Wine pros | What somms think of customers

Wine pros

What somms think of customers

Following our article from former sommelier Zeren Wilson on how to order from a wine list, another, wine educator and consultant David Furer, turns the tables and asks some of the US’s top sommeliers what the biggest challenges and frustrations are in their job.

David writes: "The responsibilities for sommeliers exceed those of selecting, stocking, and selling wines. Estimating guests' particularities, peculiarities, and passions requires sensitivities and skills gained from training, knowledge learned with colleagues, and experience earned from both pleasure and duress.

What may seem clearly understood to wine aficionados may be fraught with nuance and complexity to the service professional. Nine skilled US sommeliers shared their thoughts with us, laying out these challenges, difficulties, and successes."

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" Our chef uses flavors ranging from extremely subtle to robust and intense. I have customers who like subtle dishes based on seafood but insist on pairing them with big Cabernets. I try to steer them toward a white wine or even a lighter red but many times it falls on deaf ears.

Another problem is large tables of eight or more with guests getting dishes running the full spectrum from mild to spicy and every thing in between with the host wanting me to select one wine that not only works with everything but which every guest at the table will enjoy.

However the most critical issue US sommeliers face are customers so rigid in their ways that they won't listen to a sommelier's recommendation. I have guests ordering wine off our list because it received a high score from a wine critic only to later be disappointed by it. I try to keep this from happening by asking our guests several questions on what flavor profile they like or what other wines they enjoy.

I recently had a guest ask for high scoring Napa Cabernet. I asked him several questions to determine his preferred flavor profile to which he indicated he liked lighter reds such as Pinot noir. I told him that this particular Cabernet was in fact very big and tannic yet he still wanted it. I tried in vain to talk him out of ordering it, and when I poured him a taste he then rejected the wine!

Ronald Plunkett, Senior Sommelier
Hakkasan, San Francisco

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"I think a lot of our challenges in working with consumers lie in two major areas, communication and education. As we begin to discuss wine selections with guests, far too often we find a lack of communication about a number of really important areas creating a challenge in helping a guest select a great wine.

First and foremost is when guests are guarded about their price point. Eventually we will find out what their price point is when they order, so why don't they just tell us upfront? If a customer wants to spend $40-$60 in a high-end restaurant (where prices can easily climb beyond that), then there's no point in allowing the sommelier talk about Burgundy. But if a guest would communicate upfront the sommelier could offer three - one at the exact price point, one a little over, and one a little under. Of course, sommeliers can ease this information out by saying “tell me about a wine you have enjoyed recently.”

Another challenge crosses these two issues. Misunderedumacation. When guests possess a working vocabulary of wine and know their likes & dislikes, it can often be more confusing than helpful if that information is being misused. Terms like 'dry wine', 'no oak', 'the best', and 'no Merlot' can be misleading if carelessly used. Often these terms are used more as statements of sophistication than actual preferences, and it's very important for a sommelier to differentiate between these. Guests often throw these terms around with little to know understanding of their meanings, leaving sommeliers to try and work out what they mean.

Christopher P. Bates MS, Owner & Winemaker
Element Winery, New York

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"Working with difficult guests is when you can get to really shine, exceed expectations, and make long-term fans both of a specific wine and the restaurant. Here goes...

The guest who fears the sommelier:

One of the major categories of wine consumers are those who fear the process of choosing a wine off a menu - and for good reason. That is why a friendly, humble, and helpful sommelier is required in restaurants that hope to sell a good percentage of wine as its total sales.

A guest who would like and is in need of guidance but is fearful of asking for help or being open to it can instead be one whose eyes scan for the grape variety and then quickly over to the price as their only decision process. It's akin to playing safe with a choice of dish and just going with chicken.

The challenge is spotting these guests and making the effort to break down this barrier and gain or re-gain their trust. It requires more time at the table along with casually-offered samples and an added dose of 'getting to know you'.

These are the type of guests that also really enjoy the personal stories behind the wine and the producer. This is the challenge I enjoy the most as I always reserve great wines that offer far more than their price would suggest to exceed guests' expectations.

The next time they are in my restaurant they won't hesitate to ask for the 'wine guy' they met last visit so they can try something that they will love.

The overly confident name dropper:

High check-average restaurants serve a high flow of diners who see the sommelier as a chance to name-drop wine producers and re-confirm their opinions and buying choices. This is an easy sell as 'name droppers' are asking for the known, high-priced bottles as a way to impress others at their table and they often like to have the sommelier support their choice.

The challenge here is that they are buying for the table and far too often they go with one big bold selection for the evening no matter what the other guests may be ordering for dinner.

I love these guests as they're are willing to spend a lot, but at no point do you want to seem that you're second-guessing their choices. But you want to ensure everyone at the table is enjoying their experience as well, so the best way to win is may be to join them.

I often name-drop some wines to them such as "if you like wine X, then have you tried this wine Y which is where they source their grapes from or where the winemaker of wine X used to work at wine Y," etc.

By doing this I'm supporting their choice while giving myself the chance to direct them to an additional bottle for the table that may offer a more appropriate wine option for the other diners' main courses.

Don't let the meeting planner order the wine:

Far too often the meeting planner is the secretary or someone else who got plucked into the role of organizing dinners for their bosses. They often have a lot of other things to contend with, thus taking the time to choose appropriate wines doesn't happen.

A sommelier who is pro-active needs to find the time to follow up on booked parties and attempt to get hold of the planner and talk about wine. Getting proper selections pre-set can help separate your restaurant from your competition by adding a perceived added value and service.

Brian Phillips, Manager/Sommelier
Eddie V's, Austin

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"One of my more memorable experiences was when a guest asked me for a recommendation to go with his pâté de campagne. My suggestion was a basic red Burgundy, to which he responded, “I want a pinot noir. I don’t like red Burgundy, it’s made out of dried mixed red grapes.”

After a quick squint of confusion I quickly covered with a smile, explaining to him that his desire for a pinot noir was correct because almost all red Burgundies were actually 100% pinot noir. After insisting he try our Louis Jadot Bourgogne rouge then form his own opinion, I asked him where he had heard this information and apparently, “that’s what the label on the Carlo Rossi Red Burgundy says.”

In my opinion, the main issue US sommeliers face currently is assessing the guest's interest and capacity. Most US natives still aren't raised drinking wine, as is common practice in Europe where people have greater access to European wines and the countries which produce them and have, for the most part, more established wine laws providing a better idea of wines' typicity. In the US the wine industry is younger, the wine laws less restrictive, and the profession of sommelier just relatively new. Guests are not always privy to any knowledge of wines beyond those mass-produced for sale in their grocery stores.

Balancing coming off too much as a know-it-all in a supposedly sophisticated setting is a game we play in order to make our wine sales interesting while maximizing our full potential. In a small window of interaction we must get a general idea of the guest’s knowledge, their interest in trying something adventurous, yet be able to educate or steer them in the right direction without coming off as pretentious.

Properly assessing the guest’s wants and needs, while also being hospitable, is of the utmost importance. I believe some sommeliers lose sight of hospitality in the whole transaction. If what someone is asking for is technically wrong (i.e. “I want a sweet, buttery California Chardonnay that's light in body”), asking the right questions, being persuasive, and making the whole picture come together is a sommelier's challenge as well as their job."

Jennifer Estevez, Club Level Bartender
RN74, San Francisco

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"As dining becomes more casual, sommeliers need to remember the basic tenets of proper wine service: decanting, proper opening of wines and training of all front of the house staff.

With the advent of social media and the massive amount of information available online, customers are more informed than ever. This raises the bar for sommeliers to keep our wine programs diverse, interesting, and dynamic.

Another key issue facing sommeliers is to keep proper balance between esoteric wines we may find interesting but still offer a selection of classic wines that are more familiar to a general audience."

Alpana Singh, Proprietress and Master Sommelier
The Boarding House, Chicago (See photo at top of post © Jeff Schear Visuals)

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"I find it an uphill battle winning the guest over to sommeliers being there to assist them regardless of whether they want to spend $15 on a glass or $5000 on a DRC. There was a long-standing stigma that the sommelier was going to 'sell' you something wildly out of your price range or that they were just trying to get rid of; the best way to respond is to be polite and courteous but also fun and relaxed.Wine is FUN, and people should be there enjoying it, not stressing out about it!

The US market, though incredibly diversified in the sprawling metropolitan areas, drinks what it knows and recognizes. California makes it pretty easy for them by labeling bottles with the grapes they will find within said bottle. I find it fun and challenging to take your average California wine lover and turn them onto a Pauillac in ripe vintages like 2000 and 2005--even the upcoming 08's and 09's. Alternately it's fun to bring them to Jumilla or the southern Rhone for some bright, fruit rich blends.

A third issue that US sommeliers deal with is the 'know it all' guest, particularly true for anyone living in a wine-growing area. I often hear "oh, we'll find something" or "'so and so' is from France" or "no, I know what I'm looking for, I lived in California for ten years…", while that French person grew up in Paris and spent about as much time in the vineyards as has your 10-year old niece and the California native who spent ten years in Hollywood - not Napa Valley. Even if you did grow up in a wine region it does not mean you know the list for the restaurant you are in. If you listen to the guest and their stories, generally they will listen to what you recommend even if they do end up choosing what they know.

Wine online and in stores will not be the same price as in a restaurant. I do make a point of sourcing and finding allocated wines and small production wines that are not readily available (in all price points) as alternatives ideas for the guest to enjoy. This way it gives them something new and different and also a challenge to find it on line...at any price."

Crystl Faye Horton-Friedman, Sommelier
Del Frisco's NYC Steakhouse, NYC

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"As a Master Sommelier I have found that it is crucial to understand that we are dealing with a new generation of wine drinkers. Today wine lovers have more exposure to wines from all over the world with media, apps, and technology making the introduction to wine regions more easily obtained. Our customers at The Breakers have a very adventurous palate and they expect us to be well-versed when they ask us questions. Mostly they enjoy having a conversation about their last trip and the wines that they enjoyed.

A critical issue is when our customers ask me to recommend the best wine from our 1620-selection list. I have several favorite wines that I can suggest, however I have to keep in mind that I need to recommend the best wine for my customers. I have to 'read' the guest and ask questions in order to find the perfect wine selection. They might be celebrating a special occasion, so perhaps champagne could be a great option. They might prefer the perfect wine for their entrée where a full-bodied red could be the best choice.

I have found occasions when our customers think that they have the right answer even when they are wrong. How to approach this situation without embarrassing them in front of their guests is a challenge--I try to be polite and explain that they can be right but I always express the correct answer as my suggestion."

Juan Gomez MS, Sommelier - The Breakers, Palm Beach

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"US wine culture is very young compared to the old world, but one of the reasons it has developed is because wine has been made accessible to anyone. I believe that one of the challenges we face when working with guests is the misconception that a sommelier's goal is to make the patron spend money. That is a fallacy!

A sommelier is a hospitality industry professional, we are here to fulfill to the guest's needs. A wine list is a somm's child, there is no one better to guide the patron through it than the person who brought it together: the sommelier, and I am here to help! Ask me questions, let me point you in the right direction - trust me. Sometimes, I feel sorry for guests going through the pages, label by label, looking for the least expensive bottle of wine. Those ten minutes could have been ten seconds if they would've have let me help. This is hospitality; what makes you happy, makes me happy."

James Jusseaume, Sommelier - David Burke Kitchen, NYC

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"I have been at Charlie Palmer Steak for over 10 years have noticed many changing treads in consumer tastes.

One negative trend that I have been happy to see disappear is the dependence and emphasis on choosing wines based on the 100-point system. When we opened in 2003, guests would often come in with the recent Wine Spectator or Robert Parker, cross-referencing it with the wine list. Customers are less interested in the score of a wine and more on the style of the wine; they care about profile and value no matter the price point. As diners have become less focused on scores, it has become less difficult to sell wines which aren't traditional such as a world-class English sparkling wine or an elegant Pinot noir from Sonoma Coast.

I've had complaints from some long-term guests about the dramatic cost increase of certain items which seemingly occur overnight caused by, in my opinion, pressures exerted by demands upon supplies of super-premium wines made by emerging wine markets. Customers just chuckle at $350 for a 2-oz. glass of wine, and they pass on it. But then I usually get them to try something new, and that builds trust.

How the customer purchases wines has also changed. The explosion of online brokers, auction sites, Costco, direct shipping, and even our local supermarkets have expanded wine selections making the customary mark-up on wine in restaurants more transparent. I've always focused on smaller, family-owned wines, selections that are not available everywhere.

It’s great to see so many more women in our field relegating to history the stereotype of a sommelier being a stuffy white male, looking down his nose at the customer, passing his tastevin to scoff at your selection. I am, however, a little concerned that here in the US the pendulum might be swinging a bit too far the other way. The growing image is of an early 20s, 'hipster' white male with orange socks, at least one tattoo, and a bit too much hair product. That said, it's one of the best jobs in the world with room for all types. The possibilities are endless…even a 'food truck sommelier' sounds good to me!

Nadine Brown, Sommelier, Charlie Palmer's Steak House, Washington DC

To see the restaurant experience from the consumer's point of view read Zeren Wilson's How to Handle a Wine LIst: 10 questions you've always wanted answered.

Got other ideas? Do email your favourite pairings to us at greatmatches@matchingfoodandwine.com. To subscribe to our free monthly newsletter and be eligible to enter our fabulous prize draws click here or to get notice of posts as soon as they're published click here.

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