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Contrary to the opinion of some diners, the sommelier’s main aim is not to belittle customers, but to serve us with a wine we like at a price we want to pay. Andrew Catchpole finds out how we can help them to help us.
There you are, out for a meal, looking fine and feeling dandy, perusing the menu, taste buds humming at the thought of great nosh to come, and then over glides the wine guru. It’s the dreaded ‘wine moment’ – when you open the wine list with a mixture of confusion and belated concentration.
The pressure mounts as you glance again at the list, wishing that wines didn’t have such tongue-twisting names. Maybe you only want a modestly priced bottle. The thing is, everything you even vaguely recognise seems to be priced according to the national debt of the producing country.
To make matters worse, the looming sommelier is probably better dressed, certainly better informed, on home turf, and typically a formidable polyglot adroit at pronouncing obscure foreign names. It can be a daunting business. It’s also why some great-value alternatives to the familiar names languish in the cellar.
It may surprise many diners to discover that the sommelier has similar concerns. Except in reverse. In the typically short exchange they have with you, they need to win your trust, assess your likes and dislikes, discreetly discover your ideal budget, take into consideration the multiple facets of often diverse dishes being ordered by the table and then present you with suitable options from their list of wines.
It’s no mean feat. And it’s worth remembering that your sommelier is probably the only person on the planet with such an intimate knowledge of the individual selection of wines listed and the chef’s cuisine. That’s quite a resource, and one that, if handled well, should deliver a great wine selection to you, within your budget, and set you up for a fantastic meal. The key is open and honest communication.
I’ve yet to meet a sommelier worthy of the name who doesn’t take it as a matter of personal pride to ensure that the customer is as happy with the wine selection as possible. But the fear of being bamboozled or, worse, encouraged to overspend, remains. Which is why Square Meal Lifestyle has decided to dispel some popular myths, and ask the UK’s leading sommeliers to give advice on how customers can get the most from their wine server. The advice came flooding in.
‘Above everything, it’s about winning the trust of your customer,’ says Andrea Bricarello, head sommelier at London’s Galvin restaurants. ‘Our function is to bring pleasure to the table, and whether you are looking for a £20 or £200 wine, it’s a matter of pride to find a wine that will make you happy and complement your meal.’
The most widely heard plea centres on letting the sommelier know, up front, how much you’d like to spend. Simply tell them. Or, where discretion is needed – perhaps on a hot first date or crucial business encounter – point to a wine on the list and say, ‘I’m looking for something like this,’ to indicate a ballpark figure. It may sound obvious, but overcoming this hurdle really helps the sommelier to find wines at a comfortable price level.
‘Sommeliers can spend a lot of time trying to guess your budget, so it’s best to point to the list, indicate where you want to spend, and then we can make recommendations based around that price,’ says Xavier Rousset (pictured, left), owner, buyer and sommelier at 28º–50º and Texture. ‘And if you tell us you like Rioja, or Barolo, or Pinot Grigio, then we can hopefully make some great suggestions at your budget – and below – both for those wines and also great alternatives that you might like to try.’
As in any business, the odd bad egg does exist, and if a sommelier is offering a selection of three wines that all run upwards from your budget then they are not worthy of the title and you’d probably be best off making your own choice. This behaviour is rare, though, especially in top restaurants where the wine prices can reach into the thousands.
As Arnauld Bardary at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze points out: ‘We would never try to push a customer to spend more because we will make more money if that customer has a great experience and comes back to dine with us again in the future.’
Another fear is that of being pushed into the unknown, beyond one’s comfort zone. But this can be a really big plus if you enjoy wine. ‘We take great care with every wine on the list, not just the top wines, precisely to ensure that you can drink well at any level,’ says Roberto Loppi, who recently headed over to New York to preside over the wine offering at Hakkasan’s latest opening. ‘To order a first growth, you don’t need a sommelier, but with a wine from, say, north-west Spain, we can help you to discover something new and exciting.’
Luigi Buonanno, group wine buyer and head sommelier at the Etrusca Restaurants group, adds another convincing reason for allowing your sommelier to guide you. ‘Remember that there is often a greater mark-up on the well-known wines like Pinot Grigio or Sancerre and less so on more obscure wines. And big name wines are relatively more expensive anyway,’ explains Buonanno. ‘And then consider, too, that many of the lesser-known names on the list have been given a place there because the sommelier thinks they are fantastic wines, and it makes good sense to allow the sommelier to guide you towards some of his favourites.’
Bricarello makes another good point. Using your sommelier for guidance can work in your favour if you simply don’t like a wine. ‘Faulty wines will, of course, be changed immediately, but if you don’t like a wine that you have chosen then, really, that’s your wine,’ says Bricarello. ‘However, if I have suggested a wine and you are not entirely happy with that selection, then I will change it straight away and find something that you do like.’
Essentially, like much in life, it all comes down to communication. Sommeliers these days are typically friendly, laidback souls, as often as not from Australia or Britain as France and Italy, and the old image of the snooty, crusty penguin has largely been consigned to the scrapheap where it undoubtedly belongs.
‘In an ideal world, every sommelier would put each guest at ease as soon as they enter into a conversation,’ says Isa Bal of The Fat Duck. ‘They are there to add to the enjoyment of the experience and it all rests on communication.’
Above all else, try to remember that your sommelier is only human. Perhaps start by opening proceedings with a smile!
'There’s nothing better than people saying: ‘Give me what you would drink if you were sitting here now.’ It’s a sommelier’s dream. But never feel inadequate about your knowledge or preferences, and let us know the price up front, so we can make suggestions ranging from comfortable to adventurous, including wines that are great value.' Emily O’Hare (pictured, right), The River Café
'Be honest and open, about your budget and your likes, and remember the arrogant sommelier of old is gone these days. Also, well-known names like Chablis tend to be pricier than lesser-known alternatives – wines a sommelier has taken the trouble to list – and this is where we can really help you to find interesting and great-value wines.' Xavier Rousset, 28º–50º and Texture
‘It all comes down to a matter of trust, and to gain this trust, it’s very important for the sommelier to offer good-value wines, perhaps exciting wines the customer has never tried, never to upsell and also to have some fun in choosing the wine.’ Michael Deschamps, Marcus Wareing
‘If you have any favourite wines, try to remember them by name, and vintage if possible. And don’t indulge in generalisations – such as not liking Chardonnay, for example – unless you know that Chablis, white Burgundy and most Champagnes are made with this grape. Precise communication will help to save embarrassment on both sides.’ Isa Bal, The Fat Duck
‘We would never try to push a customer to spend more because we make more money if that customer has a great experience and comes back to dine with us again in the future. It’s very helpful for the sommelier if you can give them a budget or otherwise point discretely at a price on the list that you are comfortable with.’ Arnaud Bardary, Maze
‘Always remember that sommeliers take great care with all the wines they list, not just the top ones. First growths really need no explanation from us. Whatever your budget, it’s also important to give feedback when you taste a wine; if you don’t like something I’ve recommended, don’t be embarrassed to say so, and I’ll make other suggestions without question.’ Roberto Loppi, Hakkasan New York
‘The most important thing to do is to gain the trust of the customer and communicate, firstly on price and then style. And when a sommelier makes suggestions, including wines you don’t know, remember that these are his gems, his finds, which he has listed because he’s enthusiastic and wants to share his discoveries with you, not to take you for a ride.’ Luigi Buonanno, Etrusca Restaurants
'Tell your sommelier what you’re looking for, so we can work out your comfort zone in terms of style and price. We are here to make the customers comfortable and a lot of our job comes down to reading reactions and feelings, and applying a spot of psychology. It helps to build bridges if we have good communication.' Andrea Bricarello, Galvin La Chapelle
'I understand guests can feel intimidated, but sommeliers today are friendly and unpretentious. We are here to recommend, so ask us; it’s what we love doing. And you may end up trying something you would never have ordered, which is educational, but we will always change the wine if you taste and it’s not perfect for you.' Laure Patry (pictured, left), Pollen Street Social
This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.