A sommelier spends years learning about wine and making sure they can answer nearly any question that comes from a dining guest. What wine would you suggest with tonight’s special? How does the 2017 vintage compare to 2015? I like fruity, but not sweet – what would you recommend? The needs of each guest are specific to them; the options for a wine to pair with their meal could potentially be endless. So how does a restaurant or wine director curate a list to fit everyone’s needs? And how do they do this while adhering to their taste preferences or regional favorites?
We went to the SOMM TV cast, many of which face this dilemma daily, to ask…
When creating a wine list, how do you balance a sommelier’s palate versus a consumer palate?
At some point, no matter how much you want all of the Riesling, all of the time, you have to take your ego out of it and remember whose experience matters the most; the guest. There is a balance to be had, though. When I was fleshing out the list for Sushi Note, I purposely bought very few overly-extracted, monolithic reds. Is this a popular style of wine? Yes, very, and that is why I still have a few options available on the list. But we should be servicing the cuisine. That is why most of the red bottles on our list lean towards a lighter style with softer tannins and higher acidity. Sommeliers don’t always have the same preferences as some of the people that dine at the restaurant. You have to let that go and do right by your guest at the end of the day. —Claire Coppi
I’ve only written one wine list, and that was 24 years ago for the Ramada Inn in Warsaw, Indiana. But as I look back on that list, I kind of nailed it. Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc. Frog’s Leap Merlot. Stag’s Leap Cabernet. And these were the selections for the somm palate! For the regulars, it was a lot of gulpable German Riesling and any-brand Chardonnay by the 1.5L (to make for easy work of those to-the-brim glasses). We sold buckets of Zeller Schwarze Katz but never even saw a bottle of the others. I guess Adam Smith’s invisible hand did its thing. —Jonah Beer
I look at creating a wine list for a restaurant or wine bar as a palette of colors that a painter has at their disposal. About 80% to 90% of the colors are primary and accepted as easy on the eyes. The other 10% to 20% go against the grain, used sparingly but for the desired effect. Let’s be real; restaurants and wine bars are businesses, so you need to have wines that people want to buy. But within the “against the grain” category, you have a lot of room to play for a guest that is open to new experiences or a little more knowledgeable than the average bear. Always remember to paint a picture with the experience. The layers add to the beauty. —Matthew Kaner
There are a couple of things to consider when creating a wine list — the style of venue, neighborhood, clientele, pricepoint/check average and the available options in the market, to name a few. It can be tempting to populate a list of all your favorite beverages as a sommelier. Still, unless you will work every shift and touch every table, it’s important to have familiar producers or wines on the list for less savvy consumers. Also, not everyone wants to talk to a sommelier. People need to have some comfort level, or they’ll either close their eyes and point (or order a cocktail). Unless you’re the sole owner/proprietor and making sales and growing profits is of no concern, and you’re not worried about getting bottles on tables, you have to have a hospitality mindset, make your guest comfortable and present options. —Jill Zimorski