"I don't need to hear about wines made with obscure Italian varieties. I love those wines. But my customers want an Italian Chardonnay at a decent price by the glass. That brings people back."
"So Vermentino doesn't work?"
Call it the sommelier's dilemma. Wine professionals like sommeliers and retailers spend their days tasting the most interesting wines on earth. That is their passion. But the majority of their customers are looking for safe, reliable wines, ones that don't challenge the brain or the palate. Those wines pay the sommelier's salary.
The conversation above was during a lunch I had last week with one of the better sommeliers in New Orleans and a leading wine importer. We enjoyed some shrimp and fresh fish, we drank a lovely bottle (or three) of white wine, and we talked of favorite wine regions and recent trends. Eventually, they started talking shop—something wine pros don't usually do in front of writers, since we tend to repeat everything we hear. But they let me stay, and I agreed not to quote them by name.
The conversation focused on how to get more Italian wines onto New Orleans wine lists. My town is fantastic if you want to find outstanding American or French wines—I suspect we drink more Burgundy per person than anyone else in America, though I can't prove it. But Italian and Spanish wines are trickier.
This importer wants to change that, and he has access to some of the better wines in Italy. And this particular restaurant has a very deep list, with plenty of variety. The sommelier is very knowledgeable and loves discovering wines he hasn't tasted before and introducing them to diners. But he also serves plenty of people who want something comfortable, something safe with their meal. He wants to make sure he has plenty of Merlot and Chardonnay at decent prices on hand.
Personally, give me a glass of Greco di Tufo, Pecorino or Sagrantino. A lot of places in this world grow Chardonnay and Merlot, but the Italians have hundreds of varieties found nowhere else.
I know a lot of sommeliers who feel the same way. America now has a deep pool of talent in the sommelier profession, and when I go to one of their restaurants, I often just ask them, "Which wine have you recently added to your list that really excites you?" They almost always bring me a glass of something that's never touched my lips before and I almost always enjoy it.
But neither the sommelier nor I are the average consumer. We drink wine for a living.
All too often these days, I see wine lists that offer nothing but goodies for geeks, obscure wines with names that scare off customers. (Scariest wine name out there? My money's on Blaufränkisch. I enjoy this vibrant red, but every time I say the name I can hear a horse neighing in distress.)
Now, I'm not saying sommeliers should baby their customers, shying away from the new and unusual. After all, part of a sommelier's job is to teach customers about wine. But recently the fad is for lists that offer nothing but the new. Big wine lists, with hundreds of selections, ranging from classics to value wines to, yes, new discoveries, are considered passé. Many sommeliers would rather offer a list with less than 40 wines that says, "Look at what I know!"
Last time I checked, restaurants were a service industry. Sometimes diners want to learn, and sometimes they just want a burger and a glass of Silver Oak. Know what? They're paying the check. If wine directors turn up their noses at such requests, how are they different from the bad old sommeliers of yesteryear, with their tastevins and their bemused expression when their customers asked for the "Hot Brian?" ("That's Haut-Brion, monsieur.")
Worst of all, those sommeliers have missed the chance to earn something precious: a customer's trust. Some wine drinkers never leave their comfort zone. But many, if helped by an able pro who doesn't look down on them, feel gutsy enough to try something different next time they come for dinner.
"I have had many of those customers—they tend to be very loyal," said the sommelier from my lunch when I asked him about this later. "What's more, the very first wine I ever tasted—and enjoyed—was Jess Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. If I had never experienced the 'safe' wine, who knows? Maybe I would be an astronomer."
Give me a big, old wine list stuffed with reliable fan favorites any day. Yeah, I'll have to flip through a lot of pages to find what I'm looking for. But I'll also know I'm someplace where the wine director cares about his customers.