How to read between the lines of the Sommelier profession
Dear Lover of Wine:
You’re probably familiar enough with what a somm is, but are you utilizing our skills to your advantage? Likely not, as the role has rapidly evolved over the last 10 years, including your part in the play.
You know the scene, you glide into a restaurant or wine bar, hunker down into your seat feeling quite thirsty, and spot a smiling stranger looming toward your table. It’s made clear that this ‘cheery’ person is your wine pro. Suddenly there is some sort of foreign beverage menu presuming itself on your table causing you to move your cell phone and water glass. It’s foreign because you haven’t read it before, and also foreign because it is literally in French (or Italian, Spanish, German, etc.). In a flustered moment of awkwardness, you ask the somm some version of, “What do YOU like to drink, what’s your favorite?” Five seconds of knowing this alien wine pro, just isn’t enough time to perfectly align taste buds. What if this so-called wine professional liked to drink toilet water, or Midori Sours, or worse, well-aged Grand Cru $$$ Burgundy? That phrase you just babbled to the unknown wine geek, could cost you your evening’s imbibing pleasure, or a mortgage payment! There’s certainly a better way.
Ten plus years ago, somms were snooty wine waiters and/or slick restaurant managers doubling as wine buyers. There was less wine on the market, with less to know and less accountability. Consumers were used to a somewhat predictable wine list of familiar names. Then, a renaissance of wine distribution led to an explosion of, not just new wines, but entirely new categories entering the marketplace. That left us with more choices doubling the time spent researching and training to understand these shiny new objects. Not to mention, how they fit into wine programs to benefit our guests.
As the internet made its way into the drinks culture, consumers and somms alike were beverage enlightened. There was a rapid flow of fresh information that was unearthing itself. But, who was responsible for adding context to the google-able facts when you sit down for a meal? Sommeliers, of course! Overnight the ever curious consumer needed a trusting, down to earth, face to translate these new names on the wine list. And conversely, sommeliers needed to up the education and personal experience with these new bottles.
One of the positive ways sommeliers started to evolve during this time period, was to personally engage with our guests about what they were drinking. We realized the art of cultivating enthusiastic regulars of all budgets was more financially stable for the restaurant. Certainly more personally gratifying. Because the consumer allowed this more intimate exchange, we were able to establish new classics like Sancerre, German Riesling, and the Jura, which are now very much commonplace.
Social media has had the most profound impact on the drinks culture yet. Now consumers and professionals are able to visibly see who’s drinking what, who knows who, and where people are dining and traveling. Because any person can become visible for doing what they love via social media, sommeliers abruptly embodied an it profession. Social media turned mainstream media with a movie (‘Somm’), and then impressive sommelier titles became commonplace amongst consumer jargon. Predictably, another movie (‘Somm: Into The Bottle’) emerged, and even chef’s occasionally shared the spotlight with the Wine Personality. We felt pretty good about ourselves as we poured our latest producer discovery into your beautiful glass. You donned us as your entertainers for the evening, and at the end of the day, everyone was happily intoxicated.
Today, there is somewhat of a humble return to what has always been the most important skill of the sommelier, hospitality. The best of us live and die by this word and spend hours defining and redefining this Art. Perhaps humble because many of us have lost our jobs due to the brutal economics of running a restaurant, consolidating roles, or altogether closing because of skyrocketing rents. Or, perhaps because our drinks community has grown up just a bit. We are cautiously reminded that at the end of the day, hospitality is about making our guests joyfully satisfied, which is far more exhilarating than our Instagram feeds.
So what does a somm say to an evolved consumer who cares and nerds out about what they eat and drink? I say we need you! Our favorite grape growers need you too! We can’t sustain selling wine to ourselves. That is tiresome and somewhat silly. What’s the alternative? Is it virtual? How incredibly boring would it be to watch ourselves have dinner. Weird! I’d prefer that we are all actually at the table.
Restaurants and wine bars are some of the last places where people are forced to engage with each other in a spontaneous setting. The kind of human experience that takes place across a restaurant dining table is crucial. Imbibing with people over shared bites and bottles ignites a specific and important form of pleasure within ourselves. Because of this, it’s imperative that we endeavor to keep our establishments healthy, profitable, and enjoyable for all. The sommelier holds the keys to this cellar.
Wine happens to be a fantastic ice-breaker and bearer of truths. So, talk to me, your friendly sommelier, because my greatest pleasure is making you happy. Which brings me to the dread I feel every time someone blurts out that phrase I mentioned earlier that we shan’t name.
What I like to drink and what you like to drink are probably very different, Why? Because it’s so incredibly personal. And we just met. I’m not sitting down with you to drink my favorite wine (yet). I’m here to help you find YOUR favorite wine, even if you don’t have one yet.
My ideal scenario is this: you enter the dining space, comfortably sit and settle. Water preference is established and the “book” of adult libations enters your vision. You see me walk up to your table and I gently put you at ease regarding the impending wine selection. I sense this as you’ve put your phone away and have stopped frantically shuffling through the wine-list pages. You’ve become aware that the answers are all casually standing in front of you. No big deal right? I prompt a discussion about the beverage that’s about to amass on your table. Here’s the key: You openly respond without embarrassment or apology for your current state of wine knowledge or ability to communicate wine vocabulary. Now we are getting to the heart of my profession, which is when I can translate whatever you throw my way, into the perfect beverage for you. My excitement is growing as we continue the dialogue and dig a little deeper. We move through simple details like if you prefer glasses, bottles, or pairings. Next, the quantity, color(s) and budget are established. We talk of previous wines enjoyed and countries/appellations/vineyards of preference. Maybe you are feeling a certain way in that moment that will drive your experience. It could be the hot or cold weather, the kind of day you’ve had, if you’ve arrived late, are celebrating, commiserating, or closing a deal, or maybe none of these things. All of it matters, and can all be easily communicated in less than a minute.
I depart to organize your service and prepare your beverage. I return with the best liquid in my establishment, for you. If I’ve done my job well, your shoulders have dropped and your eyes are revealing a deep satisfaction of having had an experience that triumphed all expectations. This is the greatest satisfaction of my work. This is my love letter to you.
Your Devoted Somm, Sabra
Somm/Consumer Cheat Sheet
- If there is a wine list in the restaurant or bar you are in, do try and engage with the wine person. Even if you know a bit about wine, the somm knows the inner workings of that establishment. It’s worth engaging in a conversation. Your somm will be more helpful than your apps anyway!
- Be upfront about your budget. It’s ok! If it’s not appropriate to say your price range outloud in front of your guests, then discretely point to a price on the menu that’s in your range. The somm will know what to do. Everyone has a different idea of “value”, so saying something like, “What’s the best value?” or, “I want a value wine” is incredibly vague. It’s better to indicate a number and the somm can then streamline the suggestions.
- Honestly evaluate how much you will drink over the course of the evening. In my experience, people often underestimate how much will be drunk and end up spending more money in the end. For example, if you are a party of 4 +, I often recommend magnums (2 bottles), which is usually rejected by the guest for fear of too much wine. Yet at the end of the meal, 3-5+ bottles are consumed! Be open to large format bottles. It may save you money, they drink better, and you’ll have less interruption from the somm.
- One way to combine the previous two points is to give the somm an overall budget for the evening. If you and your group know you’ll drink about four bottles over the evening, a total budget adds so much flexibility for the somm. The somm can splurge on something that wouldn’t have hit the per-bottle budget, and make up for it by going under-budget on the other bottles. It’s a smart way for you to drink above your pay grade and expose yourself to something special.
- Make an effort to get as much of the wine ordering sorted for the entire evening at the very beginning of the meal. At least through entrees. It’s sometimes hard when you first sit down and are catching up with friends, but if you take a moment with the list and talk with the somm, it gives them the ability to orchestrate the whole experience with the kitchen and with less intrusion at your table. Perhaps order a cocktail, or Champagne while you are perusing the wine list. Think through how many bottles you’ll need and ask the somm to advise on something that will compliment the food you intend to order. The key is to order the wine before, or at the same time as you order the food.
- If you feel flustered or tongue-tied when describing what you want to a somm, take a step back and think in broad strokes. Do you want a light, medium, or full-bodied wine? Using words to describe the texture you like is more helpful than a flavor, especially if you don’t yet have a grasp on appellations. Think about a fabric, or flooring and how it feels to touch that. Silk vs wool. Hardwood vs shag carpeting. It’s silly, but now you are out of your head and using tangible words to relay what you want.
- Leave your prejudices at home! There is a lot of misinformation out there which could be closing you off to new experiences. Also, the wine world is in a constant state of change, so open yourself up to the somm. If you say that you hate Chardonnay, we’ll make it our mission to serve you an incredible white Burgundy, or Champagne… which is Chardonnay in a completely different form! If you don’t like Riesling “because it’s sweet”, you’ll never know how enthralling a dry Riesling can be, or an off-dry Riesling for that matter. Starting the conversation with “I like” instead of “I hate” really allows the somm to do their best work.
For further reading, I’d suggest:
Check out Sabra in live Somm action on her Follow That Somm episode here.
I’m a sommelier and wine consultant living in New York City. I have a background in performing as a dancer on Broadway, and I retired to drink wine for a living! Working as a sommelier in Michelin-starred restaurants, penning my own beverage programs, and traveling the world, have given me the voice that I have today. I write with a sommelier lens and insider view on all things beverage, food, travel & hospitality. Travel is my continuing education and I’m proud to share my adventures with you!