Sommeliers are now regular fixtures in many restaurants, but how can one determine if their suggestions are worth trusting? It turns out that you don't have to know a lot about wine to judge a sommelier's skills. To evaluate the value of the advice they're proving, keep in mind the 10 points mentioned below.
1) They respond well to simple questions. Sommeliers spend their waking hours prepping for hard questions customers might ask. What is the dominant soil type of Castiglione Falletto? How many hectares is the historical Les Gaudichots? But it is sommeliers' responses to the easy questions that better indicates their personality and willingness to be helpful. When sommeliers first introduce themselves, I like to throw out a question with an obvious answer. "Do you have any red Burgundies?" I might ask, as my hand lingers near a page of Burgundies. How they respond tells me everything I need to know about their attitude toward customers. If sommeliers reply curtly or sarcastically ("Uh, yeah, right there"), then I know they aren't taking to heart the intention of making my day better, and I’ll do well to select a wine on my own. But if a sommelier’s response is genuinely friendly and helpful, then that sommelier has my trust.
2) They know their own wine list. If I tell sommeliers I don’t want to spend more than $80 on a bottle of wine, I don’t want them looking over my shoulder trying to scan the page for listings under that amount. If they have to look at the list, the sommeliers are indicating that they doesn't know the selection very well. They might know a lot about wine, but knowing a lot about wine isn’t the same as knowing what is available in the house at the moment, and it is a sommelier’s expertise regarding specific selections that is most helpful to customers. Patrons don't frequent restaurants to drink a generality or an appellation stipulation, they go to drink a specific bottle of wine. And you want sommeliers to have tried that wine already, so that they can talk about it. If the sommelier doesn’t already know what is on the list, it could be that the sommelier is new to the restaurant, or recently promoted, or that the wine staff doesn’t communicate well amongst themselves about new additions. All of those possibilities are reasons to doubt a sommelier’s suggestions.
3) They are listening to you. How can one tell if sommeliers are just trying to sell what they want or need to sell? The strongest indication of good intentions is that sommeliers listens to you. They might be really into this or that wine, and this or that trend, but that isn’t helpful unless they are applying that to better meet your needs. Which requires listening to the customer. You should be immediately suspicious of sommeliers that don't lead with a few inquiries. "What do you typically enjoy?" being one of the most frequently encountered questions, but also one most likely to bring good results. If, instead, the sommelier leads with a pitch that doesn’t seem to take your own desires into account, you should probably steer clear of the given advice.
4) They know the source of their wines.
... sommeliers who can just quote a wine's points score or tell you that a particular wine is popular, is adding little to the conversation or the context. When sommeliers know where their wines come from—the specific region and who made it—that indicates that they have some real familiarity with the wine. On the other hand, sommeliers who can just quote a wine's points score or tell you that a particular wine is popular, is adding little to the conversation or the context. When sommeliers have visited a wine's producer then they can really possess deep knowledge of how a wine was made, and what its character might be as a result. That kind of insight is a real plus when you are looking for guidance. They don’t have to give you all the ins and outs of every process, that is unnecessary at a meal. But it's definitely helpful if they know such things. A good indication of how much sommeliers know about a wine is how well they know the people that make it, and where they do their work. If they don’t know those details, you shouldn’t expect that they will know much else.
5) They avoid attributing every wine characteristic to one cause. It is easy to start ascribing the tastes of wine to one supposed reason or another, and even reasonable to do so. But associating everything good or bad about a wine with one explanation ("low yields" or "new barrels") is simple minded and misses the complexity of the subject. When sommeliers constantly refer to one antecedent for all the different flavors, keep in mind that they may not know what they are talking about.
6) They downsell you. There is absolutely no reason for a sommelier to sell you a wine that is less than you have indicated you might spend except for one motivation, which is that they truly believe you will be happier with the less expensive wine. There are zero other potential reasons. And nobody else will be happier that they did so: not their boss, not their coworkers in the tip pool, and certainly not the people from whom they buy wine. If a sommelier downsells you, they are indicating that they are willing to get into some trouble so that you can potentially have a better evening. It goes against their own best interests. So there is no better sign that they are telling the truth.
If a sommelier downsells you, they are indicating that they are willing to get into some trouble so that you can potentially have a better evening.
7) They make you feel knowledgeable about wine. Sommeliers know more facts and figures about wine than ever before. And when discussing wine in their own restaurant, they have an advantage in that they have had similar conversations about this set of food and wines many, many times before. But it is the hallmark of knowledgeable sommeliers that they don’t have to demonstrate for you just how much they know in every instance. There is a comfort level with the subject that doesn’t need constant reinforcement from others. If it dawns on you while ordering wine that the sommelier is leaving every opportunity for you to look good in front of your friends and family at the table, instead of pointing out what you don’t know, then it is likely that you are having a conversation with a very good sommelier indeed.
8) They have what is on the list. There are several reasons why sommeliers might run out of more than one of the wines on their list, and all of them indicate the likelihood of a problem. Maybe the staff isn’t paying attention to what they possess, which indicates that they don’t care much about it. Or maybe they don’t want to sell what they have to you, which is just plain rude, but also a possibility in a world of highly limited, allocated wines. Or, it could be that the restaurant is having financial difficulties and isn’t replenishing their wine inventory with new purchases. This last possibility is especially worrying, because if a restaurant is skimping on booze, there is a good chance they are skimping on food as well. But no matter what the reason may be, if a restaurant doesn’t have multiple wines that the list says they should have, that is a bad sign.
When you encounter a sommelier who makes suggestions based on what you were served last time, you have probably found exactly the person you should be talking to.
9) They care about storage. When a sommelier brings you a bottle of wine, go ahead and touch the bottle to get a sense of the wine's temperature before it is opened. The bottle should be cool to the touch or colder, depending on the style of the wine, but it definitely should not be warm or room temperature. If it is warm, it means that the wine hasn’t been stored well, and storage has a real and significant impact on a wine's taste. Does a wine taste oaky, short and warm? It could well be that heat damage has stripped the wine of balancing fruit, freshness and length on the finish. This is a preventable problem, and any sommelier who cares about the actual taste of a wine should be attending to good storage for their bottles. Yet problematic storage is a common issue at many restaurants still today. In fact, this may be the issue on which restaurant wine service has improved the least over the years. If your sommelier wants you to drink warm wine, you should keep in mind that you will never be tasting that wine as it was intended.
10) They remember what you drank last time. Like bartenders, sommeliers have a tendency to remember people by what they drink. But, while a bartender focuses on making regulars their usual libation as quickly as possible, a sommelier is actively thinking about what else a customer might enjoy given what the person has liked before. Or at least a good sommelier is. This is, in fact, one of the keys indicators of great sommeliers: they recognize what you might like to drink next. This kind of conversational phrasing of liquids can only happen when sommeliers take an interest in you and remember you. When you encounter a sommelier who makes suggestions based on what you were served last time, you have probably found exactly the person you should be talking to.
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