There is perhaps no more misunderstood role in a restaurant than that of the sommelier. Is their job just to wax poetic on vineyards and epic vintages? Are they on the floor simply to wear a nice outfit and try to upsell anyone looking at the wine list? Most importantly, and most misguided, are they even necessary?
The fact is, sommeliers/wine directors/beverage managers (often referred to generally as “somms”) are often the most experienced team members on the front-of-the-house team, as well as the ones who are responsible for the single most profitable sector of any restaurant that serves alcohol. Understanding why this position is important, as well as ensuring that the right person is in this role, can be the most consequential decisions that an operator can make.
Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, independent consultant.
“The job has been romanticized over the last several years, but the truth is the sommelier is one of the most important positions in the restaurant,” said Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, who is now an independent consultant, but who has served as beverage director at many top restaurants, including Reeds American Table in St Louis. “Because beverage sales are a driver of a restaurant's profits, having someone in-house to manage the program is essential. The somm plays the role as a leader on the floor and a curator of beverages. Their primary function is to analyze the restaurant's menu to purchase appropriate products within the given budget, and to assist guests in buying the options that best suit their needs and complement their meals.”
The misconceptions about sommeliers run rampant, and extend to guests, staff and owners alike.
Amanda Reed, senior beverage manager at the Lotte Hotel in Seattle.
“I think sommeliers are often unfairly perceived as arrogant, pompous and unapproachable,” said Amanda Reed, senior beverage manager at the Lotte Hotel in Seattle. “This perspective is outdated and reflects a caricature of a sommelier. Not to say that arrogance doesn't exist in the wine community, it certainly does, but most sommeliers I know are some of the kindest, hardest working and most empathetic people I've come across in my career.”
Attitude and approach aside, the mechanics of the job are also grossly misunderstood.
"Many think that all we want to do is read wine books, try to get more money out of a guest’s pocket than they want to spend, hear ourselves talk about wine because we know so much, and then just hide out in the cellar,” said Winn Roberton, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. “But a great somm can actually be your best co-worker on the floor.”
The reality is that most of those in beverage-focused roles have long paid their dues by working many, and sometimes all, other positions in the restaurant. Many have worked as host/hostess, busser, barback, bartender, server, etc. before rising to their current positions.
“In reality, many sommeliers have the same capabilities as the dining room manager, but with extensive beverage knowledge,” said Derrin Abac, general manager at Wolfgang Puck Spago on the Hawaiian island of Maui. “They can assist in any facet of the dining experience: greeting guests, describing menus, taking orders, making cocktails, bussing tables, seating guests and running food. But they’re also very important as they create experiences for the guests and can increase sales because of the beverage understanding they have.”
When it comes to sales, beverages are often the most profitable part of the restaurant, and many sommeliers have an understanding not only of wine, but also of beer, spirits, aperitifs and after dinner drinks.
Derrin Abac, general manager at Wolfgang Puck Spago.
“The first priority of a good somm is that they must increase a restaurant’s bottom line,” Roberton said. “They have to be a skilled buyer, and be dedicated to running the beverage program with the owners’ needs in mind. This means organizing spreadsheets, inventory reports, P&Ls, variance reports, tracking breakage, etc. But also seeking out the best products for the restaurant's gain, and knowing how to find deals and price things accordingly. It’s time-consuming to search distributor catalogs, attend trade tastings and visit with reps, much of which is done off the clock for hourly employees.”
The work on the floor during service is also invaluable, not just for sales, but also for enhancing the guest experience, as well as developing the staff around them.
“I think the biggest contribution somms can make in a restaurant setting is to provide next-level hospitality for the guests and to model and train professionalism, passion and knowledge to their team,” Reed said. Additionally, sommeliers often are responsible for staff training, which not only covers product knowledge, but also instruction on performing the mechanics of beverage service.
Skill aside, somms have also been more romanticized over the last few years due to a rash of movies and TV shows that celebrate their craft, which has in turn piqued guests’ interest in getting g to know them. In fact, on most upscale restaurant floors, the sommeliers visit nearly every table, and throughout countless experiences with customers over the years, they can develop quite a loyal following.
Winn Roberton, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“If a sommelier has made personal connections with, say, 500 guests in their career, then that has the possibility to bring in first-time guests to experience a new restaurant, or to frequent a restaurant again and again because they have cultivated these relationships over time,” Abac said. “Sommeliers can provide a lot to a restaurant, but it comes with a commitment, including cost for both the [beverage] program and the individual.”
Whether or not it’s right for your operation to have a sommelier on payroll, or to invest in a robust beverage program, depends on a number of factors.
“The type of food and the depth of the wine list will dictate if the establishment needs to have a somm,” Blackwell-Calvert said. “For example, a restaurant with a deep cellar with multiple vintages of many producers should consider having a steward on-hand to assist in navigating choices. And restaurants that specialize in a tasting menu or a specialty concept can benefit from having a somm on the floor. But not only high-end restaurants can benefit. A great neighborhood spot that wants to showcase delicious wines that won't break the bank can rely on a somm to find and coordinate specific bottles for a limited menu.”
There are many ways to ensure this sector of your business is fully delivering, but the important take-away is to realize the sheer importance of the role that somms play.
“A lot of owners/operators these days view somms as an unnecessary expenditure,” Reed said. “With the rising labor and operating costs, it seems to be the first position to go in many restaurants, which seems especially true during the pandemic. But you can really do a disservice to your guests and staff by not employing this position, as they can be one of the biggest assets to your team.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.