“Ma'am, I noticed you’ll be having the penne with meatballs, of course an excellent choice. If I may be so bold as to recommend a glass of Chinon with that? I’ll trust you’ll find the pyrazines add an alluring note of bell pepper and the slight hint of Brett adds desirable aromas of rotten meat and horse’s hoof to round out the dish,” says the waiter.
“Um, yeah, I don’t think so. You keep your horse’s hoof far away from my pasta,” replies the guest.
Wine people often lead dual lives. On one hand, they surround themselves with compatriots who have spent years developing a complex language to describe not only technical processes, but also subjective experiences. And that’s necessary: We need to have a lexicon for wine so we can learn what’s behind the bottle and fine tune our sensory abilities.
But on the other hand, if they speak that language to the inexperienced, they’ll find themselves on the express train to Snobville. The days of the sommelier adorned with a tastevin around his neck, lording his esteemed knowledge over his guests like a baton of intimidation, are (mostly) over.
Today’s top wine directors and sommeliers can translate the complexities of the wine world in a way that’s easily digestible and exciting for their guests and staff.
Being able to quickly read guests, adapt to their needs and enhance their experience by making wine approachable takes years to master, but it’s essential in creating repeat guests and ensuring robust sales.
“The culture among some wine professionals is intimidating and arrogant, but that’s common among any professionals that have devoted their lives to what they do,” said Michelle Richards, assistant general manager and certified sommelier at St. John’s Restaurant & Meeting Place in Chattanooga, Tenn. “However, that should never translate to the guest, because that’s not how a true sommelier behaves. You need to be a great listener and understand body language.”
Making a quick and accurate assessment of a table before approaching it is paramount to setting the stage for a guest’s experience.
“Body language is big,” said Tanner Walle, beverage director for Riddling Widow, a small wine bar in New York City. “For instance, noting the amount of time they look at the list: A brief glance can often mean they’re unfamiliar with what’s in front of them, and are more comfortable asking me for recommendations. If the guest is more thoroughly studying the list, I’ll often approach them with expectations for a broader conversation.”
The ensuing dialogue will reveal more clues, especially with some well-placed questions right at the start, he said.
“When they have that ‘please help me’ look in their eyes, I break it down to the basics,” Richards said. “I’ll ask ‘What do you typically like to drink?’ or ‘When you go to the wine shop, what section do you go to?’ Also, ‘What is your budget?’ The best sommeliers can recommend wine in all price ranges.”
When a waiter or sommelier takes the lead with a novice guest, it creates a sense of ease at the table and excitement about the experience to come.
Conversely, in identifying those who have more knowledge, an opposite tack might be better.
“Advanced consumers usually like to be in the driver’s seat,” said Jose Aguirre, sommelier at Dirty Habit, a restaurant and bar in San Francisco. “So, I may just simply ask, ‘What are you in the mood for today?’ or ‘If you have any questions regarding producer or vintage, just let me know.’ And they will more often than not tell me exactly what they want.”
Making wine accessible and exciting
Adjusting the conversation based on your guests’ knowledge is important, and there’s really no one-size-fits-all approach.
“I find that a majority of guests really don’t want to hear the standard ‘light to medium weight, good acid’ ramble that we’re so accustomed to among our fellow wine compatriots. There’s no romance in that, ” Walle said. “It’s important that each glass of wine have a story, and that the guest feels a real connection to what’s in their glass. Tapping into that bridges a much deeper appreciation, and will validate their investment.”
By connecting the wine with the place where it’s from and telling tales of the food, the culture or unique details of the geography, you can fill your guests’ imagination with exciting visuals. For instance, when Richards was once dining out, she was told how black truffles are harvested in Italy’s Piedmont region, and why the local Barolo wine was a classic pairing. She opted to spend the extra money to have the truffles shaved over her pasta, and ordered the wine.
She was transported. “It brought the wine to life. I understood the pride of the region in that moment,” she said. “And I would have never tried it if it wasn’t for the story the sommelier told me.”
Every wine has a story, and learning those stories can not only vastly enrich a guest’s experience, but also it can help increase wine sales.
But not every guest wants to hear a dissertation on the volcanic soils of the Canary Islands. Storytelling can be an effective sales tool, but it’s not for every customer. Some might opt for an objective description of the wine’s flavor profile, so they know what to expect in the glass. That might take some of the romance out of the wine, but it also can help keep bottles from being returned by dissatisfied guests.
Richards said one measurement of success is repeat business.
“One of my favorite couples comes in weekly, typically spends $30 to $40 on a bottle and are extremely adventurous,” she said. “They don’t want a wine list; they trust me.”
That kind of relationship is a gift to the sommelier as well as the customer, but wine professionals who rise to the top are able to make wine accessible and exciting to all guests, whatever their wine knowledge. That’s where the real value for restaurants comes, too: A wine steward’s job is to bring value to the business, not to throw their ego around.
Put the guests in a position of power, encourage them to learn without fear of embarrassment and let them experience a little taste of what makes the world of wine so rewarding for so many. Don't be afraid to let go of some of the seriousness of wine and bring some levity.
“At the end of the day, it’s only grape juice,” Walle said. “So just have fun.”