When The Sommelier Really Prefers You Drink Burgundy
Restaurateurs’ rigid adherence to the philosophy that, “The customer is always right” has softened over the years. Chefs have become emboldened to refuse casual requests to alter deliberately constructed dishes, while business owners have taken to publicly refuting unfair or dishonest reviews published on free-for-all internet forums like Yelp. But the customer still has a strong voice in determining his or her dining experience, whether a vegetarian opts for mushroom risotto over a veal chop, or, say, a wine drinker chooses a red instead of a white.
In fact, one might—at first blush—think the selection of the wine to be the least controversial aspect of a meal. After all, the sommelier didn’t harvest the grapes and decide how much oak to lavish (or not) on the finished wine, as opposed to the chef who overcooked and over-salted that veal chop. The wine list was set prior to the diners’ arrival and nowadays, likely published online, allowing potential guests to peruse choices and prices in advance. In general, if the sommelier’s table-side craft consists predominantly of offering advice as needed, and ensuring friendly and expedient presentation and service (plus, depending on the establishment, checking for TCA), what controversy could there be regarding the sommelier’s role in a customer’s dining experience?
Yet, last month at a respected restaurant in Scandinavia, the sommelier argued with me over my wine choice. “Argue” might be a touch hyperbolic. Anyway, he persisted, with a series of disapproving sighs and facial expressions regarding my selection, suggesting a series of higher-priced French alternatives. The cause of his consternation? My decision not to buy Burgundy from his undoubtedly deep and impressive—and expensive—list, in favor of a Mencia from Spain.
“Oh, hmm. We are drinking Spanish tonight?” was the first expression of his displeasure. Why did I feel like I owed him an explanation? I responded that I had recently traveled to Galicia and visited the producer in question; that I had found their reds compelling, rather Pinot-like, and wanted to revisit the wine outside that setting. The list price was $87. But I took the bait, and asked if he’d recommend something else, regretting it soon after. “Yes. Definitely. Have you seen the Burgundies?” he answered with flourish.
The somm pulled the list from my grasp and flipped to the extensive Côte de Nuits section, clearly proud—indeed, beaming—over his allocations. Paging through, he noted wines two to three times the price of the Mencia from Ribeira Sacra I had asked for. I spied a Chambolle-Musigny, and mentally converted the price to dollars. Ouch. But, it is my last night, I thought. Aware of my eroding willpower, I suspended the discussion. I pointed out I was there for a casual dinner and needed to stick closer to the original price point.
Either he missed my cues or just ignored them. “I have locals come in on weeknights; they give me a budget of $200-$300 and ask me to pick out a special Burgundy for them.” Continuing, he said, “Just the other night I opened a….” At which point I stopped listening. “But,” noticeably sighing, “closer to the price of the Ribeira, I’ve got this wine.” Now I was listening again. I followed his finger as it slid down the page to the second cheapest Bourgogne rouge at $102. I thanked him, and asked for a few minutes to mull over his suggestions. When he returned, I ordered the Ribeira Sacra.
Clearly the sommelier wanted me to drink Burgundy. Frankly, I wanted to, too, but couldn’t afford it, especially for an unbudgeted, low-key affair. And I would’ve been upset with myself a day later, $325 poorer, if I had capitulated. So, why all the pressure? I contacted friends in the industry for their input on the exchange that night.
Responses ranged from accusations of inexperience, to Old World snobbery, to hardcore up-selling. But even if I give him full benefit of the doubt for good intentions, and assume he loves Burgundy (maybe believes he sees the Virgin Mary in the silky folds of a Vosne-Romanée), he still succumbed to the same behavior for which sommeliers, retailers and wine writers often criticize consumers: dogged commitment to a narrow band of cherished wines.
A good sommelier needs to build bridges, connecting her or his wine vision back to the food and then relating that to the customer. As one revenue tributary of a larger business, one that requires developing rapport with diners to enhance their experience, a wine program can’t operate in isolation from these factors. A wine consumer can, theoretically, pass through the entirety of adulthood only drinking Pinot Grigio, as frustrating as that predilection is for wine professionals wishing to broaden that person’s experience. But the sommelier cannot solely offer the pét-nats or grand crus they’d pour for themselves at private dinner parties.
When I surveyed colleagues about this Burgundy pusher, I queried further about the attributes they thought most important to being a consummate floor sommelier. Overlapping responses suggested the best examples are leaders who listen to and create relationships with guests (“as humbly, hospitably, and graciously as possible”), and demonstrate their value to a restaurant through knowledge and timing, recommending wines in an accessible manner (“not up-selling,” several emphasized). These recommendations were offered in addition to the still-pertinent dictum to, “Not pour wine on people’s clothes.” To that Burgundy pusher’s credit, not a drop of the Mencia was spilt on my shirt.
“…he still succumbedtothe same behavior for which sommeliers, retailers and wine writers often criticize consumers: dogged commitment to anarrow band of cherished wines.”
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 00, pages 12–13