You’re relaxing at a restaurant, soaking up the vibe, feeling cool and leisurely turning the pages of the wine list. You’re the alpha dog at the table, wine-wise, and your friends are letting you make the decisions. The sommelier appears, asking politely if he can be of service. Time stops as six sets of eyes narrow on you. You remember that everyone at the table is ordering a different dish. Do you know what questions to ask the sommelier?
Whether you’re a wine pro or a novice, a brief to-the-point dialogue with a willing sommelier can be enjoyable, educational and, more to the point, assure that the right wine is served. Dealing properly with the wine staff can streamline the process and cut down on the antisocial exercise of burying your nose in the list. From the insights gleaned over many years training staff, I have some thoughts on how this dialogue should go. First, the role of the wine staff. I discourage my staff from making personal recommendations, which the inexperienced will sometimes do in the interest of expressing “authenticity.” That is irrelevant unless your palate happens to match theirs. If asked for a recommendation, I train my staff to reply with questions that can narrow down the guest’s specific preferences, and to offer a range of alternatives: “If you prefer a crisp, citric lighterbodied white wine, may I recommend this…” or “If you’d enjoy a richer style wine with fuller body, this is also delicious.”
I don’t encourage this in my staff, but I know other wine service teams do it: they will ask food-related questions to tease out the guest’s style preferences: How do you like your lobster, with a squeeze of lemon, or butter? (A leaner, high-acid style or something fuller, say, in a white.) How about coffee? Black or with cream and sugar? (To determine tolerance for tannins.)
What is your role as the diner? You should resist turning the encounter into a game of poker; just lay your cards on the table and ask direct questions; your odds of getting more satisfying results increase.
Here are some good conversation starters, ways to get the ball rolling: “Tell me about the…” “What type of wine would you recommend to best balance the…” “We’re ordering the…and the…What would balance this combination of dishes?” If you only hear one wine recommended in response to your question, ask for descriptions of a few others and how they compare. If the answers are not satisfactory, step it up a notch in directness. Ask “Why?” As in: “Why would this one be your preference?” or “What makes the wine a good match for these dishes?” If you sense that a more expensive choice is being pushed without adequate explanation as to what makes it special, that’s a danger sign.
It helps to learn the basic descriptive vocabulary until it comes naturally. Wine Enthusiast readers will no doubt be comfortable saying something like, “We’re interested in a refreshing, lighter dry white rather than anything buttery or oak-aged.” Being confident in your vocabulary can reduce the amount of time your server spends fishing. Use the list. Pointing a wine out and saying, “I’ve enjoyed this before but I’d like to try something new. What else would you recommend that’s similar?” will help establish your stylistic preference and by the way, pointing to a price out of view of your tablemates and quietly saying something like, “This is what I had in mind” helps discreetly establish your price point comfort zone.
The lesson: ordering wine is never an exact science; you won’t always discover something new and delicious, but if you learn a few survival skills and prepare just a bit beforehand, you can dramatically increase your odds of enjoying a better restaurant wine experience.
Sandy Block, MW, is the vice president of beverage operations for Legal Seafoods. He is a longtime Master of Wine, university educator, writer, editor and former sommelier.