The Sommelier’s Secrets

Nota Bene: For more on the psychology of the sommelier, check out Tom the Terroirble’s cheeky stab at the restaurant wine guru’s “torment.”

By Bob Johnson

At many high-end restaurants, the wine program serves as the “make-or-break” aspect of the business. Mark-ups on wine are high — much higher than on the food — which means jobs can depend on how many bottles are sold.

That’s one “dirty little secret” of the sommelier profession. “Up-selling” certainly isn’t a requirement of sommeliers at all restaurants, but it can be at so-called “expense account restaurants” in big cities that attract large conventions.

Here are a few “secrets of the sommeliers” that I’ve uncovered or simply encountered over the years…

• Sommeliers, when you get right down to it, are salespeople. At a restaurant, wine is the high-profit “add-on” product, just as “paint protection” and “interior fabric sealants” are high-profit add-ons at car dealerships.

• The best sommeliers really do try to help diners select a bottle that will complement the meal. But when one customer is eating steak and the other has selected fish, it can be a real challenge. That’s why “wine by the glass” lists have become more common at restaurants.

• A good sommelier is a good psychologist. Much of the job involves “sizing up” the dining party — determining who the “wine guy” is… whether that “guy” (or gal) wants to select the bottle or wants help in selecting the bottle… and whether price is a factor or “no object.”

• A good sommelier must speak multiple languages. We’re not talking about French, Spanish, etc., but rather the language “levels” of the restaurant’s customer base. When a knowledgeable wine drinker comes in and wants to know whether a particular Chardonnay underwent malolactic fermentation, the sommelier had better know the answer. Likewise, a sommelier must be able to figure out what a wine newbie means when they say, “I like dry wine, but not too dry.”

• Sommeliers and the restaurant’s wine staff would certainly prefer that diners tip based on the total tab, including wine. But if you’ve ordered a $200 bottle, a standard 15% tip adds $30 to the total. A better method is to tip a certain amount per bottle — say, between $5 and $10, depending on the bottle(s) selected — in addition to the percentage selected for the food.

• Particularly with less sophisticated dining parties, sommeliers sometimes will recommend wines based not on their food affinity, but rather on what’s in the cellar. It gives them an opportunity to “move” bottles that aren’t selling well on their own.

Becoming a regular customer at a restaurant enables you to develop relationships with the owner, the wait staff and the sommelier. A good sommelier is worth his weight in gold because he/she can steer you to the best wines at the best prices, as well as “hidden gems” that may not appear on the wine list because only a few bottles are available. A relationship infers trust, so you’re also less likely to be “up-sold” than other, less frequent customers.

Most sommeliers are hard-working, honest, customer-focused people, interested mainly in helping patrons enhance their dining experience. But by knowing that some are more interested in the restaurant’s profit than your pleasure, you’ll become a more knowledgeable diner, less likely to pay an exhorbitant price for a mediocre bottle of wine.

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