Hey, Sommelier–I’m Talking to You

Eric Asimov’s recent article about sommeliers who taste wine before serving  has sparked a lot of discussion in the wine blogo/Twittersphere. The practice doesn’t bother me, but the piece, and the reaction it provoked, got me thinking a lot about my sommelier pet peeves. First let me say that the majority of my encounters with sommeliers have been positive. I know it’s not an easy job, and I appreciate the effort, skill, and training required. But. There are some exceptions, and I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences. And when things do go bad, it usually plays out a little something like this:

Hi there. Yes, I’m talking to you, gangly guy in your early 30s with the interesting glasses on. Could I get a little help over here with the wine list? I have some questions. Yes, the woman at the table is ordering the wine! Crazy, I know. Yeah, I saw the look of surprise on your face when my husband handed me the wine list. Anyway, speaking of the wine list, you dropped the list off quickly, with a few perfunctory words, before rushing off to another table. Specifically, that table of guys sipping on their super-Tuscans, so I didn’t have time to ask you about your wine program. Do you feature wines from a certain region, or made from a certain variety, because the chef thinks they bring out the best in his food? Are you serving something new by the glass this week? I’d love to know. Actually, I’d love for you to tell me. The host, busboys, and servers have all been lovely so far, and your inattentiveness stands out like a sore thumb.

So. I wanted to ask you about this Sagrantino di Montefalco. I’ve had a few I’ve enjoyed, but I’m not familiar with this particular one. Can you tell me anything about it? Also, I’d love it if you could pronounce the name correctly. I’m not asking you to be fluent in Italian or even to have a decent accent, but if you could at least not add syllables that aren’t there, or omit ones that are, that would be great. If I dig this wine and want to order it again or purchase it at retail, I’d love to be able to say it right. And, I confess, another reason I’m asking about the Sagrantino is to telegraph that I know a little something about wine. That’s so you won’t automatically steer me towards a wine you think I’ll be comfortable with because it has a familiar name or a middle-of-the-road flavor profile.  Sure, I could tell you about my wine qualifications, but this is a date, not a job interview, and I’d rather engage you in a little conversation. Word to the wise: women are less likely to brag about their knowledge than men are. Yes, I know, it’s our responsbility to speak up. But the upside is, we’re much less apt to “demonstrate [our] hubris and wine knowledge like a rooster strutting before a cockfight.” So take a deep breath. Relaxed? Great. Now look me in the eye, smile, and try not to look bored.

And when I ask you to tell me about the wine, please lead with how it tastes and will match with the food. Right now, I don’t care about the yeast strain used, the history of winemaking in Umbria, or the producer’s stance on globalization. If I like what I hear, great–I’ll order it and then you can share a fun factoid or interesting story.  And if I’m not feeling it, let’s work together to find something else in the same price range. I promise to be specific about my likes and dislikes, if you promise not to just randomly point to a wine that’s $40 more expensive and say “that’s good, too.”

Once that fun is over, I’m sure you’ll do a competent job of presenting the wine to me, pouring it, and making sure our glasses are adequately filled throughout the meal. But I’m not sure that you’ll ask me how I like the wine, if it’s working well with what we’re eating, or see if I have any more questions. I understand that you don’t want to be intrusive, but the rest of the staff here manages to strike that perfect balance of warmth and professionalism–why can’t you? Did you miss that day? If I say I really like this wine, could you maybe write it down for me? Or even remove the label and give it to me at the end of the meal?* It’s the details and little courtesies that people remember. I can promise you that five years from now I won’t be able to recall what the food here tastes like, but if the server, say, brings us a second round of chocolates with our coffee because we couldn’t stop raving about them, I will never forget it.

I get it–your job is super-cool. You get to taste amazing wines and meet fascinating winemakers. You know what else you get to do? Serve me. Because, whether you like it or not, you are in the service profession. So stop treating me like  a nuisance you have to deal with between the fun stuff you get to do. Clearly you know a lot about wine and love it, but that’s not enough. You have to know something about people, too.

*I’ve had sommeliers do this for me a few times at Gramercy Tavern and 11 Madison Park, and this kind of stuff is why I frequent Danny Meyer’s restaurants as often as my budget allows.

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