As a sommelier, I get a lot of wine questions from guests and colleagues alike.
This is a good thing because it shows that they are interested in what they are drinking (and not merely looking to get drunk), and are open to receiving an outside opinion.
If you go online and do a quick search you will easily find countless list-themed articles (“listicles”) that aim to offer one-size-fits-all answers to these questions from people who have wildly different tastes.
However, when a guest asks me about a wine in a service situation, my experience has shown that they are really trying to find out something about themselves, rather than any wine in particular.
My role, then, is merely to be the guide.
They are asking me “should I go left? should I go right?”
Let me turn that around – I ask them “Well, where would you like to go?”
Here are the 5 questions that I ask our guests…
Q1 – Food
“What kind of food would we like to have?”
Firstly, I would like to know what kind food they are leaning towards – not just for one course, but for their entire meal.
Perhaps they would like a seafood appetizer, followed by meat for the main – while it’s possible to have just one wine for both, perhaps a more enhanced experience can be achieved with a separate wine for each course.
Also, most guests at a restaurant seem to have the impression that they will only have ONE wine for their entire meal. This is likely a cost-based decision, not once aimed at maximizing enjoyment.
Rather than investing in one bottle, I present them with the option of choosing wines by the glass, giving greater scope for pairing with food. In some cases, they may even decide to have more than one bottle!
This question is important for large tables also – I like to get a feel for the group, because more likely than not there will be a mix of dishes being had, encouraged by the current fashion for tapas and sharing plates.
This question addresses this complexity immediately, and you could perhaps offer by-the-glass pairing suggestions, tailor-made for each unique diner. This way, you show each guest at the table that you care about their individual tastes, with the side benefit of impressing them with your knowledge.
Q2 – Location
“Would you like something local, or perhaps we could go to Europe, America, or somewhere more exotic?”
Where would we like to go? I present this as a light-hearted question most times, as if we are picking a travel destination for a holiday. Would we like to go to Australia, explore Burgundy or trek through South America?
I find that many times the location matters less than the opportunity to have a new experience – many people don’t think of trying a wine from a different country, or may not even be aware of other countries that produce wine, so posing this question gives them the chance to be bold and strike out in a new direction.
With this line of questioning I have introduced guests to Lebanese wines – something that would otherwise be left forgotten on a wine list unless they were specifically looking for it.
Q3 – Weight
“Would you like something lighter and delicate, or perhaps something more full-bodied?”
This question begins to probe into the style that they might enjoy.
Some guests want to have an easy meal, so something light and delicate that will not overwhelm the flavours of the food would suffice.
Others might want a big, bold wine with a lot of personality and flavour – in such cases matching with food is less of a priority, but you would still want to avoid pairings that would obviously clash.
Q4 – Maturity
“Would you like something younger (more fresh, fruity and vibrant) or something more mature (savoury and complex)?”
This question further narrows down the spectrum of flavours they would enjoy.
Most people would understand the simpler fruit and floral characters. But more complex notes like earth, leather, mushroom and spice (which often emerge after some time maturing in bottle) are harder to communicate, and special care should be taken when recommending such wines.
Pay attention to their response, which may reveal more flavour characters they might enjoy – with this, you could even target a specific varietal, making your job easier.
Q5 – Price
This is a sensitive topic for most guests, especially if there is a host who wants to be discreet, but ultimately necessary if you do not want to be accused of deceiving your customers at the end of the night.
My practice is usually to point to a number/price and ask if they would like something “lighter” or perhaps they would want something “heavier”, with accompanying body language – the message could be lost in translation though, so you should find something that works for you.
“What wines have you tried in the past that you’ve enjoyed?”
In an ideal world, this would probably precede all the above questions that I would ask above.
It cuts to the point, gives you a good idea of their palate preference and possible price range.
Sadly, in my experience, the most common answer I get is: “I don’t know”.
And that’s perfectly fine. Most of us would probably be hard pressed to recall what we had for dinner last night. It’s not something we put a lot of thought into most of the time.
This could change in the future, with more people using social media and mobile phone applications to track and share the things they see, eat and drink every day. I can only hope this also makes people more inquisitive about these very basic things that give their life pleasure.
Until then, I will always be there as your guide.
Read more: Advice For The Neophyte Sommelier