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Feb 18, 2010 12:21 AM

How to Talk About Wine

I recently dined at a herdled London restaurant was treated rather rudely by the head waiter/sommelier when asked what kind of wine I liked. I said I like dry reds and wasn't keen on anything sweet, but was quickly admonished and lectured that only white wines can be described as dry and sweet and treated like an idiot. I also wasn't interested in buy a £45 bottle of wine when the list was filled with £30 bottles.

Now, I'm not a connoisseur, but I know what I like and what I don't, and I have cooked enough to have read "dry red wine" in many recipes. Was I in the wrong to describe a red as dry? Are there words that apply only to whites or reds? What can I say in the future to avoid the lecture with my busiate?

In the end, I was peeved to have been treated like an idiot (I'm paying to eat there, not for an education, I'll go to WSET for that, thanks) and ordered a £25 bottle of Bardolino.

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  1. Nanette, say whatever the **** you want! It is the sommelier's job to recommend wine(s) based upon your food order, your likes and dislikes . . . .

    There ARE dry reds. There ARE sweet reds (though once you exclude non-fortified wines, they are few and far between, but they do exist).

    The ONLY mistake you made was not lodging a complain about the sommelier's rude behavior with the restaurant's manager/owner.


    1 Reply
    1. Sorry but your waiter sounds like a total boob. As Zin mentioned there are in fact plenty of reds which could be described as sweet (e.g. Port and Banyuls). True, they are fortified so they are kind of a different animal. But certainly they meet the criteria of being “sweet”, “red” and “wine”.

      I’ve recently become more interested in wine. It’s true that it can be intimidating to talk about in the presence of people who are highly knowledgeable on the subject. But what I’ve learnt is that there are so many levels of wine appreciation. At its most basic level it can simply be about what you like and dislike, without needing to go into too much detail about why (too acidic, too sweet, not enough body etc). On the other hand there are people who like to study the subject in hair-splitting detail, even down to what chemical compounds may or not be present. Whatever level you enjoy wine on – that’s fine and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because at the end of the day you should be doing it for fun not to impress people. So my suggestion is to ignore some snooty waiter who looks down on you for not being able to talk about the subject like an expert.

      Don’t let this one bad experience put you off your interest in wine. The truth is most people, even highly educated experts, would not think any less of you for not having an expansive knowledge on the subject. Unfortunately wine is one of those things which is completely dogma ridden. There is supposedly a right way to do everything. While some basic principles can enhance enjoyment of wine and are therefore worth knowing, in my opinion a discussion about wine is most interesting when people say what they really think and don’t conform to traditional ways of talking about the subject.

      You really should have just told your waiter that you’re not spending your money to be talked down to and to stop being such a pretentious doornob.

      1. Nanette,

        Just do corkage all the time and avoid the markups and the hassle. The term sommelier is overused and there are some good ones out there but they should know that making the client feel good about their wine selection is their job not making them feel like an idiot.

        With an open book test anyone can get a piece of paper and claim to be a sommelier.

        3 Replies
        1. re: redmeatfan

          Keep in mind that corkage/BYOB is not legal in all jurisdictions.

          1. re: redmeatfan

            Please don't lump all "sommeliers" together. I spent years training for my certification and busted my ass (and wallet) tasting and reading. I don't know anything about an open book test; I had to blind taste two wines, pass a service exam and a written exam. It wasn't easy and most people fail the first time they test (Court of Master Sommeliers).

            Corkage isn't legal everywhere.

            1. re: invinotheresverde

              I would hope that the OP would not lump sommeliers into a common basket. Over my many years at this, I rely on many 100%, to save me the "heavy lifting." Hey, I do not know what chef is doing that night, and I also love to be educated and surprised in a very good way. Just did that last Saturday night. Every pairing was not perfect, but was fun and very good.

              Over the decades, I have had maybe six issues with sommeliers/wine stewards/head waiter doing the wine duties. I will admit that two were in London, but they WERE within the same restaurant "group," so I take it to be more of a reflection of that "group." The rest (many hundreds), have all done a good job, to a great job. That is what they are paid to do, and the vast majority does a very good job at it.

              Then, there are those few "others," and they should turn in their grape clusters, and slink into the darkness.


          2. It's up to a sommelier to listen patiently to your requests, to your likes and dislikes, and then make a choice for you.

            It is the poor sommelier who tries to show-off his or her knowledge when in the presence of those who're obviously less than experts about wine. What happened to you, nanette, was wrong.

            I assure you that there are plenty of sommeliers, captains and servers who, despite being very well-versed in the language of wine, can listen to you and translate what you say into a perfect wine choice. No matter if you say "a very dry, tannic Medoc with great legs" or "something that makes me pucker and is rich in flavor" you ought to get the same, or similar, wines.

            Hey, just go elsewhere next time you dine out. You may want to look at a restaurant's website first before you go. Many restaurants that have great wine programs also train their people to make wine very accessible -- you may just find a place that's reaching out to wine "newbies." You'll get a bit of an education and not feel any pretense whatsoever.

            1. When you instructed the waiter that you liked "dry reds and wasn't keen on anything sweet" what nightmare scenario were you trying to avoid? What red wine, varietal, etc were you interested in avoiding? Have you ever ordered a (non fortified) red wine and gotten one that wasn't dry?

              35 Replies
              1. re: Chinon00

                I have. On the other hand, a) it's not me that we're discussing, and b) it is the job of restaurant employees TO SERVE -- whether that is answering questions about the menu or the wine list; placing the dishes on the table, or re-filling water glasses, etc., etc., etc.

                Let us not lose sight of the facts:

                1) The OP "recently dined at a herdled (sic) London restaurant."
                2) The OP felt she "was treated rather rudely by the head waiter/sommelier."
                3) The OP was "quickly admonished and lectured that only white wines can be described as dry and sweet" and felt that she was "treated like an idiot."

                Now, it is clear TO ME that the "head waiter/sommelier" was at fault here. NO customer should EVER be made to feel "like an idiot" and there is NEVER any excuse for the staff of a restaurant to treat a customer rudely -- even IF the customer was being a jerk him- or herself.

                Think of it this way: if YOU the restaurant's owner or manager, and you discovered that a customer left your restaurant feeling that way, would you be pleased?

                1. re: zin1953

                  All we know for sure is how the OP felt. The waiter's behavior could have been completely acceptable in your or my eyes. I recall being at an Italian restaurant as a younger man and ordering a seafood pasta and then asking for cheese. The waiter's eyes widened slightly as he responded "sir, we don't serve cheese on seafood it overpowers the flavor of the fish". I was a little embarrassed in front of my friends but I didn't feel that the waiter had done anything wrong. Anyway in my previous post I was hoping that we could narrow down what exactly the OP did not want in her/his wine and in more precise language.

                  1. re: Chinon00

                    I beg to differ. It is not the server's responsibility to lecture, or even to inform. It is their duty to distill what the patron has requested, and provide suggestions. Should clarification be required, then a few, well-thought out questions should be asked. If, after the questions were answered, the preferences were not clear, then a trained professional should have a few more questions.

                    Somewhere along the line, it appears that you have lost track of the derivation of the word "server." There is not a "professor," nor a "judge," but only a "server," and one who bases their employment on the patrons.

                    Given the stated situation, I feel that a discussion on the possible descriptors of various wines is not germane, as the OP was using the best descriptors that she knew, to provide adequate info to the server/sommelier. It is incumbent on that server/sommelier to ask additional questions, should the info not prove adequate. That is part of the job. Any good server/sommelier should have several levels of questions: one for the majority of the diners, one for those, who know more about their wine preferences, and one for those who might well know more about wine, than they do.

                    I've had sommeliers, who could easily be one of my students, who did a wonderful job of pairing, and possibly better than I could have, not knowing the kitchen that day. What they might have lacked in expert wine knowledge, they more than made up for with "local knowledge." Heck, I have been bested by golfers, who were inferior to me, but then they "knew the course," and I did not. It happens all too often.


                    [Edit] I do not know why the forum insists on adding my comments twice, but no amount of editing can correct this. It is there, regardless.

                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      I can appreciate that the server might have provided more "instruction" than was required, resulting in the OP feeling uncomfortable. Considering the information provided though, the conclusions held by some on this post that the server was "attempting to intimidate" the OP, etc I find unfortunate. Those types of conclusions might be more indicative of our own experiences. 

                  2. re: zin1953

                    Could you please tell me (if you remember) the red wine that you ordered that you expected to be dry and wasn't when it arrived?


                  3. re: Chinon00

                    Well, I would classify hyper-fruity/hyper-alcohol red wines as "sweet".

                    1. re: Maximilien

                      They're not, though. That's one of the biggest misconceptions my students have when they begin my wine classes. You can have a very fruity, high-alcohol, bone dry wine.

                        1. re: invinotheresverde

                          I see; it isn't sweet, it just tastes that way. Sorry, but most folks don't drink chemical analyses, they drink beverages. Coffee with Aspartame is sweet, though it has no sugar.

                          1. re: Akitist

                            The difference is that aspartaime physically affects the same receptors as sucrose. This is the also the case with fruit. But it is NOT the case with a "fruity wine." Rather, it's a mental connection based upon the memory of eating fresh, ripe fruit -- which IS sweet -- versus wine, in which the sugar (from the fresh, ripe grape) has been fermented into alcohol.

                            The only way people can effectively communicate is with a common language. You and I can talk because a) we are both speaking/writing in English, and b) we can both agree that the "Post My Reply" button is red. (And so on.) If you and I wish to discuss a wine, it is important to know and understand certain basic facts -- that "Cabernet Sauvignon" is a grape and "Napa Valley" is a region, for example. This is no less true for the proper use of other terms, such as "sweet" and "dry," "tannin" and "corked," and so on . . . .

                            That the OP may or may not have know "the precise term" to use in talking with the restaurant's sommelier in no way lessens the rude and boorish behavior of said sommelier.

                            1. re: zin1953

                              I realize that there's a certain wine vocabulary. But when it comes into conflict with common usage there will be problems. Corked? No conflict. Tannin (tannic, if you want to use parallel construction), no conflict. Sweet? Conflict.

                              Napa valley? Seem there was a bit of ambiguity there vis-a-vis the Charles Shaw label not too long ago. And for varietals, how about some nice bargain French Pinot Noir?

                              1. re: Akitist

                                Q: Why should "sweet" be any different?

                                A: It isn't.

                                / / / /

                                What sort of ambiguity? Please, tell me. As far as I know, it was a completely UNambiguous label . . .

                            2. re: Akitist

                              Perhaps most folks "don't drink chemical analyses", but if they want to speak about wine correctly, they can't make up their own descriptions. Sweet and fruity are completely different. That's not to say a fruity wine can't be sweet; it just doesn't have to be. They aren't synonyms.

                              1. re: invinotheresverde

                                I can see your point, but it shouldn't be outside the realm of reason to expect a sommelier to realize that a customer might lack intimate knowledge of wine terminology, and to both work with the customer to provide a suitable wine and to further his wine education, and perhaps by extension his future enjoyment of wines.

                                Or have I got this whole "service" thing wrong?

                                1. re: Akitist

                                  That, sir, or madam, is the point. The server/sommelier should be open to the patron not being a wine writer. Terms can easily be confused, and it is incumbent on the server to inquire a bit more deeply, should ambiguities exist. I certainly would.

                                  Very recently an acquaintance expressed an interest in finer wines. He listed some that he and his wife had enjoyed. I dug a bit more deeply, asking some questions that he could digest and answer. We did not speak in "wine terms," but in general terms. I probed, and he responded, as well as he could. In the end, I gave him 6 wines, and handed him 1 each of three of those. When he reported back, 2 of the 3 were great hits, and the third was listed as not bad.

                                  I did offer a bit of background on each of the wines, and tried to distill why I had chose those, plus the other 3, that I did not have in my cellar at that moment. I did this in a sense of sharing, and he was actually "serving" me in another role, not related to food/wine. At no time did I wish to put him down, but only to share. Did he get all of my mumbo-jumbo, though I tried to tone it down? Probably not, but he got to try 2 excellent wines, per his descriptions, and one that was not too far out.

                                  That is how I think that a server/sommelier should approach things. It is about the recipient, and their tastes. Did I lecture him about first growth Bdx? No. I picked three OZ Shiraz-based wines (one was a blend) and all were within is price range, <US$25/btl.


                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                        Bill - very wise, as always. It's time we get you on the road to teach wine service to food servers around the world.

                                        Kind of a thankless job though. Maybe I just make you dinner in SF the next time you roll into say thanks for your years of service on the Chow boards.

                                        Maria and Jason, it would be my honor to have the two of you as well.

                                        1. re: kaysyrahsyrah

                                          You know, a CH gathering in SF would not be a bad idea. Though I've "known" several of the folk here for years, I have only met one.

                                          As we're in SF often (less often lately), if things could be worked out - I'm in. The AZ CH board group has some Chow-ins, as do other boards. Obviously, with the wine board, people are spread across the globe. Still, there could well be potential.

                                          Just let me know, and I'll do my best to attend. Worst-case, I'll cash in my Southwest Airlines free tickets and take the BART, or similar from San Jose, or Oakland.


                                          PS - thanks for the kind words.

                                      2. re: Akitist

                                        I agree that many customers may have difficulty articulating what they mean when it comes to wine. I also agree that if the somm. can help educate the customer postively, he should do so.

                                        However, I don't think the usage of improper terminology helps the customer, and may confuse him in the long run. There are polite ways to question your guest about what they're actually looking for (example: fruity v. sweet). What's wrong with that?

                                        1. re: invinotheresverde

                                          I do agree. However, I would question what the proper time for that education might be. If the person ordering the wines is the host, that might not be the right time. We I in the position of the sommelier, I would just ask more questions, until I had it down. If it was a single gentleman, or lady, I might extend the "teacher's blackboard," and offer to share some terminology. Otherwise, it would be only questions.


                                    1. re: Akitist

                                      Often, fruit forward wines are typified as "sweet." The RS levels can be off-the-board low, but the taster will often say, "sweet."

                                      As I commented in this thread, I'd doing a big Zinfandel now, and I think "sweet," though it's actually dry, and pretty high in alcohol (also perceived as "sweet" on some palates).

                                      True "sweet" is about the RS content.


                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                        I think your first sentence is missing an "incorrectly".

                                        Nice to see you back around, Bill.

                                        1. re: invinotheresverde

                                          Help me here. Where should that be applied? Now, I do see some edits, that I should make, but it had to be the Zinfandel - right? I'll be happy to add "incorrectly," but I am not seeing where - back to the Zin.

                                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                                            "...incorrectly typified..." works just fine. :)

                                            1. re: invinotheresverde

                                              I was speaking of the wine drinking public, typifying fruit-forward wines as "sweet," and not Andrea Robinson. Sorry if I did not clarify properly.


                                  1. re: Maximilien

                                    "Sweet" is NOT the same as "fruity." "Sweet" means there is residual sugar present in the wine, period. It doesn't mean that the wine is fruity, is "hyper-fruity," or is "redolent with ripe fruit," as one wine writer puts it; nor does it refer to anything having to do with the alcohol level in a wine.

                                    It is, indeed, the #1 misconception among my students as well, so you're certainly not alone. But not being the only one to make this mistake doesn't mean it still isn't a mistake. ;^)

                                    1. re: zin1953

                                      Agreed 100%. There are many big jammy red wines out there that are full of fruit flavors and are bone dry.

                                      The same can be said of white wines. You can have a Sauv Blanc full of green apple that is not the slightest bit sweet.

                                      1. re: jpc8015

                                        Perfect example.

                                        I frequently use big, powerful NZ sauvignon blanc as the perfect example of how a wine can have 14% ABV and tons of lychee, lime, melon, tropical fruit flavors and be bone dry.

                                    2. re: Maximilien

                                      Hello All, New Blogger here, AND I happen to be a WSET Diploma Student, and a Certified Sommelier. AND the best part is, I'm not a pompous A$$ like so many in my business..... :)

                                      Here's what the whole Sweet and Dry thing comes down to...

                                      These are the 2 most commonly misused words in Wine Vocabulary. Now there are 4 major building blocks of a wine. Called Components. Acidity, Tannin, Sweetness, and Alcohol. These are all things that Everyone feels the same way in their mouth. Acidity causes you to Salivate and feel the sides of your tongue tingle, Tannin tightens everything up in your mouth, alcohol you feel in the back of your throat, and sweetness you feel in the middle of your tongue.

                                      Now Dry/sweet... all these words refer to is the amount of RS(Residual Sugar) Left over in the wine, after fermentation and vinification(The act of turning grape juice into wine) is complete. German rieslings tend to be sweet.... have remaining sugar, Here in NY there are a lot of wines made from Concord (the Welches Grape) that are sweet. There Are also Sweet Reds. When you really get down to it, Yellow tail Shiraz has about 3% RS which is equivalent to Some Semi-dry Rieslings, so that could be considered sweet. In the Finger Lakes of NY there are many Sweet Reds. Someone else had mentioned Banyuls, which is a Bordeaux desert red wine.

                                      Many times people confuse Tannin for dryness... what it comes down to is the two are TOTALLY unrelated. Cabernet?? Dry.. Chardonnay?? Dry... Merlot?? Dry... Pinot Noir?? Dry... Sauvignon blanc?? Dry...

                                      Can be super confusing, but being able to properly use wine vocabulary makes you a better wine customer, because you can tell someone EXACTLY what you are looking for. :)



                                      1. re: SommleierJon

                                        SJ - welcome to the boards, love your enthusiasm...and thanks for trying to discern a few often confused facts about wine.

                                        That said, I highly recommend you don't bust out a first paragraph saying you aren't pompous, but claim you are a CS and WSET candidate at the same time. (Be sure to witness the humility of other seasoned players on the wine boards who are 20 years further down the road than you.)

                                        Also confusing is your spelling of sommilier in your handle.