How to Talk to a Sommelier

Paul Blow

You're at a restaurant and the sommelier comes up and says: "Would you like some wine with your meal?" Maybe you don't know exactly what you want, so you just say, "Bring us something that goes well with the food." A few minutes later, the sommelier shows up with a bottle of wine made from a grape you've never heard of. You taste it and don't know what to think but say anyway, "That's fine," because you don't want to seem difficult, even though you don't particularly like the wine. And then the rest of the meal you can't stop thinking to yourself, I just spent $45 on this?

The sommelier community spends a lot of time thinking about the best way to talk to customers. But customers should also consider how best to talk to somms. As Daniel Johnnes, wine director of Daniel Boulud's restaurant group and one of the country's most influential sommeliers, said to the audience on a recent panel I moderated, "I would love it when the customer would offer information: 'You know, it's hot out—I want something fresh and crisp and lively.' [Customers] need to communicate and give as much info as you can."

June Rodil, the sommelier of Austin, Texas's Congress, agrees. "Some customers expect you to give them an experience by reading their minds," she says. "We do our best, but the more detail they can offer up-front makes everyone happier: them and us."

As Johnnes said, if you can articulate your own tastes even a little, it greatly helps the sommelier's efforts to please you. What kind of a mood are you in? Do you want to gulp some lusty, full-throated, heavy red? Or are you in the mood for something lighter and punchier?

If you can't describe what you like, one of the most valuable pieces of information a sommelier can have is what you drink at home. Some people go to restaurants to have their wine experience broadened, but many just want to drink something they're comfortable with. Problem is, sometimes people are ashamed of, or worry about being judged by, what they drink at home. Rule one: Don't lie. If you're trying to impress your server and say that you drink mostly culty Napa Cabs, unless you explicitly say otherwise that's what they may try to bring you. Rodil's advice? "We're seriously not here to judge you. So even if you drink Sutter Home white Zinfandel at home, that gives a huge clue as to what might make you happy."

Of course, the more you can tell your sommelier the better, but there are limits. "It helps us to know what kinds of wines you like to drink at home," says one prominent sommelier who wishes to keep his name and his restaurant's name secret so as not to offend any of his guests. "But we also get lots of people who are really into wine who just go on and on about what's in their cellar, what they drank last night, what winery tasting rooms they got VIP treatment at, and so on." The lesson? Don't be a wine bore, even if you feel that you're in the presence of a fellow wine bore. The fact is, no matter how fine your cellar is, the sommelier is probably tasting better wine than you on a nightly basis, they don't care what you have in your cellar, and they have 20 other guests waiting patiently for their attention.

And lastly, there's that sticky issue of price. It's the one basic, straightforward detail about a wine, yet it still causes so much tension. Everyone's afraid of getting pushed over their heads on the cost of a bottle, but also fearful of seeming cheap. This can cause serious anxiety, especially as customers on a date or taking business colleagues out might be hesitant to declare out loud how much they want to spend. Sommeliers are trained to pick up signals. For instance, they'll suggest that if you're ordering the wine you just point to a couple of items on the wine list in the same price range to indicate what you're comfortable spending. Or, as Johnnes recommended, "You can say, 'We're on the way to the movies after this,' and it's clear that it's not time for the big guns." On the other hand, Rodil says, "can we just please get over the shyness about price? We have good inexpensive bottles on the list and good expensive. There's no embarrassment in wanting a less pricey bottle. Just blurt it out."

Communication with a sommelier—just as with your spouse, lover, family, or dog—is most effective when you simply try to be honest, direct, nondefensive, and open-minded. But the reward with a sommelier is more tangible: You get a good bottle of wine.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.