Picture this: you’re at a restaurant. You spot the truffle gnocchi on the menu, and almost instantly, your mind is flashing with images of decadent little balls of dough swimming in a creamy, cheesy truffle sauce. The mere thought is enough for you to order it, but now you’re faced with a new dilemma. What are you going to drink with it?
Depending on where you’re dining, navigating the wine list and finding the perfect bottle of wine to complement your meal doesn’t have to be an obstacle tackled alone. Many restaurants across the country employ sommeliers to assist guests in these types of situations.
But what, exactly, is a sommelier?
The role of sommeliers in restaurants
“A sommelier is just a wine steward, and a steward is someone who walks you through a certain experience,” says John Burch, a sommelier at the New York City restaurant, One White Street.
Sommeliers use their wine knowledge and expertise to help elevate guests’ dining experiences. And that includes finding the right bottle of wine to pair with the specific flavors of something like truffle gnocchi, or anything else a diner may be ordering.
“Being a sommelier is essentially being able to set a standard of hospitality. Knowing the menu front and back, having a deep understanding of the wines and how the wines will enhance a customer’s experience, and being able to articulate that for their order that evening,” Burch continues.
Gaining that understanding of wine takes quite a bit of work. Some sommeliers choose to learn in a professional setting, apprenticing for experienced wine professionals, while others undergo rigorous certification programs at institutions like the Court of Master Sommeliers, the North American Sommelier Association, or the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.
There are multiple levels of accreditation. The CMS’s Advanced Sommelier certification requires passing exams comprised of three parts: theory, practical tasting, and practical service. And some people choose to pursue the Master Sommelier certification, which can take years to complete; there are only 172 Master Sommeliers in the U.S., and only 269 worldwide, according to CMS.
While dining at a restaurant, the decision to speak with a sommelier is entirely up to the guest. However, there are benefits to asking questions and hearing out a sommelier’s suggestions, regardless of how familiar a diner is with wine.
The right wine for your budget
It’s not uncommon to spot high-end bottles with prices well over $100 on a restaurant wine list, especially at fine dining establishments. But, contrary to popular belief, the role of the sommelier isn’t to persuade a guest to buy the most expensive bottle.
“Some people think that while you’re talking to them, you’re reaching in their back pocket, taking money and up-charging and all that — there is that perception. And I know some people probably try to do that, but I think that that era has passed. Most of us want to give a customer a wine that they see value in without having to pay more than they want,” says Jeff Harding, a longtime sommelier and the wine director at New York restaurant The Waverly Inn and Garden.
A good sommelier will help with wine discovery, recommending wines within a customer’s price range and then explaining anything the guest wants to know, from how a wine is made to something about the region it comes from to a producer’s winemaking history and philosophy. Their insight can come in handy for even the most knowledgeable wine enthusiasts.
Sommeliers are constantly immersed in wine education. They not only taste wines day in and day out, but they are immersed in ongoing study, professional development, and travel.
Though sommeliers can offer a wealth of wine knowledge, the rule of thumb is to follow the guest’s lead.
Some people just want to enjoy their dinner without thinking about the wine, and a sommelier should be aware of that, Harding notes. If a customer loves Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and wants the best version of that no matter the price, a sommelier should be equipped to deliver, regardless of what other options may be on a wine list or how it may pair with that customer’s food.
“Our job right now is to make people comfortable. And I think service needs to follow that because people want to feel comfortable in a world that’s less and less comfortable,” says Harding.
“Some people think that while you’re talking to them, you’re reaching in their back pocket, taking money and up-charging and all that — there is that perception. And I know some people probably try to do that, but I think that that era has passed. Most of us want to give a customer a wine that they see value in without having to pay more than they want.”
More than just table service
“People sometimes forget that this work not only requires being on the floor and picking the best wine for the guests and getting them what they want, but it’s also about what else you can bring to the table,” says Katja Scharnagl, a sommelier at Le Bernardin.
There’s a lot of side work that goes into being a sommelier, from managing inventory in the cellars to actually sourcing and purchasing the wine featured on the wine list. When working the restaurant floor, sommeliers also need to be willing to get their hands dirty and help out the rest of the front-of-house staff. That may include running dishes to tables when service is busy and hectic, and cleaning tables too.
“People ask me what I do, and I say I’m the best-dressed busser. I am the person that can clear and reset your table all while being able to talk to you about the bottles of wine on our list,” says Burch.
So next time you’re at a restaurant and a sommelier approaches your table, take a moment to ask questions and hear what they have to say. You may find that their knowledge and recommendations may enhance your dining experience more than you could have imagined.