6 Things I Expect from my “Sommelier”

By Earl Dexter

Check out the explosion in restaurants offering customers access to their “sommelier”. He/she is described as an “in-house wine-expert, especially trained to ensure your wine choice matches that of one’s culinary whims, ensuring an all-encompassing dining experience that you – our valued customer – deserves.”

Organisations such as the Sommeliers Association of South Africa and true pro’s in the trade like Miguel Chan, Jean Vincent Ridon and Higgo Jacobs have most definitely helped to improve local wine service at some restaurants. Unfortunately the bulk of South African eateries claiming to employ a sommelier end-up sending you nothing more than an average waiter who has versed him- or herself in the difference between a Waiter’s Friend and a Tea Break, and is adamant that Nederburg Baronne is a red grape cultivar made at the Masterchef studios.

If you claim to be the sommelier your owner describes you as, I expect the following:

  • Ask who at the table would like to see the wine-list instead of just plonking it down before the person – usually the oldest whitest male – who you deem to be well-heeled, sophisticated and smart enough to select the wine for the meal. Women, especially of the liberated and wine-educated kind, deem this a huge affront. Their subsequent rejection-issues can turn the rest of the evening into an ill-tasting, dismissive nightmare – for the other guests, as well as the so-called “sommelier” whose consideration of human rights and gender issues could be called into question.
  • Upon receiving a request from the table for a certain bottle of wine, “sommelier”, please do not present the customer with the wine-list and ask him or her to physically point out the name of the wine in question on the hopefully clinically clean page of the wine-list. This mostly happens when the “sommelier” does not seem to know that the wine requested is actually on the list or – more than likely – the service provider is not able to deploy the linguistic complexities of a reasonably lucidly pronounced “Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2017”.
  • Please do not overfill the wine-glass. You may think that by doing so your guests will be polishing-off that 300% marked-up bottle of Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017 quicker than normal, leading to further orders. However, overfilled-glasses appear uncouth, implying a greedy customer and a 2/3rds filled glass is going to wreck havoc on your boss’s fine cotton table-cloth once I begin swirling the wine. The latter action, by the way, is undertaken to unleash the wine’s complex aromas as well as to give the wine some air. It is not, as I have been told by a sommelier, to wet the glass from the inside.
  • However important your “sommelier” badge makes you think you are, I the customer am always right. Yes, I actually do want a De Wetshof Bateleur Chardonnay 2018 with my dish of sous vide lamb fillet with sage, rosemary and buttered truffles. Red meat may be consumed with white, pink or purple wine if that happens to be the way I like it. Condescendingly urging me to change my decision to a red variety on account of the detailed and taxing wine course you did with the Two Oceans Wines brand manager is irritatingly invasive as well as being incorrect.
  • If a wine is faulty, it is faulty. Sure, the customer has no right to complain and reject a wine on the grounds of it being over-wooded, green-picked or excessively tannic. But if there is TCA, VA or oxidation, accept my word and bring another bottle. It really is no use trying to tell me that “this is the winemaker’s particular style” or stating “but it is an alternatively made wine””. I am not buying – even if the wine is one of those weirdly named things crafted naturally outside small towns occupied by one horse.  Just send the bottle back to the wine-maker who will replace without question.
  • Most importantly, use your tool correctly. When opening the bottle at the table – as you should – cut the closure cap neatly instead of slashing the foil and ripping the whole thing off before attacking the thing with your cork-screw.

And please guys and girls, do not grip the bottle between your legs when struggling to remove the cork. This is an unappetising beginning to the evening. If the wine steward is holding the wine bottle in his or her crotch out in the open, what the hell is going on in the kitchen?

Enjoyed this article?

Subscribe and never miss a post again.


5 thoughts on “6 Things I Expect from my “Sommelier”

  1. Highly entertaining, thank you. The other gripe I have, apart from ripping the capsule off completely is when they don’t cut the capsule below the neck ring. And a piece of metal still hangs there and wine drips from that cut piece that was made in some dirty factory, into your glass. Worst is when the “sommelier” sticks the waiter friend thru the top of the capsule!

    But it’s early days and there are charming young people all getting into it and the service is a lot better than 10 years ago .
    A popular belief in the trade a few years ago was that restaurant owners did not want to train their waiters into wine knowledgeable employees because then they will just get stolen by their opposition down the road . And he will have to start again?

  2. I agree with a lot of this but I have to say there are exceptions in my personal experience. Some guests have sent back numbers of bottles saying they were corked or oxidized, where with a trained nose and palate I believe it is better to not just agree with the client but tell them that the wine is to your professional opinion not spoilt, (what confidence would you have in a sommelier if he simply agreed with you without testing the wine) but you could offer something different. Also lots of clients would order a Green Sauvignon Blanc with their steak and monkeygland sauce and complain afterwards that you didn’t suggest something else. There are standards definitely, and I shudder to think of a waiter or sommelier opening a bottle between their legs but sometimes the clients thinks their right, it is about how you handle it and having the knowledge to make that call. I’ve had enough experience to call a client’s bullshit. It’s not an easy task working at a high end restaurant having done Wine courses and judging academies and service courses with someone disrespecting your experience by popping on to Vivino and seeing which wine has the highest score after you gave them the perfect pairing according to what they told you their likes were or telling you that the tartaric crystal in the wine is shards of glass and screaming at you. There needs to be respect and communication between both parties. The customer may always be right in sense of service but the sommelier isn’t always wrong regarding knowledge.

  3. Indeed very entertaining, as always Emile. The tea break, friendly as it is, does differ vastly from the Waiter’s friend ;);)
    And thanks for the tip of the hat. There is no doubt lots of work to be done. Big plans from plenty of role-players in the future, but as you know budget for training is not a priority, especially in this time of serious hits for the industry.

  4. You spoke 70% of my thoughts and experiences i had into this proffession. Being a sommelier is mire than a wine waiter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *