Sommelier: Friend or Foe?

(Originally published March 2001)

Sommelier: friend or foe? A question as age-old as the restaurant wine list itself. And one that deserves the merciless scrutiny of Hanes.

Most restaurants simply concoct a humble wine list, the wines selected by management with the advice of their distributors or a savvy wait staff employee or two. Selection advice for customers is then the responsibility of the wait staff, otherwise the choice is left entirely in the hands of the customer, regardless of her or his ability to tell swill from elixir of the gods. In this wasteland of "caveat emptor" each drunk is on their own and it's hard to fault some actor or history grad student waiter for their lack of wine knowledge (after all, what do you want for a 20% tip?) while its even harder to blame yourself or your fellow dining companion for selecting an egregiously nasty wine. And who remembers what goes with mussels or pork tenderloin anyway? We're lucky we remember our names after last night's wine guzzling frenzy...

Enter our savior, the sommelier! Sommelier is a fancy French word for wine steward or wine waiter, and swankier restaurants employ folks in these positions in the hope that they will bring a wealth of knowledge to bear on the customer's wine choices of the evening. By facilitating the most tense and anxious decision of the evening -- the wine -- management hopes the dining experience will be so gosh darn swell that universal bonhomie will emanate forth from their establishment, spreading peace and concord across the land. Or at least money into their coffers. Sommeliers are selected based on their knowledge of both wine and the restaurant's cuisine, and are expected to be able to match the wine to the food and the customers' preexisting wine preferences. No one at the table personally cares if you order the duck or the steak for your dinner, but woe unto you if the wine you choose blows chunks. The presence of a sommelier avoids embarrassing anyone at the table due to their selection -- a fact of vast importance when you consider the price of dinner at the hoity-toity places that employ sommeliers (and the corollary that any meal at such an establishment is most likely a special one).

Sooo... It's the sommelier's job to help you select the wines to go with the meals of your merry band. The first question that may pop to mind is can we trust this person? After all, s/he is a restaurant employee and the restaurant is a for-profit entity, thus it is not hard to imagine that the sommelier often tries to help pad the bill with the wine selection -- "Sure, that $20 Côtes-du-Rhône is nice, but this $50 Crozes-Hermitage is an hundred times better!" Should you trust this bozo?

Well, you have to realize that sommeliers are human too and just as you can trust some used car salesmen and not trust others, so it goes with sommeliers. Restaurants really build their reputations by generous word of mouth and repeat business. So, especially on the high end of the scale, it behooves restaurants to create a night of near-perfection (still rarely achieved). For the most part, assume that the sommelier is legit and not out to scam you. Of course, there will be times when in her or his mind there is a dead tie between recommending Wine A or Wine B, and Wine B has been languishing unordered for months so why not recommend that wine to turn over inventory, but the hope is still that there really was a tie between the two wines and nothing unsuitable is being recommended. Adopting the naive optimism of Hanes, what else can be done to ascertain the competence and trustworthiness of your sommelier? A few hints...

The sommelier is supposed to integrate the wine selections into the fabric of the night's meal. This is not an easy task since a table of four may order very different entrées with which no single wine could seamlessly pair. That said, probably the most important clues to look for are (a) asking what the assembled diners will be eating and (b) what their general wine preferences are, if any. In Hanes's ever-so-humble opinion nothing is more annoying than a waiter or sommelier asking what wine he would like to have before the appetizers or main courses have been selected. You don't order a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon before scanning the menu and then ten minutes later decide you want scallops or filet of sole for dinner. This is a recipe for disaster. The sage sommelier should introduce her/himself, perhaps suggest some general wines s/he thinks are drinking well at the moment and then return to close the deal once the dishes have been selected. Otherwise, ordering wine immediately is a shot in the dark and no amount of wine knowledge has the power to predict the future food to be ordered. If you're thirsty, wait. If you can't wait, order a single glass of wine or a double Bacardi 151 rum on the rocks.

Next, the sommelier should try to get a handle on what the customers prefer in a wine. Heavy or light body? Dry or slightly sweet? Earthy or tart? This is obviously easier to do with two people than with a party of ten. But it is a necessary part of the calculus in determining which "tiebreakers" win or lose in the selection process. Remember that it is the sommelier's job to find the wine that you the customer will enjoy, not her/his personal favorite (although they may be one and the same). A word to the wise: help out the damn sommelier! If your date has ordered something light and simple that would best go with a more delicate wine, don't order the mutton. Find a dish closer in temperament to your date's and this will greatly aid the sommelier in recommending a wine. The alternative is having her/him end up like Hal the computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey," getting all schizophrenic trying to follow conflicting directives. Holistically speaking, your meal will be much more satisfying for following this advice.

Beyond that, a few other pointers. Don't be a wuss if the sommelier suggests a wine you haven't heard of -- a Picpoul de Pinet or Teroldego may be just what the doctor ordered and the sommelier is getting paid mad dead presidents to know this, yo. The sommelier, NOT YOU, should sniff the cork and/or taste the wine to determine if it is corked or flawed. Do you know what spot-on Teroldego smells and tastes like? No! The sommelier does! Let her/him do the job. If you think the wine is flawed after the sommelier has approved it, let the sommelier know but try to trust the sommelier's judgment. A good sommelier should know the correct temperature at which to serve the wine, neither too warm nor too cold (the latter being the most likely mistake, especially with white wines). If the bottle has just been brought up from the cellar, ask the sommelier if you should wait awhile for it to reach the best serving temperature. You're paying big bucks for the wine, it should be given every opportunity to sing. In the meanwhile, keep sipping that Bacardi. Your sommelier should know which glass the wine should be served in -- if the restaurant can afford an on-premises sommelier, they should be able to afford the basic array of glasses with which to maximize the drinking experience. Another hint in determining sommelier competence is in choosing whether or not to decant the wine. The topic of decanting could be an entirely separate rant, but decanting really only serves two purposes. One, to remove the accumulated sediment from the wine and, two, to aerate wines and allow them to open up and breathe. Older wines can be quite fragile and quickly fall apart if aerated too quickly, making them poor candidates for decanting and good candidates for wasted cash. If an older wine is "throwing" sediment the seasoned sommelier or waiter should be able to pour the wine from the bottle with minimal sediment getting into the glass. Any sommelier that decants every red wine across the board should be sentenced to a life's employment with The Olive Garden. Young Bordeaux, Australian Shiraz, Barolo or even Burgundy, sure, decant. But the sommelier is being paid to know how to respect the wine in the bottle and to teach you how to show such respect too.

Lastly, the topic of paying the sommelier. Contrary to some restaurant folks he has met, Hanes is of the opinion that the sommelier should not be paid separately. The sommelier is salaried and often gets a cut of the tips. If you feel the sommelier has done an exquisite job, add some money to the overall tip. Also, share you praise with the sommelier -- you'd be surprised how rarely the sommelier gets positive feedback. All they hear are complaints or ridiculous comments from the customer like they want a Pinot Noir from Bordeaux, ignoring all explanation that there is not a single Pinot Noir vine planted in all that land. A step further, show your appreciation with the job done by the sommelier or waiter by offering them a glass from your bottle. This act of sharing is often very much appreciated, not only for the wine's immediate pleasure and the invitation to share in the customer's enjoyment, but also because it may have been awhile since that particular wine has been sampled and even a small glass provides a new data point from which to build the next night's recommendations.