Love them or hate them, sommeliers can make or break a fine dining experience for the wine-loving customer. Indeed, we’ve all had to deal with the stereotypically snooty wine director who’d rather sermonize than simply help select the perfect wine. And after posing the question on Wine Enthusiast’s Facebook, dozens of complaints poured in.
Here are the top five most common sommelier offenses, and a rebuttal on each point offered by Molly Wismeier, director of wine at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, who oversees a world-class wine cellar of some 8,500 bottles.
Complaint #1: Rushed service
“If I am sampling one type of wine…give me time to clear my [palate] before shoving another bottle in my face.” —Brian Clardy, Murray, Kentucky
M.W.: “Diners who feel rushed often request that sommeliers leave a bottle of wine on their table. This is often a mistrust issue. When a restaurant has gone so far as to hire and pay a full-time sommelier to run the program, guests should rest assured that the wine will be poured in a timely fashion and also know the sommelier will communicate with them…It is all about making the guest feel at ease and special and delivering service with grace.”
Complaint #2: Know-it-all attitude
“Making [you] feel stupid for asking intelligent questions and wanting to learn…Be informed, not snooty!” –Lori Bowe, Napa, California
M.W.: “It’s not that guests don’t know what they want to drink, it’s that they sometimes use [the wrong] vocabulary. This can be misleading to the sommelier, and I think this is why some sommeliers can get a bit defensive. It is the sommelier’s second role to act as a translator and simply reply with the question, ‘What was the last wine you enjoyed that is in this style?’ Then [the sommelier] can gauge what wine [he or she] has on the list that is similar to the wine the guest mentioned.”
Complaint #3: T.M.I.
“It’s wine, not rocket science!” –Mike Hicks, Montclair, NJ
M.W.: “I’ve been asked questions like, ‘Do you know what Chablis is? Do you know what Opus One is?’ When this happens I try to graciously describe the wines to assure my guest I know what they are and have them on the list, or have wines that are similar in style. Also, describing an approachable wine I know the guest hasn’t enjoyed before while pouring their selection can break the barrier of guest versus sommelier. So much of what we say as sommeliers is how we say it.”
Complaint #4: Men know best
“Wake up—women have sophisticated palates and don’t like to be ignored.” –Christy Majors
M.W.: “As a female sommelier, I get greeted with a similar response when I arrive at the table. ‘You’re a female…and you’re the wine director?’ So when it’s a couple [dining], I ask if they would both like to taste the wine…This is when I have read the table and have great rapport with the guests—and know my boundaries well enough to break out of traditional steps of service.”
Complaint #5: The upsell
“A bad sommelier…tries to upsell me.” –Caitlin Woodbury, Santa Rosa, California
M.W.: “I always train my team that they need to lead with the question, ‘What have you had lately you really enjoyed?’ This question takes you right to the particular style of wine the guests have previously enjoyed and to the price point they are comfortable with. I always suggest three wines, one between $35–$55, one between $60–$85 and one at around $100. It is better to share a lower priced wine and gain the trust of the guest than to try and upsell.”