If you’ve never been out to a fancy dinner, one with wine service or table service and the whole white glove treatment, you’re not really missing much aside from the food and wine that’s usually served. I know it’s an ironic statement – “you’re not missing anything…aside from the food,” but it’s true. A lot of the pomp and circumstance and ritual that go around fancy dinners and meals are pretty silly, and often pointless aside from being an invisible rulebook to serve as an indicator of a so-called “cultured” person.
That all said, one thing that I do enjoy at one of those fancy meals is the opportunity to talk to a sommelier about the wine being served that night, or what would go best with the meal that we’re about to have. I’ve been lucky enough to have a sommelier save me from a less-than-stellar wine pairing with a meal more than once, and while in some cases I stumbled into it, in others it all came from knowing how to speak to him in an intelligent fashion. Here are a few suggestions.
Thankfully, the fine folks at Chow have some great suggestions for talking to a sommelier on their own terms, some that I can echo are invaluable if you’re in the position of asking a sommelier about the best wine for your meal. One of the first rules is to communicate your tastes and what you’re looking for as clearly as possible. Don’t just go with your passive instinct to sit back and say “bring something that works with our meal” and call it a day. Let the sommelier know what you’re interested in, or what types of wines you normally enjoy, or even if you’re in the mood for something specific. For example:
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.”
Good tips, all around – at the same time, I’d urge you to go to a restaurant and ask the sommelier to specifically expand your palate. If you drink Napa Cabs at home (and there’s nothing wrong with a good Napa Cab – they may be oaky, but they can be good!) let them know that, but let them know you’re interested in something with a similar flavor profile but you want to try something new and exciting that you may never have tried before.
Let them surprise you, and your palate, and experience something new and interesting that you may never have considered before. You never know, you may find something you want to buy by the case later.
The Chow folks also offer some help on one of the most sticky points when talking to a sommelier – price. I’m the type of person who’ll tell you that if you’re out for a meal at a place with a sommelier, the price of the bottle should be the last thing you’re worried about if you’re eating appetizers that are in the $20 range and full plates that are pushing $50, but still some people worry about the price of their bottle of wine. Just be honest about the price range you’re looking for, even if you’re on a date and don’t want to come off cheap. Even suggesting a few bottles in the price range you’re looking at from the wine list and asking the sommelier’s opinion is a good start:
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.”
Like they said before, they’re not there to judge you. While I can’t promise they won’t (I mean honestly, if you’ve ever worked service of any type in your life, you know that occasionally you do judge the people you work with, but the best part is that you’re usually so busy you can’t remember that person after 15 minutes, and you certainly won’t go home complaining about the guy who drinks Sutter Home and wanted a sub-$10 bottle of wine) I can tell you that if you’re the kind of geek I am and you go out to a fancy place and don’t know what to order or what to say, give the sommelier some basic information about what you’re going to have for dinner, what your tastes are, and let them decide.
Want extra points? Ask your date or friends at the table what they’re in the mood for, and if they have any wine preferences. That’ll get you a good ways, and it’s considerate too. Plus, the sommelier will have more information to go on, and hopefully bring you a bottle that works with both of your meals and both of your palates. Remember to thank them before you head out for the night, by the way – they may have just saved you, your meal, and your palate from an otherwise boring or worse, unappetizing evening.