How To Ask A Sommelier For Help Navigating A Restaurant Wine List
I almost always ask the sommelier questions when ordering wine at a restaurant, even if I think I already know the wine we plan to order. There are a few reasons for this, and here are some general points of etiquette to help out.
First off, not every bottle, or special deal, or wine by the glass is listed on the menu. I’ve had several experiences where the sommelier mentioned they had a few bottles of aged Bordeaux available by the glass that were not on the menu. Or special deals on Magnums that are not mentioned. Sometimes different vintages of wines are available. At a restaurant last year, a sommelier informed me that a case of small production Howell Mountain Cabernet had arrived that day and was available. But none of this was mentioned on the wine list. You simply don’t know if you don’t ask, so always have the sommelier pay a visit to your table.
Another reason is because they may be able to match wines that you have enjoyed in the past to similar wines on their list. Begin by giving the sommelier a baseline of where to start. Say something like, “I’ve enjoyed this Freemark Abbey Merlot in the past.” Or “I’m starting to enjoy Red Burgundies.” Or “I enjoy 2013 Napa Cabernets.” From there, the sommelier can begin to point out some wines you may enjoy.
Any seasoned sommelier should ask for a price range for the bottle he or she is going to select for you. This is not an offensive or assuming question; it’s quite the opposite. If the somm doesn’t ask, feel free to help pin point wines in your comfort zone by pointing out a bottle on the list, and casually mentioning that you’d like “something in that range.” Now the sommelier has an idea of what you’d like to spend as well as a style to help guide you.
Don’t forget to look at the menu too and have a plan for what you are going to order to consume with the wine. You don’t want to ask about sweet Rieslings and then order a ribeye, unless of course, that’s your thing, and that’s fine too. I frequently will order white and red wine at the same time at the beginning of the meal. Whites to go with salad or starters, and red to go with the main dish assuming it’s a match. But I like to have them both there at the same time. This way you can experiment with two styles of wine throughout the course of the meal.
Another reason to hit up the Somm is that when you order wine through them your odds increase on a number of important fronts (and I don’t mean to knock servers here, but rather promote Somms). First, they will likely pull the right bottle from the cellar. They often will inspect the bottle for you, helping look for signs the wine may have spoiled. They often will be the one opening and presenting the wine. And if you decide to send the wine back, they are an excellent person to speak to. And feel free, if you order something special, or an unusually aged wine, that you offer the sommelier a taste.
It is also important to note that sommelier’s do not have as much of a vested interest in your total check amount as your server does since the sommelier likely is paid a salary and does not receive any tips from the floor. Simply put, your waiter is more likely to push higher-priced bottles of wine on you than the sommelier. Most sommeliers, the good ones at least, get excited about special wines and limited wines, and tend to push these on guests because they want others to share in their excitement.
More than anything remember that the sommelier is there for one reason: to help you have a great experience at the restaurant. So use them, take advantage of their expertise and deep knowledge of the wine list so that you do indeed have a better wine and dining experience.
– Andrew, Editor; Erin, Contributor
[Photo above was taken from inside the wine cellar at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, FL, which houses one of the largest wine collections in the world. The wine list is unbelievable as you can imagine, and it provides opportunities to score older vintages of many wines at surprisingly fair prices. Definitely worth a stop if you’re ever in Tampa. Be sure to ask for a tour of the kitchen and cellar.]
Let us know of any stories you’ve had with Sommeliers, or tips for ordering great wine at restaurants, in the comments below.