How to Tell if Your Sommelier Knows Wine

I’m honest when I dine out. It took me some time to get here. I was raised in the era when the food revolution was just starting in America and growing up, I have vivid memories of my mother constantly reminding me that most American restaurant staff cannot be trusted. So much so, my mother would research before going to a restaurant. Those days, the internet was non-existent (late 80’s, early 90’s) and she made me call restaurants to have them fax menus and wine lists before we made reservations. Looking back I wonder what those fine dining establishments thought of a child with an obvious kid voice, calling to request menus.

In my mid 20’s, I was dining out more and more without her and by this time, the internet was the norm. Out of habit, I would look up menus, specials and wine lists online. One day I got tired of all the effort and made the leap of faith to start trusting restaurant staff.  It changed my life. Ordering was now fun instead of stressing out if my choices and recommendations were good enough. Thanks mom. Perhaps my positive experiences are because I ask one or two preliminary questions to show I’m not a novice diner but most restaurants — especially fine dining establishments — employ staff that pick up on unspoken cues (manners, etiquette, body language, etc.).

Wine, though, is a different story. There are hundreds and thousands of wine flavor profiles and wine is such a personal choice. For modern diners, wine has become such an integral part of meals, picking and choosing while dining with important people causes anxiety. Frankly, I’m not that knowledgable and my wine knowledge was built through what my mother taught me, years of dining out and dating men from various parts of the world. It’s true what they say by the way, the French really know their wines. 

Repeating mistakes, I’ve picked up key words to communicate to the sommelier my preferences. “I love heavier reds and prefer French and Italian over California reds. Malbec, Côtes du Rhône, Syrahs, Barolo, Barbaresco are my safe reds. Côte-Rôtie, Léoville-Las Cases and Tignanello are some of my favorites.” And even then, I’ve had more misses than hits when it comes to wine.

The simple solution here, is for me to learn wine but I can not be bothered — there is still so much more I want to learn about food. So imagine my delight when I stumbled onto this piece: “10 Ways to Tell if Your Sommelier Really Knows Wine”

Here are some several of my favorite points:


  1. They respond well to simple questions. Sommeliers are supposed to know everything there is to know about wines. Therefore this point really resonated: “How they respond tells me everything I need to know about their attitude toward customers. If sommeliers reply curtly or sarcastically (“Uh, yeah, right there”), then I know they aren’t taking to heart the intention of making my day better, and I’ll do well to select a wine on my own. But if a sommelier’s response is genuinely friendly and helpful, then that sommelier has my trust.”
  2. They know their own wine list. “If I tell sommeliers I don’t want to spend more than $80 on a bottle of wine, I don’t want them looking over my shoulder trying to scan the page for listings under that amount. They might know a lot about wine, but knowing a lot about wine isn’t the same as knowing what is available in the house at the moment, and it is a sommelier’s expertise regarding specific selections that is most helpful to customers”
  3. They downsell you. “There is absolutely no reason for a sommelier to sell you a wine that is less than you have indicated you might spend except for one motivation, which is that they truly believe you will be happier with the less expensive wine.”

These are a few points I cherry picked (along with the explanations) but I highly recommend reading the entire thing here.

Well done, Eater!


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