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SOMMELIER, are they an Angel or Devil? [moved from W. Canada board]

t
tomi Feb 22, 2007 07:05 AM

just curious

how offten do you actually need the sommelier to pick out the wine for you?

and how do i know that he/she is certified sommelier?

i mean do we actually need a Sommelier these days?

  1. w
    woojink Mar 7, 2007 11:22 AM

    If you are a Burgundy fan, speaking with someone with firsthand experience on how a particular bottle is drinking right now is a very important data point. The fickleness of Burgundy makes life somewhat of a crap shoot... so getting some help on where in the state of evolution a wine is currently in is a very big deal. A good Sommelier can and does do that. I've had good luck in speaking with Sommeliers about this subject and am pleased about that.

    1. i
      indolent Mar 7, 2007 08:18 AM

      For me a good sommelier adds to my experience. If I have seen a number of wines on the list that interest me then a discussion with the person who bought them and knows them intimately should assist in the final decision.

      Recent examples of good service have been Le Gavroche's sommelier in London was knowledgeable and informative over their bordeaux selection and making a choice between a selection of lesser chateaus. And in Rome I had an excellent sommelier at Baby who directed me to a local small producer after a brief discussion.

      1. hotoynoodle Mar 3, 2007 11:00 AM

        happily, i think the stereotypical snooty sommelier is an expiring dinosaur.

        one of the things i've always done with my lists is to focus on smaller producers and bottles not available retail. people complain they don't like the list because there's nothing they know. why should i sell stuff they can drink at home? my job overall is about guest satisfaction. not to show off or embarrass a guest or worse still, make them feel cheated. i want you to love your dinner and come back. and buy more wine. :)

        more than once i've been waved away because they're expecting me to be a man. more than once i've been told i can't possibly know more than does the guest -- even though i've tasted every single bottle on my list. more than once a guest has been amazed i sold them something that was delicious and just as i described it. far too many think i'm an adversary rather than an advocate. it's silly.

        it's my passion and i love my job. let me help you!

        2 Replies
        1. re: hotoynoodle
          d
          dinwiddie Mar 4, 2007 06:22 AM

          Anyone who waves away the sommelier because it is a she rather than a he just has not been following the recent discussions in the wine community that in general women have much better palates than men.

          I love finding a wine list that focuses on smaller producers (which is what I focus on in collecting) because like you said, why buy in a restaurant what you can easily purchase and have at home. Where, btw, is the restaurant at which you are the sommelier? If it is somewhere that I travel to (I assume it is not in the DC area) I would love to sample your list.

          1. re: hotoynoodle
            Bill Hunt Mar 4, 2007 07:11 AM

            You exemplify what a good sommelier should do, and it sounds as though you do it well. Your example of your restaurant's wine list, is exactly what I love about dining out. With a well-stocked 3700+ cellar, I can drink a lot of wonderful wine at home, and do. However, one can never know all that is out there. I attend several trade-only events per year, and travel to many wine regions. I cannot, though, be current on it all. I love exploring and finding new wines - new regions, producers, styles and even new varietals. I look to the sommelier/cellar-master to do just that, plus help me get a perfect match with what is coming from the kitchen that day. This is one of the reasons, that I really enjoy tasting/pairing menus so very much. It is especially nice to have a wine (or two) with each dish in the menu, and I'm often dining with just my wife, and we cannot afford 7 bottles of wine for the table, when we're likely to have a half-glass from each.

            Along those lines, both extensive, well-thoughtout b-t-glass selections and/or half-bottle selections are a big plus. These are the areas of a list, that I will usually peruse first. I always make a point of thanking the sommelier, when the establishment has some wonderful half-bottles available.

            I applaude you for your efforts, and am sorry to hear that your gender has been any problem, whatsoever. I just had a wonderful meal with Andrea Immer Robinson in SF, and greatly appreciated her comments and efforts for that meal. It's about the wine, the food and the enjoyment! Too many diners need to "get over it."

            Thanks for the comments,
            Hunt

          2. wine guru Mar 3, 2007 01:52 AM

            well, i think being sommelier these days is not as SPECIAL as they used to be. 10 years ago, if you mention the job " I am a Sommelier", most of the people don't even know what is it. I used to tell my guest as a joke, "Sommelier is the person who certified to rip you off."

            Today Sommelier act as a "tour guide" to help the guest to choose a suitable wine for the dining experience. As a Sommelier myself, i think my job is to provide the right information for the guest to make the right decision. The bottom line is, they are the people who paying for my pay cheque.

            I have worked with Sommelier who is so damn good, i think he can even sell "ICE to the Eskimo" the bill is huge, but 70% of the time those people don't come back.

            Here is the rules that i have for myself,
            "Treat the guest the way that i would like to be treat it."
            "if you don't know, say it. don't pretend that you know everything, Sommelier and guest are human as well, i can't remember all the appellation in the world.
            "Wine sell itself " you can try, but the guest is the person who making the call.
            "If the guest say something wrong with the wine, even though the wine is fine, "Drink it" don't agure with him/her. After all they are the people who paying for the bill.
            other than that, drink up, life is too short to have bad wine in your glass.

            kso @_@

            1. w
              woojink Mar 2, 2007 04:58 PM

              The real certification body is the Court of Master Sommeliers. There is an introductory course, but the first real level of certification is as a Certified Sommelier, next comes the Advanced Sommelier and lastly the Master Sommelier. Becoming a Certfiied Sommelier is not easy but not ridiculously difficult. It requires a material amount of study, reading and some coursework. It is a one day test. Wine knowledge AND wine SERVICE is part of all the levels. Becoming an Advanced Sommelier is a very, very big deal. Becoming a Master Sommelier, certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers is a enormously big deal. There are only 79 Master Sommeliers in North America, and I'm privileged to have met and spent time with several of them. 66 are men, 13 are women. There are only 124 Master Sommeliers worldwide. These numbers are from the website of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

              All that being said, a Certified Sommelier at any of the levels can be a huge asset to a restaurant. Having a Master Sommelier available at a restaurant makes a HUGE difference in the food and wine experience in my opinion.

              1. Midlife Feb 28, 2007 06:14 PM

                I could be overly analytical on this, but there are a number of sommelier programs in the world that 'certify' wine professionals'. From what I know the most widely reognized as the 'best' is a Master of Wine. Then probably comes one at the highest level of the Court of Master Sommeliers. And there are a number of others. I've never been aware that the ones I've mentioned have a specific 'pin' to idenitfy them. A really good one can steer you to the best wine for your meal with genuine skill. From what I've been told, though, except for those in the priciest establishments, most sommeliers make less money than a good server in the same restaurant.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Midlife
                  z
                  zin1953 Feb 28, 2007 09:30 PM

                  An MW is not the same as an MS -- a Master Sommelier focuses more on service and food-pairings, whereas an MW focuses more on wine 'as a whole," from production through to the final wine.

                  1. re: zin1953
                    Midlife Mar 2, 2007 08:46 PM

                    Are you suggesting that the Master Sommelier is better qualified to give pairing advice? Not taking offense, but I am aware of the focus differences. I haven't, however, had any reason to think that an MW would be any less able to advise. The impression I've had, from speaking with the one MW I know, and someone else who just passed the second level MW exams, is that they are both well qualified to do that.

                    1. re: Midlife
                      z
                      zin1953 Mar 3, 2007 06:13 AM

                      No, I'm not saying that at all.

                      What I am saying is that you're much more likely to find an MS as a sommelier than you will an MW. The active MW's I know all work directly in the wine trade (winemakers, importers, wine buyers, consultants, etc.), or as wine writers and/or wine educators.

                      Most the MS's I know are active sommeliers; the rest *were* sommeliers, but are now writers and educators, a couple make/made wine, and one owns a small wine import company in Virginia.

                      1. re: zin1953
                        Midlife Mar 3, 2007 09:49 AM

                        Agreed. The MW owns a wine importer/distributor business and the one 'in training' would like to be in the trade as well.

                2. j
                  jaysin612 Feb 28, 2007 10:41 AM

                  I agree with others that they are "angels". I have never had a bad recomendation from a sommelier. At CUE (the restaurant in the Guthrie in Mpls, MN) our sommelier had to choose something for us when we were getting beef, duck confit and a chicken dish. Picked an amazing french Pinot Noir that went with everything. Was it anything that we would have picked on our own? No, even being a pretty wine smart table there is no way that we could have picked something like that and been so happy. At Chambers Kitchen (in Mpls) our sommelier had to pair with Lobster, Duck, and Pork. Picked a Reisling that NONE of us would have thought of and it was perfect as well. I am grateful for their service and knowledge. They have always made a good dining experience great.

                  1. z
                    zin1953 Feb 27, 2007 02:52 PM

                    Regardless of how much an individual diner knows about wine, sommeliers are worth it if they know what they're doing; they're worse than useless if they don't. It's really as simple as that.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: zin1953
                      d
                      dinwiddie Mar 1, 2007 04:19 AM

                      I agree with zin1953 (BTW is that a birth year? If so we are of an age) A good sommelier will have been very involved in the composition of the cellar at the restaurant. He or she will be knowledgeable about not only the wines but the food the chef prepares and be able to help you find something that goes well and that you should like in the price range you want to spend. But to be honest, even the best sommelier needs your help to do his or her job well. You need to let them know what price range you are looking at (this can be done discretely, just point to something in the price range you are willing to spend and suggest that you are looking for something in that range that would go well with what you order) The sommelier should also ask you some questions to determine your likes and dislikes in wine.

                      (I know people who are very knowledgeable about wine who consider sommeliers to be pests, but then I consider those folks to be arrogant wine dorks who give the rest of us a bad name. They tend to be the same types of people who consider servers to be servants. But I digress.)

                      A good sommelier will be more concerned with making sure you are pleased with your wine experience at the restaurant than with trying to get you to purchase a certain wine. I dislike it when I think the sommelier is trying to upsell me. I also have to say that I know several sommeliers here in Washington DC and consider them all to be professionals who I like and trust.

                      1. re: dinwiddie
                        Bill Hunt Mar 1, 2007 04:10 PM

                        In all of my years of dining, I can only recall three incidents, where the sommelier did not do their job. Two of these were along the lines of the statment in your first paragraph, "You need to let them know what price range you are looking at (this can be done discretely, just point to something in the price range you are willing to spend and suggest that you are looking for something in that range that would go well with what you order)." In both situations, I had chosen a particular wine (Champagne "starter" in one case, and a fairly "big" red, in the second) for an anniversary dinner with wife, and a board-member dinner. In the first, I had ordered a Champagne b-t-g @ ~US$25/glass. The sommelier recommended their special cuvee from Roederer Estates (domestic sparkler from a Champagne house), in a split. I agreed. When the bill came, that split was US$275! This replaced US$50 worth of Champagne (Bollinger, IIRC). Next, I ordered a Syrah (part of about 4 btls. during the meal), that ran ~ US$110 on the list. The sommelier pointed out on the next trip by, that they were out, but had a recommendation for one that was not on the list. Again the bill - that bottle was US$425! In both cases, I whispered my dissatisfaction to the sommeliers, but this was met with a shrug. In first case, I didn't want to ruin an otherwise lovely evening, and the second, did not want make a scene in front of board members. In retrospect, I think that I should have asked the specific price of each bottle, as it appeared that both sommeliers could not figure it out, from my first selections. The caveat is: if there is a recommendation for something not on the list, ask exactly WHAT the price is. Do not assume that because you have ordered a wine, that costs $X, the suggested wine will be even close. As they say, "My bad." In both cases, we have not dined at these two local, high-end spots since.

                        Hunt

                        1. re: Bill Hunt
                          d
                          dinwiddie Mar 2, 2007 07:41 AM

                          I've had many great experiences with sommeliers. Once, while dining with my wife and son for his birthday, the sommelier suggested a couple of wines after we discussed what we were having. When the bill came I found that I had been charged for two bottles of the less expensive (by about $60) wine. When I pointed this out, he just looked at my son and said "Happy Birthday". (needless to say, he got a good tip)

                          The only time I've ever had a bad experience was much like you described. The sommelier said that the restaurant (a rather expensive place in NYC that shall remain nameless since the sommelier is no longer there) was out of a certain wine, but suggested a different one. Lucky for me, I realized that he was talking about a much superior (and much more expensive) wine. So I asked about the price. I told him that I was not interested in spending $400 for a bottle of wine. I chose something else that was in the price range of what I had originally ordered. Needless to say, I never returned to that restaurant.

                          1. re: Bill Hunt
                            t
                            tom porc Mar 4, 2007 11:56 PM

                            I'm sorry but how can anyone recommend a bottle of $425 wine without telling you the price? What if you didnt have the ability to pay that amount?

                            1. re: tom porc
                              Bill Hunt Mar 5, 2007 06:14 AM

                              Good point. In my very few bad-sommelier experiences, I felt that the first goal was to "sell up," and then maybe to let the diner experience something that they might not have chosen. In both of the cited instances, the restaurants were lower-high-end and upper-high-end, and the respective sommeliers might have assumed that I could pay, which happened to be true, but neither had direct access to my financial statements. These were rare occurances, but did give me a lasting bad impression on both establishments. One has stayed off of our list, even though several board members have requested that we dine there - sorry, "once burned... "

                              Considering the vast majority of great experiences, that we've had, 3 out of many hundred, isn't bad. As you point out, it could backfire horribly, though, in more than just bad word-of-mouth and ill feelings. In one case, the gentleman in question is a Master Sommelier, who receives a good deal of national press, and a ton of local press. I still consider his actions rude, and unprofessional, and not in the spirit of what I have come to expect from sommeliers over the world. I still will shoulder a bit of the blame, as I did not inquire, "OK, sounds good, BUT what is the price?" My erroneous assumption was that if we were ordering within a certain price range, any substitution/suggestion would be someplace near that range - as it should be. If someone inquires about a US$50 btl. of wine, I am not going to exceed that by very much, regardless of how well something else might work. If I were to go over by as little as $5, I'd point this out for approval.

                              A side note of service in the other direction. To celebrate a momentous accomplishment by a CEO's wife, I instructed our sommelier (a very good acquaintance, with whom we'd dined many times) to "dig deeply into the cellar, for a 'special' bottle for the table." He inquired about the price and my response was to just dig deeply. He came back and asked "how deeply?" When the bottle arrived, but before he presented it, he whispered in my ear, "this is my selection, BUT it costs $XXXX. Is that too deep?" I replied that the price was well within the range, that I had in mind, but that he could go a little deeper, if he wished. He said no, this was his first choice, regardless of the price, presented it to me, and decanted it. He was adamant that he did not want me to have a negative surprise, and went out of his way to make sure that he and I were on the "same page." As always, he provided great service and is still the paradigm, by which I judge all sommeliers. This gentleman had failed his Master Sommelier test twice, but is still the best in MY book.

                              Hunt

                              1. re: Bill Hunt
                                t
                                tom porc Mar 7, 2007 12:14 AM

                                I'm glad to read the CEO dinner went well with the sommelier's recommendation. Perhaps having frequented his restaurant in the past he knew your likes and dislikes and chose accordingly. He helped to make the night a success ... a job well done! I'm sure you compensated him generously.

                                People, dont be afraid to ask for prices. Wine is probably similar to entrees in that the price can make the difference between "okaaay" and wonderful. I may hate that $50 surf 'n turf but offer it to me for $25 and I may love it.

                              2. re: tom porc
                                d
                                dinwiddie Mar 5, 2007 05:26 PM

                                Well the bottle I did order was $200, but the entire wine list was overpriced. I guess they figure if you are spending over $100 per person for dinner, you can afford the expensive wine. It was a special occasion, but not that special.

                            2. re: dinwiddie
                              z
                              zin1953 Mar 1, 2007 10:31 PM

                              Yup -- 11/8/1953.

                              1. re: zin1953
                                d
                                dinwiddie Mar 2, 2007 07:35 AM

                                Got you by 6 months you youngster.

                          2. d
                            David Pearlman Feb 27, 2007 11:11 AM

                            The best dinners I have had have included great work by sommeliers. Best way to go is to tell the sommelier what you're eating for dinner and how much you want to spend. They will respond by asking what you like and do not like, and try to gauge your level of understanding and how adventurous you are willing to be. After that, just let them do their thing. In a really good restaurant with a really good sommelier, you will be served things you never heard of that are amazingly good and more than worth the money.

                            1. Bill Hunt Feb 23, 2007 01:10 PM

                              Aside from the comments on the responsibilities listed above, the sommelier is probably the one, who put in, or at least, maintains the wine list. He/she also should be atop the chef's creations and should even know how things are coming out that night.

                              Though I know my way around wine lists and enjoy the aspect of pairing our food with wines, I also enjoy having someone with intimate knowledge of the cellar and the kitchen, who can do it for me, especially if they offer a pairing menu.

                              In general, most, that I have encountered, earn their keep and I greatly appreciate it.

                              Hunt

                              1. c
                                Chicago Mike Feb 23, 2007 01:39 AM

                                They are:

                                AN ANGEL if they direct you to a sensible wine match for the food you've chosen AND/OR help the chef in designing the dishes so they match particular wines to the max...

                                .... and, yes, the majority of diners definitely need help pairing their food when you look at the atrocious food & wine matchups so many people are having in good restaurants these days....

                                AN ANGEL... if they help the house acquire the best possible wine selection at price points at which they can offer a good deal to the diners....

                                AN ANGEL (for management)... if they are a "celebrity" in their own right and bring attention to the restaurant....

                                OTHERWISE, they are fairly useless....

                                1. formerlyfingers Feb 22, 2007 10:13 PM

                                  A restaurant Sommelier will usually be paid considerably more hourly than the wait staff, and will also receive a percentage of the gross revenues, like a guaranteed gratuity.

                                  Keep in mind that many sommeliers only work on the floor of a restaurant on the busy evenings, maybe to a maximum of 3-4 shifts per week, allowing them to have another position as well. They are specialists who have specialized hours, unless they are also acting as manager for their restaurant, a fairly common arrangement as well. Some sommeliers also work for more than one restaurant.

                                  1. y
                                    yen Feb 22, 2007 06:30 PM

                                    Certified Sommeliers are worth their weight in gold. Not only are they an essential part of making a great meal better, but i agree with FF that they contribute a lot to the overall dining experience.

                                    I personally would say i am moderately familiar with wine, and yet, keeping track of thousands of flavour profiles, and appropriately matching it to the food being served is a definite art. Why take chances? I also found one side benefit is after providing the sommelier with detailed information about your likes and dislikes, they will stand by their recommendation. If you don't like the pairing (or the wine itself), they generally replace it with a second recommendation. They also help you avoid corked wines, which can often be an expensive argument (yes it is, no it isnt, etc).

                                    Non certified sommeliers? I'd rather do it myself.

                                    1. formerlyfingers Feb 22, 2007 02:50 PM

                                      If they are certified, they will possess a small pin worn on the lapel or tie from the International Sommelier's Guild. This is the indicator that they have taken their training and passed their certification requirements.

                                      Also, a good sommelier is not "picking out the wine for you" but instead suggesting suitable options for each price point based on the criteria you, the diner, has given them.

                                      Necessary? For serious wine programs, yes, absolutely.

                                      I love the personal touch and professionalism it brings to a dining experience.

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