Four Wine Questions I Always Ask Customers and Guests (+ bonuses)

Keeping customers happy

In my career spanning hospitality and retail, I have come across many different customers.

I have found that most customers have a rough idea of what they are after, and just need a little help.

Others have no idea what they are looking for, and appreciate deeper guidance.

I have learned that by asking the right questions, I am able to help the customer form a clearer picture of what they want, which in turn helps me to effectively narrow down their options for simpler decision making.

Here are the four main questions that I have come to rely upon over the years in hospitality and retail.

1. What wines have you enjoyed before?

This is a more refined version of the most basic question: “What wines do you like?”

When I have used this simpler version in the past, too often their response was “I don’t know”.

Eventually I understood that the question was too open, that their experience may either be very limited, or too broad to immediately make a choice in that moment.

Instead, by asking them what they have enjoyed “before”, I am prompting them to think only of the immediate past, seeing if they can remember what wines they have drunk most recently.

Example of search results on the Photos app on Android.

Bonus Question #1: Do you have a photo?

In this era of smartphones and social media, it has become much more likely that they have taken pictures of bottles they have drunk before.

Bonus tip – frighteningly effective: in the Photo app of most smartphones, if you search the word “bottle”, the system will recognise images of bottles and filter them out for you.

Bonus Question #2: Is there anything you don’t like?

Sometimes it helps to approach from the opposite direction.

While many people have trouble recalling the wines they enjoy, most people have strong recollections of their horrible experiences.

Once you have their response, you have two opportunities – direct them away from what they don’t like, or surprise them with a similar wine from a different producer.

For example:

Customer – “I don’t like Chardonnay, it’s too woody and buttery.”

Answer A – “That’s perfectly fine, I have some delicious Rieslings I could recommend for you.”

Answer B – “I’m sorry to hear that. What if I can recommend a Chardonnay that has no oak or butter? I have a few vibrant, crisp, refreshing examples from Chablis, would that be interesting to you at all?

The first lets you sidestep and immediately offer an alternative.

The second gives you the chance to present yourself as someone who is knowledgeable and confident – if they take your recommendation and they end up loving it, you have won yourself a customer for life.

Revealing the wines I chose for a blind tasting.
Countries represented: New Zealand, Germany, Spain, Australia, USA, France.

2. Where would you like to travel?

This question serves as a gentle reminder that there is great wine to be found all over the world.

While a customer might not immediately know what they want, they may be limiting their options to just a few wines they might buy often, rarely deviating because it’s the path of least resistance.

If they know what they want and they seem confident, I’m happy to let them take care of themselves.

When I sense that the customer is open-minded, I will gently suggest wines from around the world that share similarities with what they’ve enjoyed before, based on the first question.

I take them on an imaginary flight through France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, across the Atlantic through North and South America, down to New Zealand, Australia, onward to South Africa…

They might recall a memory of traveling somewhere, tasting a wine, and comment “I haven’t had a wine like that in a long time”.

Or they might become curious: “I’ve never had a wine from there before”.

With the right customer, at the right moment, this question will open up the conversation for you.

We had a bit of everything for dinner, so we needed more wines to pair with them.

3. What are you having for your meal?

While wine can be drunk by itself, one often gets more pleasure when it’s enjoyed with food.

In a restaurant situation, a guest is likely to have ordered their food before the wine.

In a retail situation, they might be buying a bottle for tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s lunch with friends – sometimes they have already decided what food to have, but often they are still in the planning stages.

If they know what food they will be having, great – suggest some wines to pair with them.

I find I have a bit more fun with customers when they don’t know what they are having.

I start by making suggestions:

  • Something casual? Pasta, pizza, burgers, fried chicken…
  • Seafood? Oysters, mussels, prawns, crab, fish (sashimi/grilled/fried), etc…
  • Other proteins: Steak, lamb, pork, duck, venison, kangaroo (welcome to Australia!)…
  • Cheese? Hard, soft, stinky, clean…
  • …with Charcuterie? Prosciutto, Jamón, Salami…

In effect, I am taking them on a gastronomic adventure in their imaginations.

They begin to salivate while thinking of all the possibilities.

While food and wine pairing can come across as complicated, a simple maxim will serve as a useful guide: “What grows together goes together”.

A couple of my favourite examples to use:

  • Pork knuckle + German Kabinett Riesling: classic German dish, crispy skin with succulent meat, quite fatty and rich, where a crisp, refreshing Riesling can easily cut through, with the added bonus of the dish’s saltiness being balanced by the wine’s slight sweetness.
  • Beef bourguignon and Pinot Noir: Literally “Burgundy beef”, this stew is made by slow-cooking the meat with red wine, traditionally a Pinot Noir that most Burgundy red wines are based on. One could use half a bottle of wine for the cooking, with the other half being drunk with the meal.

One needs curiosity, imagination and experience when approaching food and wine pairings.

But don’t get hung up on perfection. Have a little fun, be open to trying new things, and bring your customers along with you on the journey.

Bonus pairing: Champagne and Fried Chicken.

The jarring contrast between a well-marketed, refined, and (often) expensive beverage with a common, simple, affordable, delicious meal item always elicits some raised eyebrows.

But often the crisp, refreshing acidity of the Champagne provides the perfect compliment to cut through the rich, heavy flavour and texture of the fried chicken.

Try it sometime. If Champagne seems a bit much to start, try an Australian sparkling wine, Spanish Cava, French Crémant, or even an Italian Prosecco.

Won a poker tournament? Celebrate with wine!

4. How much do you want to spoil yourself?

Finally, this question broaches the topic of price.

Many people have an aversion to talking about money, so I have left this question at the end.

I myself had the same aversion early in my career, but with experience I have become more comfortable speaking with customers in a friendly manner, to the point where I might even ask this question first.

I might follow through with some supporting questions:

  • Are we after something casual for dinner? Maybe $20-$30?
  • Are we going on a date and trying to impress? Maybe $50-$100?
  • Are we celebrating a promotion? Maybe $100-$200?

Rather than focusing on a number, I like to form an understanding on the context in which they would like to enjoy their wine.

This also helps the customer to form a value range in which they are comfortable navigating, making their final decision easier.

Bonus Question: Gifting

Sometimes a customer is not buying a wine for themselves, but for a friend or work colleague.

My favourite question to ask is:

“How much do you like your friend/colleague? $20, $50, $100?”

It’s never failed to get a laugh out of them.

Occasionally they might throw out a large number, and my response is:

“Well, they must be a really good friend/colleague!”

Because this question is more likely to be asked first, I would adapt my other questions around the customer’s gift recipient.

I would ask if they know what wines their friend might have drunk or mentioned, what cuisine they often enjoy, where they might have traveled recently.

Surprisingly, it can be harder to buy a wine for someone else than for yourself.

If you can elicit more information from the customer, that will go a long way to help you narrow down their options.

At your service – my early Sommelier period.


To suggest the right wine, for the right person, for the right occasion, at the right price, can sometimes be a challenging task.

These four questions have helped me navigate this field with countless retail customers and restaurant guests, and I hope it will be of use to you too.

Rarely you will encounter someone who responds “I don’t know” to all of the above questions.

In such instances, I politely say to them:

“Perhaps you need a bit more time. Let me come back to you in a few minutes.”

Sometimes I do return and they can offer some more information we can work with.

Other times they may come to their own decision without any assistance.

Either way, the customer is satisfied, which is always the ultimate goal.

Read more: My Experience of the Advanced Sommelier Exam, Attempt #1, August 2018


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