By Dan Berger
Getting a handle on what wines Americans are buying can be done with supermarket scanner data, focus-group surveys, or in-depth analysis of what major wholesalers are selling.
But for me, the best trend-getting device is a chat with a savvy and well-supported sommelier from a broad-market restaurant.
When I say a savvy, well-supported sommelier, I refer to a person who loves wine and who has not only the passion but the financial backing to acquire wines for a well-rounded list.
This means more than simply rare and in-demand wines. It also means unusual, intriguing offerings that the average person might not know about. This often includes wines that might not score particularly high numbers in the august wine journals. And it usually includes a fair number of reasonably priced wines.
I am thinking in particular of the likes of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, German Riesling, rosé wines, Champagnes, and wines from Spain, Austria, and even South Africa. This also is someone who creatively markets wine by offering unique flights, wines by the ounce, and house wines with a flair. All at prices that are affordable.
Sommeliers are more frequently found in cosmopolitan cities, but not always. In fact, some of the more interesting wine-friendly dining spots I have experienced are in out-of-the-way locations. Among those who trek to a great wine list are lovers of esoteric wines. These are people who’ll buy an Ehrenfelser or a Scheurebe on a recommendation of a great sommelier.
Finding such a quality person isn’t easy, but it’s getting easier. Young people with passion are enrolled by the dozens in wine marketing programs from Cornell University to Santa Rosa Junior College. And many of them put themselves through school working at local restaurants learning the jargon and the lore of this most arcane trade. These are the people who can spell the success or failure of a restaurant’s wine program.
I can tell at least a dozen stories of wine sales that depended solely on the passion and excitement of the sommelier. This creates multiple winners since the consumer benefits as does the restaurant, not to mention the producer of the wine and the wholesale company. Alas, not enough restaurants have wine-knowledgeable servers. This is why wholesale wine companies spend lots of money and time staging educational programs for wait staffs. They are hoping some of the info they impart sticks and works to sell wine.
In a best-of-all-worlds scenario, a wait-person pays attention to the wholesaler’s material, gets bitten by the wine bug and eventually becomes so skilled at it that wine becomes a profession. I know many people who have earned the Master Sommelier (MS) title who started out this way, and today are having a great impact on diners. I know because I am one of the beneficiaries. Sure, I rate myself high on the wine knowledge scale, but with literally thousands of wine from all corners of the globe, and with distribution bringing us odd items from places I never heard of, it’s impossible for even fulltime wine writers to be aware of everything out there.
Case in point: Decades ago, I ordered an odd appetizer at an Asian restaurant. The sommelier assertively suggested a Swiss Chasselas to go with it. I took his advice, since the wine I originally thought would work, a Riesling, was merely a compromise. His choice worked.
On the other hand, I have had wine stewards who tried to assert their “knowledge” with such a heavy hand that I was turned off. One thing a sommelier ought never do is talk down to a patron, even if he or she is correct.
Great sommeliers are usually flexible, and allow consumers their foibles; they are often fun, and treat regular customers to tastes of unusual house pours. They’ve been known to waive the corkage charge when the patron is a regular, or when the patron buys a bottle off the list. Or when offered a glass of the patron’s rare wine.
Bad sommeliers will foist mediocre wine on a patron who he or she believes is gullible; resists taking back a wine that the patron believes was misrepresented; suggests wines that may not go with the food ordered because there is a lot of it in the cellar, and treats with far less deference customers who seem to be rubes (or worse, less equipped to leave a large tip) than those who indicate they are flush with cash to spend.
The sommelier is a noble calling, offering restaurateurs and the entire wine industry a chance to build sales, create awareness of fine dining, and add measurably to a restaurant’s prestige and public image. I am saddened when a good sommelier is a victim of a weak economy. Often this indicates a restaurant owner who is unaware of the value such people provide to the place’s long-term health.
The value of a sommelier to a quality restaurant is almost inestimable. This is the person who will become, for the wine lover, the face of the restaurant as far as wine is concerned. Such a patron will choose to return regularly only if the food and the wine are tasty and fairly presented and priced.
A sommelier is an integral part of this process, and all fine dining establishments owe it to wine lovers to have a good one.