As a follow-up to yesterday’s topic on trusting the sommelier, here’s a list of tips for navigating your way through the evening’s wine service:
Do take a look at the wine list in advance, if available. This will help you get a feel for the restaurant’s focus and can prepare you for navigating what might be an extensive offering. You might even find yourself drawn to certain menu items based on wines that caught your eye in advance.
Don’t feel rushed when the sommelier approaches. He or she will ask if you would like any help with the wine list. I usually turn down the first offer, especially if I was not able to view the list in advance. Just a simple, “Yes, I would like some help, but give me a couple of minutes with the list” is fine. I like to feel out the list and get a sense of where the sommelier is taking me. You don’t usually order your meal from the waiter on the first table visit, so don’t feel like you have to order the wine immediately.
Do trust that the sommelier knows the wine list better than you do. Placing the enjoyment of your meal in the hands of a stranger can be tough for some; be prepared to offer a description of what you like, even if it’s simple: “I really like Australian Shiraz,” or “I prefer white wine that is not too oak-y” will help the sommelier zero in on something you should enjoy.
As a corollary to describing what you like, understand that there is a difference between a fruity wine and a sweet wine. A wine can have all kinds of wonderful fruit smells and flavors – blackberry, plum, currant, fig, boysenberry – and have very little residual sugar, making it a dry wine. A good sommelier can translate the guest’s description, but you’ll be doing a favor if you bring just a little knowledge to the table.
Don’t feel like you need to buy an expensive bottle just because you’re using the sommelier’s services. Inexpensive bottles made the list too. If you are embarrassed to order an inexpensive bottle, shouldn’t the sommelier be embarrassed to offer that wine on the list?
Do understand that the first sip poured into your glass is offered to ensure that the wine is not flawed. I can tell if the wine is flawed with a quick swirl and a sniff. Does it smell like your dog just came out of a lake? No? Then it’s not flawed and is therefore good to pour for the table. The sommelier is busy – let’s not subject him to a flourishing display of swirling, sniffing, sipping, and slurping.
Do ask the sommelier for a suggestion on dessert wine. There are wonderful pairings to be had when creative dessert dishes blend with quality dessert wine. Tawny Port has seen incredible growth in the U.S. and several reasonably-priced offerings have made their way onto restaurant menus. Your sommelier is happy to walk you through that list as well.
Finally, remember that the sommelier is a member of the restaurant’s service team and is employed to make sure your dining experience exceeds expectations. You’re paying the bill, so you might as well enjoy the service.