If there’s one person who would be voted Most Likely to Intimidate at a restaurant, it’s the sommelier. Wine lists can be confusing, even daunting territory for diners, plus alcohol invariably represents a good percentage of a restaurant check. You will recognize most of the bottles on a cocktail list; wines are another story, and it’s well-documented that selections are invariably marked up at least 200%.
Robert Bohr of Delicious Hospitality Group is here to help you out. The partner and sommelier at New York’s destination restaurants Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones is opening the anticipated Legacy Records in early February in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. Bohr has consulted on the wine cellars of some of the biggest names on Wall Street and in the music industry, through his company King Street Sommeliers. (Non-disclosure pacts prevent him from naming them.) Bohr has strong ideas about the best way to interact with wine experts at restaurants, and he wants you to be aware of them, too.
Here’s what you are probably doing wrong with your wine order.
1. You’re Not Making Decisions
Please don’t ask: “What do you suggest?” My wine list is my suggestion. I have 110 suggestions at Charlie Bird, out of tens of thousands of wines. But if you really do want suggestions, I am here to help. However, if I say, “You probably want white to start,” that is a strong hint. If this devolves into a long back-and-forth about a blogger who swears Napa cabernet with oysters is a great pairing, we are going to have a long night.
2. You Are Overspending
There is nothing wrong with being on a budget. The best way to get a good wine deal from me is to challenge me. Say, “I have $100, what’s the best wine me and my girlfriend can drink tonight?” Now I want to impress you; I want to show off. Now I might dig something out of my cellar to give you the wine of your life at that price.
3. You’re Not Providing Key Information
Different situations require different wines. Let’s say you’ve been to a place 10 times for business, but this time it’s your anniversary, and you want to go big. Articulate what you’re looking for from the sommelier at the outset. If you’re celebrating closing a deal, let me know. “I like these 3 things in a wine …” is a good place to start. For instance, if you say, “We only really drink red and we’re having four courses and I’m not on a budget,” you just gave me a lot of information.
If you’re going to a place to break up, you don’t want to be interrupted seven times. Let me know—discreetly. For instance, you can say, “We can pour our own wine,” which is code for “Don’t interrupt us.” And don’t be afraid to tell your server about your preferences on temperature, either. Personally, I like my red wines cool, and my white wines cool, and my Champagne cold.
4. You’re Letting Your Sommelier Refill a Non-Empty Glass
I like for my glass to be empty before someone refills it. I suggest you follow my lead on this. Otherwise you’re having a blended experience—a wine that’s been sitting in your glass has opened up, and then an overly aggressive server is mixing it with a wine that’s been sitting in the bottle, perhaps one that’s icy cold. It’s analogous to pouring fresh espresso on top of a cortado that’s been sitting around.
5. Sometimes—Let’s Be Honest—You’re Showing Off
The flip side of rule No. 3 is to give your sommelier too much information. Don’t expound on all the great wines you’ve had in the last six months. Showboating is obnoxious in anything, and it’s extra-obnoxious in wine, especially if your guests don’t care. Also, be honest. Don’t pick a wine because you want to impress someone, least of all the sommelier. Don’t say you want a Brunello di Montalcino when you really want an Oregon pinot. It would be like ordering a Black Label burger if you’re a vegan eating your first non-vegetarian meal; you probably can’t handle it, and you almost definitely won’t like it.
6. You Are Still Drinking Champagnes Out of Flutes? Oh, Man
Another wine cliché that needs to go is the Champagne flute. Sparkling wines, particularly good Champagnes, are more expansive in a white wine glass than in a narrow flute that is mostly used to accentuate the little bubbles. I haven’t served Champagne in a flute in forever. Historically, sparklers were a mash of unripe grapes and sugar to create carbonated wine. Now Champagne is being made like wine, and it’s a compelling experience—best experienced from white wine glasses with a wide diameter, so you can catch the nose. (By the way, the current trend of serving Champagne in a red wine glass is stupid. It’s like the adage, “If it’s good at 10, it’s better at 100.” It’s not.)
7. You’re Letting Bad Sommeliers Run Roughshod All Over You
If a sommelier is dropping too much jargon on you—talking about malolactic fermentation and chaptalization in response to a separate question—call him or her out. Just say, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” It’s showboating from the other side of the table, and its obnoxious. (Note to sommeliers: Speak English. Otherwise, listening to you is like talking to high school students who are studying for the SATs.)
8. You’re Not Following Proper BYOB Etiquette
Corkage is a privilege, not a right. If you have a wine that you want to drink, and you follow rules of common courtesy, it will work for everyone. The correct procedure is to find out what the corkage policy is ahead of time. It’s even more helpful to contact the sommelier so he or she can help you best serve it. For instance, you might say, “I have my wife’s favorite wine for her birthday, can you serve it with the prime rib?” Walking into a restaurant, especially a nice one that values their wine program, and just handing off a bottle to the sommelier is almost always a car crash unless they know you. It’s forcing an audible when the restaurant had a game plan. Also, remember restaurants are a business. We are not trying to rip you off—at least, no one I know is—but we do need to make money. If you bring a bottle, buy a bottle. That’s a fair exchange.