Nothing about working in a restaurant is easy. Sommeliers and beverage professionals have especially challenging roles, balancing diners’ spoken and unspoken desires in a field rife with misinformation and insecurity.
How, then, can you tell if your sommelier is a pro? We asked 10 beverage professionals to find out.
A pro should be able to make recommendations at every price point. If the restaurant has a respectable wine list, make no assumptions about what your guest is willing to spend. To be honest this is just good service, making your guest feel comfortable… Ideally, I would expect the somm to express their passion for a particular wine and, at the same time, be able to suggest alternatives that show they are there to assist the guest make the best choice, not to push their high-end selections. – Cha McCoy, Founder of The Communion, Cha Squared Hospitality, Harlem, N.Y.
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There are numerous wines out there and it is impossible for sommeliers to know all of them. However, it is not impossible to know all of the selections in your own wine list — that is the first thing I look for. Knowledge of each wine’s style, price point, vintage and interesting facts about the winery or region are key for demonstrating pro status. You also get bonus points if you have a suggestion or two of non-traditional aces tucked up your sleeve. — Jessica Norris, Senior Director of Wine Education, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Nationwide
You can tell your sommelier is a pro if they aren’t trying to rush you into a big sale. If the first thing they tell you is that they have this ‘great wine you have try,’ then they’re more of a salesperson, not so much a sommelier. You should look for someone who introduces themselves, asks you a few casual questions about what you have in mind for your meal, how they might help with a wine suggestion, and what price range they should to stay within. If someone asks you these questions, then you most likely have a professional. — Bill Burkhart, Sommelier, The Grill Room, New Orleans, La.
I can tell when a somm is a pro from the way they talk about wine. Putting into words what we taste and make it sound appealing without losing anyone’s interest, all in a few brief moments, isn’t easy… Nonetheless, somms are expected to iterate to our guests what to expect in the glass; it’s literally the most important facet of our job. — David Metz, Sommelier and Wine Director, Plume, Washington, D.C.
The most important quality of a professional sommelier is the ability to relate to anyone’s wine preferences and provide them with a beverage that suits their particular taste. A true pro should be just as comfortable talking about any beverage that their restaurant offers as they are with the wine selection. — Andy Wedge, Wine Director, Momofuku Nishi, New York, N.Y.
You can tell if a wine director knows what they’re doing by their ability to create a list that pairs with the cuisine of the restaurant. At a steakhouse, it is perfectly acceptable to have multiple full-bodied, New World reds, but it is important to have some finesse if your kitchen is offering dishes that could become overpowered by a wine that is too heavy. Tailoring a menu properly to match the kitchen shows cohesion in every aspect of the restaurant. — Michael Haggerty, Beverage Director, Spice Finch, Philadelphia, Pa.
First off, a sommelier should never make guests feel uncomfortable or like their question is silly. The world of wine is very intimidating to some people, so the first step is being welcoming and approachable. A pro should be able to find guests a wine to pair with any style of food, within any price point to satisfy their needs. — Tiffany Tobey, Sommelier, SER Steak + Spirits, Dallas, Tex.
A pro sommelier will take the time to listen and understand a guest’s needs. They will be as enthusiastic talking about the least expensive bottle as they would be the most. After all, they compile the list! They’ll intuitively understand what a less wine-savvy guest may be looking for when describing certain characteristics. It goes without saying a pro sommelier would never trivialize or belittle a guest’s question or selection. — Damien Good, General Manager, Don Angie, New York, N.Y.
They listen. They aren’t as concerned with hearing themselves talk or spit off a new fact about a new region they’re into; they want to learn more about what a guest typically enjoys and what the guest is eating so that they can find the best wine for the moment. — Tim Rawding, Sommelier and General Manager, Marsh House, Nashville, Tenn.
A pro will make you feel comfortable, no matter how much or how little you know about wine. — Christopher Bates, Master Sommelier and Owner, Element Winery, Arkport, N.Y.