Maybe it’s the word that strikes an uneasiness in the minds of those sitting around the table. Sommelier. It’s a mouthful. Saw-muh-LYAY. I occasionally mangle it and I am one. Ooo-la-la, perhaps it’s the Frenchiness of the word. Heck, there’s even a movie about the lives of sommeliers and the producers saw fit to only use the first four letters—Somm.
Whatever the reason, wine lovers of all stripes tense up when I arrive at the table and utter the fateful words: “Will you be enjoying wine with your meal tonight?”
The situation has not reached crisis level. In fact, the majority of my wine patrons spell relief: s-o-m-m-e-l-i-e-r. They are either content for me to make their selections for the evening or they look forward to engaging in a friendly discussion of likes, dislikes, winemakers, vintages or regions before we land on a choice.
But there is a silent minority that blurts out upon my arrival, “Oh, I’ll just have the white wine.” (Translation: I’ll have the house chardonnay.) Others make a random selection using an unreliable algorithm based on price, thickness of the list and limited word familiarity.
“There are some guests that just don’t want your help,” says Jacob Gragg, sommelier at Sea Island, Ga., Resort. “You can’t force yourself on the guest. Sometimes they do need the help, but don’t want it. In those situations, even if you’re trying to being helpful, you are just a nuisance.” (Gragg won the prestigious TopNewSomm regional competition held in Miami earlier this month. He heads to San Francisco in May for the national finals, where he will face the three other regional champions.)
There is no reason to fear me or my fellow somms. Yes, we are there to sell wine, but our number one desire is not to up-sell or embarrass you. We want you to have a wonderful time in our dining rooms. If we have a nefarious plan at all, it is that you enjoy your food and wine experience so much that you’ll return…and perhaps even bring a friend.
The most public aspect of what a sommelier does is help guests with their wine selections and pour the wines. This comprises a fraction of a typical sommelier’s responsibilities. Perhaps if you had a better insight into what we do when we’re not in the dining room, it might alleviate the trepidation.
First of all, we are not all from the country of Somalia. We are, however, charged with maintaining a collection of wines. This can be for a restaurant, hotel, resort or even a private collector. Wines have a life span; some measured in months others in decades (even centuries). Under the wrong conditions, the life of any wine can be reduced to a couple of days. One of our biggest jobs is to not let that happen by keeping a tight rein on storage conditions.
A moderate-sized restaurant’s wine collection can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A large or high-end restaurant or hotel can easily have a collection worth millions, representing one of the organization’s largest and most fragile investments.
We also research and buy the wines, monitor the inventory, put the list together, keep the collection organized, ensure wines are served properly, maintain the glassware and organize the occasional wine-themed dinner. Increasingly, we also act as the beer and mixed drink authority.
Ultimately, though, we are there for our guests, to make them feel comfortable and get the right wine, beer or drink on their table. But how to ease the pressure of making a selection?
“A little bit of carefully placed humor seems to go a long way,” says Brian White, sommelier of the Ritz-Carlton downtown. “I do not try to sell every person the most expensive bottle on the list. I give them three choices at three different price points.”
And when you have 700 selections of wine, like White does, a little help with the list can’t hurt, right? And who knows? You might just be talking to a friend who is going to introduce you to your favorite new wine, perhaps from region you never knew existed. That can only make your night a little more exciting and memorable.
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at email@example.com.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog