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Why do some sommeliers derive such pleasure from belittling diners? Don’t they know their job is to serve us? Tim Atkin MW, who knows a thing or two about wine, puts these supercilious killjoys in their place.
‘And would you care to see the wine list?’ I’ve no idea why, but this simple question sends many restaurant-goers into a pink-faced fluster, especially if it’s posed by a black-aproned figure toting a large leather-bound telephone directory and stroking a silver tastevin.
I had no idea quite how scared ordinary punters were of sommeliers until I spent an evening working at Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road restaurant a few years ago. I was as nervous as you’d expect someone with no experience to be on the floor of a three-star Michelin restaurant, but the first person I advised was visibly shaking. Apparently, this isn’t unusual. A friend of mine who’s a wine waiter in the States told me that people often look a little clammy as he approaches. ‘Are you the samurai?’ one anxious diner asked him.
A sommelier’s first job is to make people relax, but bad examples of the breed behave as if they are doing you a favour by serving you. It’s amazing how dismissive and arrogant they can be. Such behaviour is most common in France – of which more in a moment – but it happens everywhere. ‘Have you got any Ruby Cabernet?’ a well-intentioned diner once asked the sommelier in a famous London eatery. His response? ‘No, love, try The Co-op.’
Choosing wine at any time can be daunting – we’re all familiar with the wall of wine at the supermarket – but doubly so when the person serving you has a sneer on his lips. Too many sommeliers forget that you’re the customer. If they don’t like what you’ve chosen, or how much you’re prepared to spend on it, tough. They are there to serve you, not the other way round.
Of course, there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy involved here, neatly summarised by one of my favourite wine cartoons. The strip comes in two parts. In the first, entitled ‘what they say’, a wine waiter is seen obsequiously complementing a diner on his excellent taste. In the second, entitled ‘what they think’, he is sticking two fingers down his throat. But that’s better than someone treating you like a know-nothing fool.
My beef with crap sommeliers doesn’t stop there. The worst ones know next to nothing about wine, but think they are experts. I’d rather they patronise me by telling me that red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir than invent some fictitious rubbish about a poor vintage or try to fob me off with a bottle of oxidised junk.
Talking of which, fault recognition (or the absence of it) is the biggest problem I encounter in restaurants. A surprising number of sommeliers couldn’t spot a corked wine if it came at them with a baseball bat. The same applies to wines that are volatile (vinegary), out of condition or stink of Brettanomyces, a yeast that gives wines an unmistakable farmyardy smell.
Sending wine back in such circumstances can be tricky. I once had a 20-minute argument with a sommelier at a restaurant in south-west France, about a corked bottle. He insisted it was part of the wine’s character; I stood my ground and told him it wasn’t. Eventually he replaced the bottle with something else. ‘I bet you like wines from Australia,’ he scoffed as he poured it.
Mind you, I got off lightly. Two Oddbins buyers had a similar argument, albeit over a much more expensive bottle of wine, in Burgundy a few years ago. They refused to pay for the (corked) Grand Cru and were taken to the local gendarmerie after the meal to explain themselves. It took them an hour to secure their release.
My final complaint is about temperature. In my experience, many white wines are served too cold (no, I don’t want sorbet) and most reds too warm (if I want soup, I’ll order it). Maybe the sommeliers believe the latter should still be served at room temperature, something that was true before the advent of central heating, but isn’t any more. Try asking for an ice bucket in a restaurant to chill a red and see what reaction you get.
Not all wine waiters are like this, of course. The quality of service has improved dramatically in the UK over the past decade, partly thanks to foreigners (including some French people) who have moved here, but also to some great British sommeliers. Not many people know that the current world champion, Gérard Basset MW MS, is a Frenchman with UK nationality. Let’s hope his example is an inspiration to others.
• Knows and loves their own wine list
• Doesn’t try to sell you something you don’t want to buy
• Realises they are in the service industry
• Serves your wine at the wrong temperature
• Sneers when you order something they don’t approve of
• Won’t take a corked wine back
This article was published in the spring 2011 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.