A few months ago, we ranted about four all-too-common restaurant wine service mistakes that drive us absolutely mad. And while it's one thing to have a less-than-transcendental wine experience when there's no trained sommelier on staff, it's quite another to have one when there is. After a few recent wine-and-dine experiences, we realized just how much more there is to delivering stellar wine service than a somm's ability to pick a few winning bottles.
Rules of engagement: Just because a diner may have chosen to go with the optional wine pairings offered along with their meal for an additional charge doesn't necessarily mean that they'll just robotically suck down everything the wine steward recommends without a single question. When we dared to ask the sommelier at a recent fancy-schmancy wine dinner to engage us in a bit of dialogue about his choices, we were greeted with a stare of icy disdain and the less-than-enthusiastic reply, "Why do you want to discuss the wine pairings? Do you want to change them?" Um, wow. You'd think that guy would have welcomed the chance to chat us up a bit. Here's the thing he should have kept in mind: If folks were willing to drop a not-insignificant sum of extra cash for his recommended pairings, those same peeps would probably appreciate a little insight into not only his thought process for choosing the wines but also a heads-up as to what they should expect to experience from the pairing. It's just not very cool when glasses of wine start arriving at the table with no setup or background to prepare us for the wine we're about to enjoy, and more important, why we should enjoy it.
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Technical maneuvers: We get it. Professional sommeliers study for months, if not years, to master the art of classic food and wine pairing. But that's precisely the point: It's an art. When all we get from you are the most obvious pairs on the planet (sauvignon blanc and goat cheese, pinot noir and salmon), pardon us for feeling less than lit up about your talents. Instead, we urge you to surprise us. Challenge us. And most important, teach us to think about wine differently than we ever have before. When a sommelier demonstrates this kind of masterly, thought-provoking pairing, we're empowered to have an altogether different conversation with ourselves about why a given wine pairing works (or doesn't work, for that matter).
Geeking out: The first step in anyone's journey toward becoming a sommelier is to be just as excited (if not more so) to memorize ridiculous amounts of minutiae about grapes, regions, winemakers, hell - even freakin' bottle closures - as they are about getting to drink more wine in a week than most people do in a month. In other words, we know you're a total wine geek. But simply to try and dazzle us with raw data about the wine you've poured for us is about as exciting as...well, it's not. What's guaranteed to blow our minds will come from your personality, charm, and passion about a particular wine, not the litany of technical details associated with it. Tell us about the first time you ever tasted the wine - when you helped with the harvest in Tuscany, or stopped at that winery in Colchagua on your honeymoon. In short, it's your adoration for the grape that'll impress us, not your encyclopedic knowledge of it. So be suave. Be charming. And be the best damn sommelier we've ever had.