the Wine Chap website, which is all about reviewing wine lists, maintaining the relationships between the sommelier and the customer and trying to be helpful.
It is important to try to understand and get to know your sommelier. You can do this by being open-minded and by simply asking a few questions so that the sommelier can try to understand you and most importantly your taste. Moreover, try to keep things relevant towards the situation. By this I mean, you may be on a budget, so make it clear to the sommelier that you have a price in mind and don’t wish to go beyond that. There is nothing wrong with this. By being open and candid and prepared to build up a trust and rapport with the sommelier they will not try to rip you off. A good sommelier will suggest you a few options and help you make the decision.
If you wish to make a ‘safe choice’ because it is something you particularly enjoy, then do not be afraid to chose that. If you wish to be adventurous and try something new and exciting, then the sommelier will help you to discover something. A good one may even offer a little taste of something, perhaps available by the glass before you actually go ahead and purchase a bottle. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to say if you don’t like something. At the end of the day, you and your guests are the ones who will be drinking the wine and no-one should be ‘forced’ to consume something which they don’t genuinely enjoy. A good sommelier will probably replace the bottle and try to accomodate you as much as possible.
It is not supposed to be a competition. Taste is very personal. Once you have discovered what it is you like and do not like then you will be able to understand better. I am a big believer that there is no right or wrong. If you don’t like something just say that, don’t try to make out that there is a fault in the wine in some way. A good sommelier will always taste or check the wine before serving it. Don’t try to get into a situation which may be ‘argumentative’, even though you wish to show how much of a wine connoisseur you are. If I had a euro for every situation a testosterone-fuelled City boy came to my restaurant and wanted to start an ‘argument’, then I would be rich! Sommeliers are highly-skilled and knowledgeable individuals, who are trained in the art of wine. The good ones will have the necessary diplomatic and social skills to be able to adapt to situations. Overall, the sommelier is part of the restaurant experience and it is in everyone’s best interests that the occasion is a positively memorable one. Hopefully, you will build up a friendly relationship with that restaurant and sommelier and most importantly become regulars. When you have found a lovely restaurant with a good sommelier, you’ll be surpised how amazing and memorable your experiences can be.
I like to say that the sommelier is the facilitator of liquid enjoyment. There are no hard and fast rules of how to talk to the sommelier. Politely and with respect is always best, as they are professionals who are working in the customer service industry. Most good sommeliers, especially those working in this country’s fine-dining establishments have been trained via the Court of Master Sommeliers and/or the WSET and have the necessary recognised qualifications. Moreover, in my experience, obnoxious people who behave badly in restaurants do not get better service either.
To sum up here are my useful top tips to remember:
- Learn your taste – what do you like? what don’t you like? why? Be prepared to make mistakes, but that’s how you learn.
- Try to learn some ‘basics’ e.g different grape varieites and styles. Try to be able to distinguish between the characteristics in tastes and flavours.
- Have some reliable and enjoyable ‘safe choices’ up your sleeve. They will be ‘crowd pleasers’ such as Sancerre, Chablis, NZ Sauv Bl, Rioja, Chateauneuf-du-Pape etc, which most restaurants will have on their lists.
- When you feel like it, having gained some confidence, rapport and trust with the sommelier be prepared to be a little more adventurous. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and certainly not intimidated.
- Some restaurants do not have sommeliers, so hopefully the wine list is user-friendly, easy to understand and the floor staff are clued up.
- Set a budget and keep it relevant to the occasion.
- N.B YOU ARE THE CUSTOMER.