Sommeliers stress me out. Sure, navigating a multi-page wine list on your own is intimidating, but does someone looming over your shoulder helping you decide make it better? Do sommeliers improve a diner’s experience?
Becoming a master sommelier has gained notoriety as being nearly impossible, and therefore, extremely prestigious. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Somm, you know that studying for the exam takes total dedication and that the exam consists of three parts: theory, tasting and service (recently the exam was rocked by a cheating scandal; this year’s tasting portion results were invalidated for the 23 who passed). You also probably remember the scene where the applicants are studying for the tasting portion: smelling wines and using words like, “garden hose” and “granny purse” to describe them. WHAT?! First of all, who would want to drink something that smells like a granny purse? And secondly, would any average person key in on a note like that? Regardless, the film succeeds in making the entire journey so curiously compelling that you can’t look away It also succeeds in making wine seem pretentious and complicated.
Obviously, most restaurants aren’t employing a master sommelier (only 249 people have passed the exam in its 49 year existence), however, many restaurants with a wine program have a sommelier on staff. But does a sommelier make wine unnecessarily intimidating? At very high-end restaurants, customers usually want a full-service experience, so a sommelier may make sense. For a less elegant restaurant, though, you may be best served by keeping your wine service simple. Training your staff to make informed wine recommendations could make customers feel more at ease. In most cases, your beverage manager is knowledgeable enough to plan a well thought-out list and to teach the servers what they need to know. A sommelier may be useful as a consultant or an educator, but save yourself the overhead of having one on staff full-time.
As a server, I had mixed feelings about the sommeliers. On one hand, I liked having someone on the floor to recommend wines to the serious consumers. However, most customers already knew what they liked in a wine and were comfortable enough choosing from the list unassisted. Furthermore, I would always give customers the opportunity to taste wines by the glass before ordering, which made their decision very straight forward.
An industry insider once told me, “You don’t need an art history degree to appreciate art. You either like it or you don’t.” What a refreshing analogy! Wine doesn’t have to be uptight. Relaxing your wine service by eliminating the sommelier in favor of investing a bit more into training your waitstaff on the wine list, focusing on what pairs well with specific menu dishes, could make your restaurant feel more welcoming.