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dont know much about alcohol...

I am currently 19 years old and work as a server at California Pizza Kitchen. I have never had an alcoholic beverage in my entire life.

One night, a woman came in with her husband and were reading over the wine list. She asked me to recommend a wine to accompany her dinner. I got stuck and said "I'm sorry m'am, I have never had any wine before since I am underage so I'm not sure I can give you a proper recommendation." She gave me a look of disgust and asked in an annoyed manner, "well is there anyone I may speak with that knows more than you?" The husband told her not to worry and that he'd choose one for her.

That being said, we have a wine list with about 30 different types of wines. I've been through training which teaches me various descriptive words I can say about each wine. There have been a few occasions where I have been asked to recommend a particular wine. I just don't know what to say because I've never tasted any of them before and I don't want to run the risk of recommending a bad wine and ruining someone's meal.

As a diner, what would you want me to do? Recommend a wine? Tell the truth about my inexperience? How would I go about admitting it without sounding foolish and angering the customer?

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  1. There's nothing more irritating to a customer than feeling like he or she's hit a dead wall. Next time you can say something like, "I don't drink but I can find somebody who can help you with the wine choice."

    You don't have to know wine like a sommelier to work at CPK. But it would be good to just know the basics. I'm thinking that your training probably covered that. I used to bartend, and I have not tasted every drink out in the world, let alone all the spirits/wines/etc that were at the bar. But I knew enough to get by if a customer asked me for a rec. I would just ask what their preferences were and would whip something up. You can also ask your colleagues that do drink their opinions. And don't worry so much about recommending a bad wine as people's wine preferences are very personal. You just don't want to make the mistake of pairing a really light white with a spicy, meat-centric pizza.

    I know you're asking this with the very best of intentions. That's great. Just don't worry so much -- this isn't French Laundry.

    1. as a server it's your job to recomend wine, yes.

      you can ask them what sort of thing they like and use the descriptor words to help narrow down the choices.

      you can ask a coworker who's taste you trust (or who seems to get good tips) what they like and recomend and how they do that.

      the "truth" is somewhat irrelevant - when most people go out for dinner they don't care about the age or experience of the server. they just want dinner. you should not bring up your inexperience, it sounds silly. instead, you can say, "well, were you thinking red or white? do you like full bodied reds? do you tend to like dry whites?" or you can say, "xyz wine goes very well with abc pizza." or, as a last resort (and an annoyance to your manager) you can say, "let me get someone who can advise you about the wine list in better detail."

      9 Replies
      1. re: pigtails

        Entirely concur!
        A server's 3 most important qualities : marketing, marketing, marketing.
        And a good marketer never EVER emphasizes the negatives.
        As in "I'm sorry m'am, I have never had any wine before since I am underage so I'm not sure I can give you a proper recommendation."
        No way.
        A good marketer brings the positives, well pointed out by pigtails:
        "well, were you thinking red or white? do you like full bodied reds? do you tend to like dry whites?"
        Irrespective of his/her knowledge level.
        Or, as in this other famous phrase by pigtails: "the "truth" is somewhat irrelevant "

        1. re: pigtails

          While I agree that it is the responsibility of the server to sell wine, I think that dishonesty is not an acceptable quality in a salesperson (or any person, really). The fact that a restaurant would have someone serve wine when they can't drink it is totally (and literally) foreign to me. That just seems like bad management. Actually, I'm a little surprised it's legal.

          1. re: miss_bennet

            It's an interesting point. I was bartending in NYC before I was old enough to drink which seemed hipocritical to me when I was checking people's ID's to verify they were of age to be served... However, I had a...um...pretty good knowledge of what I was serving. But I understand that not everyone is in that position.

            1. re: conngirl

              I know where I live, you have to pass a certification program before you can serve alcohol, and minors (under 19 here) can serve alcohol, but they can't pour it. So they can bring a glass of wine to your table, but they can't open a bottle or even refill a glass at the table. Of course, not everyone obeys these laws...

              1. re: miss_bennet

                No certification needed to pour drinks in NYC. I know there is an age minimum but once you reach that age you can walk behind the bar and start making and pouring drinks.

            2. re: miss_bennet

              it's definitely legal, well it is in Florida.

              However, I don't see that lack of knowledge about wines is any different from say a vegetarian server being asked whether they would recommend the steak au poivre or the coq or vin. I agree there are ways to say that you don't know or cannot give an opinion in order to upsell.

              1. re: miss_bennet

                It isn't legal everywhere. I am fairly sure that it is NOT legal in California for example (at least to serve the wine, he may be able to take the order). I recently was served by a young lady (about 19) and when I asked for wine, she told me there would be a delay because she couldn't bring the wine over, all of the servers were underage, and the bartender would have to bring it himself when he had a moment...I would have been annoyed if this restaurant had been in a big city, but it was one of the few places open in a very small town. (and in retrospect, I should have known better than to even order wine there :-))

                1. re: susancinsf

                  That wasn't on your Utah trip, by any chance was it? Because in Utah you definitely can't serve wine if you are underage.

                  Actually, in all fairness to Utah, the same is true in Nevada. My son has several friends who have worked as busboys in various restaurants, and they all were very happy to turn 21, as it meant they could be promoted to waiters. Since most restaurants that are above fast food in Nevada serve alcohol, they want the waiters to be over 21.

                  1. re: janetofreno

                    no, it was in California.....(in a small town...)

            3. You may also want to ask your manager if the restaurant has a particular way they'd like you to respond. That said, the woman you mentioned did not need to be so rude either....As someone else mentioned, this is CPK, not the French Laundry..I think it shows a lot of character on your part to try and find the best solution for your customers. Good Luck!

              1 Reply
              1. re: pringle347

                Well I think you did the right thing....I am in the wine business and have had people give me more wrong information than right when asking questions about the wine list. I would much rather have a server tell me they did not know and they would find someone that could answer my questions...at least it is honest. The second a server starts trying to BS their way through the wine list I instantly shut them off and will not ask for any other recommendations. If they are straight from the beginning, (like being honest about their experience) I will more likely ask their opinion about other things on the food menu. It is a trust thing with me, I dont expect all servers to know wine so honesty goes a long long way with me....I would likely tip bigger for what you did!

              2. You did the right thing in trms of being honest.

                Your reply, "I'm sorry m'am, I have never had any wine before since I am underage so I'm not sure I can give you a proper recommendation." however, might have been a bit over the top.

                How about, ""I'm sorry m'am, I'm not sure I can give you a proper recommendation. Please let me call someone who can."?

                1. Well, I do appreciate your honesty.If you were serving me I would have told your supervisor about your honest approach. Next time just say that i can't give you a proper reccomendation but please allow me to get someone with more wine experience.. In the mean time I suggest that your start learning as much as you can about wine, especially what's on your list. You'll definately start to get your coworkers
                  p/o with you especially if you don't cut them in on the tip

                  1. stay aware of what other patrons have ordered and you could at least say "X" is a popular choice.

                    no offense to your employer, but anyone needing recs at CPK are probably fairly easy to size up. Date? give 'em a chance to splurge and sell-up, students? steer them low to mid-range.

                    You should re-post this over on the Wine board as well for specific varietal advice.

                    1. For me truth is always the best course,,,if I am being served by someone making mistakes or not knowing something, I would much rather be told " I am sorry I am new" or in your case "I don't know". I probably would want a full life history and I would appreciate it if you would ask someone for assistance until you do feel you know the ropes. The Statement about marketing is only half true, because many people are able to read right through a BSer and do not appreciate it.. Ask questions of the barkeep and other servers. You don't have to have tasted wine to be able to make go a recommendation that you have heard from other...obviously we recommend to others all the time here on chow.

                      1. If she is "reading over" the wine list at a place like CPK just recommend a white zin.

                        2 Replies
                          1. There is a balance between honesty and not serving the customer. I am put off by servers who don't know anything about something on the menu, whether it's because it's a dish that contains meat and they're vegetarian or because it's alcohol and their underage. Can you imagine going to a car dealership and asking a salesperson about a car and them saying, "I'm sorry, I've never driven that car, I don't know anything about it." They don't drive every car on the lot and you don't need to sample every item of food and bev on your menu to be able to make decent recommendations.

                            You don't have to lie and say "I like this, that or the other," but there would be nothing wrong with asking whether they prefer whites or reds and then sweeter or drier wines and then making an informed decision based on that information. You only have to learn a little bit about the wines on your list to know which are sweeter and which are drier, and I'm sure it spells out which are whites and which are reds. Armed with that info, you ask what they prefer and make a suggestion based on popularity. Ex. they say they like dry whites and you could say, "The [brand name] is our most popular chardonnay. Also the [brand name] is very popular." If they PRESS you for details about the specific wine or want to talk about years and stuff, they're just being pretentious IMO. It's CPK not the French Laundry after all.

                            It will only benefit you as a server to educate yourself about what's on the menu. You don't have to do that by actually sampling everything. In fact, if you mention to the manager that you want to learn more about the wines without actually tasting them, they may let you talk to the distributor when they come in next time. It's those kinds of questions and that kind of information that gets you promoted.

                            1. As a diner, I am really put off by servers who excuse their lack of knowledge by saying, "I'm new, so I don't know the menu." or "Well, I don't eat any of the food here." or the worst, "Well, XX is a really popular dish," since I don't care what other people order most frequently, as I usually don't trust just anyone's recommendations (read: chain restaurants often win People's Choice Awards in our local magazine).

                              That being said, I think being underage is a perfectly legit excuse for not being able to recommend wines!! I think saying, "I'm sorry, I'm underage so I cannot sample any of the wines, but let me bring over someone who can recommend a wine to you" is much better than either trying to BS a patron by using words that have no meaning to you . That inauthenticity (yes, I'm wordifying) comes through LOUD and CLEAR, and is a huge turn-off.

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: cheeseguysgirl

                                I guess it depends on the server and patrons and what they're comfortable with. As I said, I wasn't trying to get the server to "pull a fast one" on the patrons, just make an educated suggestion as they might regarding a food dish. As a patron, nothing makes me more irritated than someone who doesn't know anything about X, Y or Z on the menu and I'll have to wait while they go ask someone else or find someone who DOES know, whatever the reason, the only exception being that they are new. But other patrons are different.

                                1. re: rockandroller1

                                  Yeah, I know you weren't suggesting they "pull a fast one." But I think when you're talking about food or wine, not trying (or having the ability to try) something seriously hampers your ability to give an honest opinion. You end up getting a string of learned words (this red wine is full-bodied, with hints of smoke and tobacco) that, upon a second even slightly deeper question (how tannic is it?), can elicit a blank look and stammer that makes you question the validity of their initial description. I'd rather them get someone at the first question.

                                  And I admit I may be overly picky, but I think being new is not an excuse for lack of knowledge.about your resto's menu. I think that is something you should study up on before you begin work.

                                  1. re: cheeseguysgirl

                                    Agree with you 100%, but you're not going to get those questions at a CPK. Edited to add: at least, you shouldn't. I mean, "how tannic" something is seems a relative question anyway unless you're at a restaurant with a serious wine list and a sommelier.

                                2. re: cheeseguysgirl

                                  If we were talking about a non-chain restaurant, I would tend to agree that "XX is really popular" is an inappropriate response to a request for recommendations. But this is California Pizza Kitchen. Most of the diners are lemmings, and the waitstaff tends to be fairly inexperienced and unsophisticated.

                                  Given those customers and that staff, what's popular is extremely relevant. And if the customer is asking for assistance with that particular wine list, a popular choice (BWZ or otherwise) is precisely what the server should recommend.

                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                    You are absolutely right. I was trying to not belittle CPK and instead equate them with a restaurant that I would frequent. I see now the error. :)

                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                      thank you! And LOL to cheeseguysgirl's response.

                                  2. I'm also a server. I work at a place that's nicer than CPK but not super fancy. I think wine is disgusting. I really wish I could learn to like it, but so far it hasn't worked for me (I'm 26.) So, when people ask me for a recommendation, I usually remember what other servers have told me "This is smoother, sweeter, full-bodied, acidic, dry, not dry," etc.. We have some wine enthusiasts as servers and the wine makers often visit to teach us. Since wine is based a lot on matter of opinion I can say "This is considered our sweetest Chardonnay" without lying. I never tell them I think it's sweet or dry or whatever. If that doesn't work because they keep asking for a description or I simply don't remember what was said about the wine, I ask them what kind of wine they typically like and tell them I will get a recommendation and a taste for them. People have never been upset that I don't drink wine... but they aren't there to hear your life story. In every customer service position I've had, when you say no, you're supposed to follow up with a yes. "No, we don't have the Trout tonight, but we do have Salmon, Ahi, or Ono." "I can't recommend a wine for you, but I will send someone over to help you."

                                    You don't have to drink wine to learn about pairings. Buy "Wine for dummies" at the bookstore and just read up. If it says that Chardonnay goes with a certain dish, then learn the key words about your Chardonnay selections. Take the wine list home and google them. Then you are prepared to ask how the person if they typically enjoy dry, sweet, fruity, or whatever else.