With so much exposure over the past few years, you could be forgiven for thinking that a sommelier’s life is a whirlwind of excitement, combining exotic wine tastings with bombastic gastronomic fare.
But really, most of the time a sommelier’s job is quite straightforward. A guest goes through the wine list, selects the wine, then the sommelier serves the wine at the table. If we’re not on the floor, then we’re in the office placing orders and editing the wine list, or in the cellar making sure all the wines are still there.
So it is situations that are… out of the ordinary that present the opportunity for interest and excitement.
The following are three short stories of what I’ve had to face on the restaurant floor recently.
A Riesling With “Minerality”
On this night a group of four walked in, one younger and one older couple.
They had not made a reservation, but fortunately we could still accommodate them, though we could not give them the nicer window tables as they had been booked in advance. I could sense that they were disappointed, to put it mildly, but they eventually sat down at the table we offered.
Immediate thoughts: Unhappy group, maybe pose a challenge.
But facing challenges head-on is part of the sommelier’s job.
I approached the table with enthusiasm. The older gentleman points out an Auslese Riesling. Lovely, expensive, I would have been happy to just bring the bottle right there, but I just had a feeling about the table…
So I asked if that was the style they were after – richer and sweeter.
The younger lady says she wanted something with “minerality”.
Immediate thoughts: Ah, one of those.
I diplomatically asked for her to clarify and she surprisingly did pretty well, using the term “borderline-effervescent” – this said to me “high acid”, certainly a trait of many Riesling wines, but perhaps the Auslese they had pointed to would not be the best example.
Luckily, we had both a Clare Valley Riesling and a Kabinett Riesling available by the glass – these were very different expressions of the same grape, and would surely define what the guest wanted once and for all.
As a bonus, no matter which one they selected, the other bottle could go back onto the by-the-glass selection.
In the end they ordered the Clare Valley Riesling and gobbled it up with two dozen oysters.
Later on I was also able to offer them a Pinot Noir, and recommended one from Tasmania. Initially they thought it was a little bitter, but I asked them to let it breathe a little, and perhaps to try again when their main courses arrived.
This is the key – because I had proved to them my competence earlier with the Rieslings, they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.
When I checked in on them again after their mains arrived, they pronounced the wine excellent.
Then I found a quiet corner to wipe my brow and sigh with relief.
Bored Of Champagne
Another table, another couple. The man asks for something more interesting than Champagne, as he’d had maybe 20 Champagnes recently and had gotten rather bored.
Immediate thoughts: Ah, one of those.
Secondary thoughts: My mind raced to other countries (Cava, Australia, Franciacorta), but then…
“Sir, when you say Champagne, you mean white champagne? Have you tried much rosé Champagne before?”
And this actually piqued his interested. I presented him with the bottle, served it, and they proceeded to enjoy it for the rest of the evening.
Did you catch what happened?
He asked for something other than Champagne and I still served him a Champagne.
Out Of Stock
Another couple, another night. They asked for a wine that I knew for a fact was out of stock, so I pointed out a few alternatives on the list, and they chose one of them. After I left the table to look for the bottle, I discovered that it was also out of stock.
Immediate thoughts: Fuck.
Secondary thoughts: C’est la vie.
There’s no avoiding it. I picked out two other bottles, return to the couple and present them as alternatives. Fortunately the one they selected was also on our by-the-glass program – if they disliked it we could still serve it later.
But there was no need to worry – they enjoyed it so much they ordered a second bottle!
A few days later I receive feedback from the manager, and they had kindly given me a 10/10 review.
The manager was so pleased that he bought me drinks afterwards.
What I have learned from these three stories (and many more) is that grace under pressure is a very important trait.
One could have all the wine knowledge in the world stored in your brain, but if you cannot express yourself clearly to your guest, then you will not be an effective sommelier.
Every day offers a new experience, and every day the job feels a little simpler. But it will never be easy, and I accept that gratefully.
Read more: Advice For The Neophyte Sommelier