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In the restaurant business, the customer is always right. But what does that mean when customers have misconceptions about certain wines or are simply uninformed about the best food-wine pairings? Part of your job as a sommelier is to make the customer happy, of course, but you also can play a very important role in getting customers out of their comfort zone to try something new.
One of the most common questions sommeliers are now receiving has to do with organic wines. “Is this wine organic?” they might ask, pointing to a California Chardonnay on your wine menu. Given the prevalence of the organic food movement and the rise of farm-to-table dining establishments around the nation, this is a natural question to ask.
The only problem, say, experienced sommeliers, is that the answer to that question is not nearly as simple as it might sound. For one, “organic” wines are certified differently, on a country-by-country basis. Thus, what might pass for an organic wine in the United States might not necessarily pass as organic in some European countries (and vice versa).
Moreover, there are different levels of “organic.” A winemaker can be “practising organic,” which means that they follow all established organic winemaking principles, but just have not received organic certification yet. And there’s “certified organic,” which goes one step further and actually provides the certification for the organic wine.
Except, here too, there is a minor nuance. A wine might use “organic grapes” but not be an “organic wine.” That might be the case, for example, if a winemaker has certified the grapes but not the actual vinification process (in which those grapes are transformed into wine). If sulfur dioxide were added during this process, then the wine would not be able to call itself an “organic wine.”
That’s why, say, sommeliers, you need to be able to learn how to talk to customers who answer this question. It depends, in part, on how much customers are willing to listen to you, how much they already know about organic wines, and how engaged they really are on this topic. At a very minimum, though, it helps to be able to discuss how the “organic” label can be used to categorize a wine, as well as to be able to point out organic wine options on the overall wine list. If customers are clearly engaged on the topic, you might go one step further, by talking about biodynamic principles and SIP certification (which certifies the well-being and sustainability of all workers and work processes used to make the wine).
Another potential problem arises when customers have very strong misperceptions about a certain grape varietal. They might have read about a certain varietal or heard a co-worker mention a certain type of varietal, and decide to give it a try. However, they might be completely unprepared for what happens next.
One common misperception, for example, is that there are “big, bold Pinot Noirs” that can hold their own with a classic Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. So they might repeatedly ask for a big, bold Pinot, not realizing that they are looking for a phantom wine. It helps to be ready with an alternate suggestion. If the customer persists and still decides to order the bottle of wine, here is where all of your tact and patience really gets called into action. Many sommeliers suggest that customers should be left to a period of “trial-and-error.” In a worst-case scenario, you can take away the open bottle if the customer does not like it and use it later for a staff tasting.
So what causes these misperceptions? Part of the issue might have to do with the rise of the Old World/New World dichotomy. In other words, certain grape varietals from the Old World (i.e. France, Italy) taste differently when transplanted to New World locations. Just try comparing an Australian Shiraz, a French Syrah, and a California Syrah!
But part of the misconception comes from mainstream media and pop culture. Two films that all sommeliers are probably familiar with are “Sideways” and “Bottle Shock.” And, not surprisingly, many restaurant patrons want to try some of the wines from these movies. But even a single mention in a single scene of a movie can be enough to cause wine drinkers to lose it. Just think of the “James Bond” films, and how many times Agent 007 asks for a glass of wine. How many restaurant patrons have ever asked for “James Bond’s favourite wine”?
Another area that needs to be negotiated involves the food-wine pairings that are available. In some cases, a wine menu will provide a bit of guidance on this issue, suggesting which wines pair remarkably well with which dishes on the menu. In other cases, customers will be guided by classic food-wine pairings, such as a crisp white wine with oysters, a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon with steak, or a lovely Sauternes with blue cheese.
But what if customers want to step outside their comfort zone and try a unique food-wine pairing? Here, you need to be ready with two sorts of advice. The first sort of advice can best be thought of as common sense “rules of the road.” Advice like, “What grows together goes together” falls under this category.
But there are constantly new food-wine pairings being created that are incredibly unique. For example, some sommeliers suggest quite strenuously that the best wine pairing with potato chips is Champagne. It has to do with the salt, fat, and acidity of the chips. Another food-wine pairing that is becoming popular is a combo of Japanese sake and firm cheese.
Let’s face it, we live in the era of the up-sell and the cross-sell. (“Would you like fries with that burger?”) This means that customers are not only more sophisticated than ever before about wine, they are also a lot more sceptical about people trying to up-sell and cross-sell them. That means that sommeliers need to master the art of the affordable suggestion.
What that means in practice is being ready with a suitable “counteroffer” if a customer is not quite sold on a certain wine choice. The goal should be to offer a wine in the same general price category that offers equal or superior value. It would be hard to argue, for example, if a sommelier proposed white Burgundy in place of a California Chardonnay.
Things get a little trickier, however, if you are suggesting a wine from a relatively unknown wine region. If a restaurant patron seems particularly intent on ordering a lovely Italian Pinot Grigio, it might be initially jarring if someone proposes a wine from nearby Slovenia. While Eastern European wines are on the upswing, it’s hard for them to break into the mainstream cultural consciousness. Customers, quite rightly, view it as a gamble. And that’s why it helps if those bottles are priced attractively enough so that customers are inspired to try them out.
Finally, mention has to be made of the age-old maxim that, “the customer is always right.” Is that still true in today’s modern wine world? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. If a customer insists on chilling a red wine, who are you to say no?
Just keep in mind that these customer requests can border on the outrageous. One example is a customer who orders a wine and asks to drink it “warm.” Not as in room temperature warm – a relatively common request, especially if a wine is being brought up from the cellar – but as in really, really warm. If that’s what the customer wants, then that’s what they should be brought – even if it means warming up a perfectly good Sonoma Merlot in a wine bucket filled with hot tap water.
One last thing to keep in mind is to learn how to talk about the “hidden gems” of your wine list. Sometimes, these wines are easy to find – such as when they are obviously priced much higher than any other wine on the wine list. Or when a premium, high-end wine suddenly appears on the by the glass list. This is your chance to really shine as a sommelier and highlight all the wonderful characteristics or nuances that make a really great wine “great.”
Just remember – all of these unusual requests, misperceptions and unconventional approaches can be an important way to gauge changing tastes and preferences. Wine trends come and go, and your everyday customers can be the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” helping you navigate all these twists-and-turns. Recently, for example, there was no such thing as an “organic wine” or a “vegan wine.” Now, it’s part for the course and part of the everyday wine vocabulary. That’s good to know if you want to make your wine list stand out and become a key selling point for your restaurant.