Secrets of the Wine Guy
What I Do
I have what many people consider to be a dream job.
I am a wine steward at a small high-end restaurant. By small, I mean that the restaurant has about 150 seats. It's not a tiny place, but then, it's only big enough to be divided into eight sections, not counting the bar or the seating in the garden.
By high-end, I mean that it's a nice restaurant--what one might call a 'white tablecloth' or 'fine dining' establishment. What that really means is that it's expensive. Definitions of the term 'expensive' will vary by consumer and city, of course, but the average ticket price--not including tax or gratuity--is about $75. That's not too shabby, even in a large metropolitan area, and in our city, that makes it one of the most expensive places in town.
I should add that the restaurant is pretty well known--if not actually 'famous'. That's not just in our city, but across the state, the U.S. and even, to some extent, abroad. It's been around for over thirty years, which makes it almost an institution anywhere, but especially in our country. The key reason for this is the fact that owner/chef is something of a celebrity. Slowly and with a great deal of personal attention to detail, he has built it into the icon it is today.
This makes it one of the top 'destination' restaurants in the city and perhaps even in the state. Many loyal customers come in once a month or so, and many have been coming for decades. We've seen generations of diners from the same family. We've seen plenty of proposals, marriages, graduations, anniversaries, and yes, birthdays--too many to count.
All those people have been coming back--joined by many new ones every day--for one primary reason: the food.
The chefs create and serve some wonderfully delicious food every night. We say that we are a wild game restaurant, but in truth, the game is not wild (farm raised, thank you USDA) and the menu consists of a lot of things, including beef and seafood. We don't serve chicken, hamburgers or fries--even to the kids--but we do have vegetarian and gluten-free options alongside the elk, pheasant and rattlesnake.
Yes, rattlesnake. It's on the menu, and very flavorful--it doesn't taste like chicken--because it's mixed with seasoned breadcrumbs, cheese and spices and served with a mango relish. Honestly, it's more of a novelty dish. For something really flavorful and interesting, you should try the elk backstrap (tenderloin) with a chocolate-chili-espresso rub, lightly smoked and brought up to temperature on the pecan wood grill, sliced thin and laid out on the plate with a creamy beurre blanc and crab meat garnish. It's not your ordinary beef steak, but it is very good.
We also have a good wine list, with over 120 wines. Although I inherited the basic list, by and large the list we have today is my creation over the past seven years. I've had some help, of course, from friends, sales reps and, of course, customers. It's a broad list, and fairly eclectic, including both big names and even some famous wines alongside many smaller, lesser-known labels. I try to have something for everyone, and something for every taste.
Someone asked me recently how I manage to pair wines with exotic food, like rattlesnake and elk. The truth is, I don't play the food-wine pairing game.
I know, this is betrayal of my profession. What I am admitting to here is indeed heresy, but this confession may be just the beginning of my admission of apostasy. Many people think that being a wine steward--or as most people try to say, 'sommelier'--is more than just a profession. It's a passion, right? Not necessarily.
Most people think that the guy who brings them their wine--especially if he's a bit older, like me--is a sommelier. They think he's not only knowledgeable about wine in general, but they expect that it's a burning passion that has brought him to their table, eager to talk about all things wine. Wine is supposed to be something that we wine guys live and breathe and just lovetalking about.
In my case, this is not the case, at all.
Say what? No knowledge? No passion? True that. Here's the deal: I know a fair bit about wine, but I am not an expert, by any means. I like wine, and have a good palette, but I do not drink wine every day. In fact--and this is the dirty secret that most people will not realize, nor understand, I am sure--I don't actually drink wine.
Is that fair? Is that even possible? A sommelier that doesn't drink wine?
Well, the truth is even uglier. I am not even a sommelier. I call myself a wine guy, or if pressed for a title, I say I am a steward. "Sommelier is a title that I haven't earned," I tell folks.
So what is a sommelier? How is that different than a wine steward? And how many restaurants these days even have a wine steward, let alone a certified sommelier? Does it matter? Let's look at some facts to put what I do in some context.
How many restaurants are there in the US?
According to the US census, there were 566,020 food service and drinking places in 2007. Of that total, 424,101 are specifically classified as a restaurant. The total sales from those classified in the food service and drinking places category was $433.4 billion.
How many restaurants are ‘fine dining’ establishments?
Also according to the 2007 Census, roughly half, or 217,282 of those restaurants were considered to be "Full-service restaurants".
How many restaurants have wine lists?
According to Wine Spectator Magazine/Website, their annual Restaurant Wine List Awards recognize 2,841 wine lists that offer at least 100 "well-chosen selections" as well as "a thematic match to the menu in both price and style."
Another 876 lists typically offer 400 or more selections, along with "superior presentation, and display either vintage depth, with several vertical offerings of top wines, or excellent breadth across several wine regions."
And finally, another 74 lists offer 1,500 selections or more, with a "serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, a selection of large-format bottles, excellent harmony with the menu and superior organization, presentation and wine service."
That's a total of just under 3,800 restaurants with wine lists of 100 selections or more.
How many certified sommeliers are there in the US?
According to "The Court of Master Sommeliers" website,
"Achieving the distinction of Master Sommelier takes years of preparation and an unwavering commitment. The Court’s intensive educational program guides aspiring Masters through four increasingly rigorous levels of coursework and examination, culminating in the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination, which only 197 individuals worldwide have completed successfully."
Who grants certification?
The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was established in 1969 to "encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants."
According to the CMS website, the "first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969." By 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers claimed to be "established as the premier international examining body." Just how this was determined is not made clear.
Again, according to the CMS web, "[In 2012] There are now 129 professionals who have earned the title Master Sommelier in North America. Of those, 111 are men and 18 are women. There are 197 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam."
What others do
I think it should be obvious from the above statistics that there are very few restaurants that even have a wine list, let alone employing a certified sommelier to build theirs lists and serve the wine. Less than 2% of supposed 'fine dining' restaurants (217K) even have lists of 100 or more wines (3.8K), and of those, only 5% have an officially licensed sommelier. By the way, that's less than one-thousandth of 1% (.0009) of all fine dining restaurants that actually have a sommelier.
That means there is a whole of of pretense going on. Wine stewards are clearly posing as sommeliers, or worse, waiters who get a bit of training and read Wine Spectator are allowed introduce themselves as the "som". But pretense is the name of the game when it comes to wine.
More than golf or polo even, wine geekery is almost the exclusive domain of rich white guys. In a word, snobs. People who think that there is some sort of objective standard to tasting wine and food and that certain wines pair well with certain flavors--or worse, the converse, that there are some wines that will never go with some flavors--are just plain snobs.
There are a lot of snobs in the world--food, fashion and sports all come to mind immediately--but in my mind, the wine snobs are the worst. I don't want to start a whole riff on how ridiculous these guys sound when they swirl around glass after glass, claiming to taste any and everything--leather, lace, lead, tobacco, rotting leaves--with their supposedly sophisticated palettes. This is too easy, and it has been done to death anyway.
All this has gotten me to thinking about what it is that I actually do and don't do when it comes to the practical, day-in-day-out business of selling and serving wine in a restaurant.
What I don't do
- Say that I'm a 'som'.
- Pair wine and food.
- Read about wine.
- Go to wine tastings, trade dinners or on wine trips.
- Belong to a tasting group.
What I do
When I approach a table to talk with someone about a wine selection on a busy Saturday night, I really don't have time to talk about wine very much. Patrons may want to talk about the history of wine, or tell me about their last trip to Napa, but the truth is, I am not there to share their passion for the grape. I'm on a mission. When I am at a table, I have a clear objective and a very narrow time frame to achieve it in.
My objective is to help a patron select a wine that they feel comfortable purchasing. There are two main elements to determine in order to achieve this objective: Style and Price. It's my goal, therefore, in this talk with the customer to settle on a wine that meets both criteria.
I have such a narrow time frame--after they are seated but before the food is ordered--because the patrons really don't want to talk with me, or at least they shouldn't. They are there with friends or family, and they should go back to that as quickly as possible. The talk, therefore, must achieve the objective in as short a period of time as I can manage. If I spend two minutes helping them make a decision, I've stayed way too long.
It's not because there are other tables vying for my attention--though there frequently are--but because two minutes--120 seconds--is a very long time to be talking about wine. At the very least, it's a long time to spend trying to decide the answers to the basic questions of style and price. Usually, I can close the deal in under a minute--often no more than thirty seconds if the patron simply takes my first recommendation.
Without being immodest, I can say that I am very good at this. I rarely have a wine sent back, and I've never had a seriously dissatisfied customer. I may not have exactly what they wanted, but we always find something they will like. This is because my job is to pair wine with people.
Wine pairing - People not Food
That is, people will often tell me what their menu choices are--often the whole table will join in--with the expectation that I have just the perfect wine to go with those combinations of flavors. But the fact of the matter is, if it's not a style of wine that people like to begin with, there is little chance that they'll like it just because I said it would go well with their menu choices.
In fact, all of the 120 plus wines on our wine menu all go well with our food, and I tell every table that. Sometimes people will pick up on that and ask if I say that about every wine, and then I am very honest and I say yes indeed, but that's because we don't have any bad wines on the list.
It's all a matter of preference, I tell them. And it is.
So, after all that, if you are still looking for the secrets of the wine guy, here they are:
Secrets of the Wine Guy
- I know nothing about wine. Really.
- I have not tasted most wines.
- I haven't tasted many wines.
- I have not tasted all the wines on my list.
- I drink beer.
What I think
- More expensive wine is better--generally speaking
- Famous wine is almost always overpriced
- Even expensive wines are incredibly cheap for what they are and how hard they are to make well.
- Wine always goes with food. Expect champagne, which goes well with everything and nothing at all.
- French wine is the best.
- Most people over-think and over-talk wine.
- Most people are intimidated by wine buying.
- Wine ratings--especially point systems--are useless.
- Wine magazines are just glossy advertisements.
- Wine experts are just shills for the industry.
- Winemakers--except the celebrities--are underpaid.
- There is too much wine being made today.
Postscript: How I serve a bottle of wine
--Announce myself at the table, interrupting if necessary.
"Hello. I'm here with a bottle of wine."
--Make eye contact.
"I have a bottle of _____"
--Find the person who ordered the wine.
--Show them the label.
"Is that correct?"
--Wait for acknowledgment.
--Make eye contact.
"This is a very nice wine."
--Cut the foil off the top.
"I like it a lot."
--Remove the cork.
"I think it goes very well with our food."
--Pour a splash into the taster's glass.
--If there are just two diners, pour a splash for the other person.
"Tell me what you think."
--Remove the cork from the screw while they taste.
--Make eye contact.
--Place the cork on the table near the taster.
--Smile when the taster assents.
"Isn't that nice?"
--Make eye contact.
--Nod with assent.
--Pour wine in guests glasses.
"And that's just opened, too."
--Return to the taster and fill their glass.
"That will get better as you swirl it around a bit in these big glasses."
--Make eye contact.
--Set the bottle down.
"And I know it will go well with your meal."
--Make eye contact.
--Smile and nod with assent.
"So I hope you enjoy that--and the rest of your meal!"
--Make eye contact.
--Step away, slowly.
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