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Tips from a Top Sommelier

Jean Georges wine director Bernard Sun has worked with some of the world’s most famous chefs

Nathan Wesley
Posted: July 25, 2011

What do the legendary restaurants Lespinasse, Le Cirque 2000 and Montrachet all have in common, other than having served some of Manhattan’s savviest wine clientele with Wine Spectator Grand Award wine programs? At one time or another, they all had a sommelier named Bernard Sun. Alone, it’s an impressive resume, but Sun has since added another crown jewel when he joined Jean-Georges Management in 2005 as corporate beverage director. Today he oversees the wine programs at 11 restaurants, including the highly lauded Jean Georges, a Best of Award of Excellence winner located at the southwest corner of Central Park. Sun recently spoke Wine Spectator about restaurant wine service and etiquette.

Wine Spectator: What are the finer restaurant wine service points that you emphasize at Jean Georges?
Bernard Sun: I don’t think it’s any one specific item, per se. I would say it’s taken as a whole because service is beginning to end. It’s a set sequence that the guest expects every single time. For me, it’s all about the little details and that you don’t take any short cuts.

WS: Do you taste a bottle of wine at Jean Georges before you serve it to the guest?
BS: Yes, we do, because we want to make sure that the bottle we send to the table is correct and unflawed. We don’t have the guest decide whether the bottle is good enough or not. If we decide the bottle is not good, we will present a new bottle to the guest and let them know that the first bottle was not good. A more practical reason is that we get [asked] one question all the time: how is this wine drinking? Well, unless you actually taste the wine how would you know how it’s drinking? We [taste] half an ounce of a wine and it gives us volumes of information.

WS: Do you also offer a taste to the guest?
BS: Yes, because the guest has to agree also. The guest is paying for the bottle, so they would need to approve that the bottle is in good condition as well.

WS: What should a guest do if he or she doesn’t agree?
BS: You just mention it to the sommelier. A good sommelier will be receptive because a second nose is better than just one. It could be something that the sommelier missed, which is very possible, and this is when you can go back and recheck the wine and make sure it’s OK.

WS: When do you decant a wine?
BS: When you have young reds and young whites, but older wines are a little bit tricky depending on how old and what the wine is. For example, a 20-year old premier cru red Burgundy that’s drinking at its peak is very delicate, so you don’t really need to decant it. I also don’t think you need to [decant a wine] when you have seven people at a table and one bottle. By the time you pour the wine out, it’s already decanted because you only have about 3 ounces in each glass. But most of time, yes, most wines can use a little decanting.

WS: What are proper serving temperatures and are they important for restaurant wine service?
BS: Wine shows better when it’s served at the right temperature. Pinots, especially, should be a little cooler. Cabernets too. I like them somewhere around 55 degrees. Whites should be around 40 degrees.

WS: What about Champagne?
BS: I like Champagnes even a little bit colder. The great vintage Krugs are beautiful when they warm up, but you can always let that happen in the glass.

WS: How do you approach a wine list when you’re dining out?
BS: I usually let the sommelier pick. I’ll give them a price point as to what I want to spend and I’ll tell them a category, like full- or medium-bodied red, and let them do their thing.

WS: Price can be a sensitive subject for some diners. How can they approach the topic discreetly?
BS: It is a very delicate point. When you’re looking at the wine list and talking to the sommelier, you can point to a price and say, “I’m looking for something like this.” Or if you’re worried that people will be looking over your shoulder, you can come a little bit earlier and talk to the sommelier before you sit down. That’s another way to do it if you want it to be a more frank discussion.

Jean-Georges Wine List Highlights

Strengths: Bordeaux, Burgundy, California

132 years of Château d'Yquem: 39 bottlings spanning from 2003 ($336, 375ml) to 1871 ($6550, 750ml)

Burgundy Benchmark: 26 bottlings from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, including seven vintages of Richebourg back to 1995 ($2200)

Burgundy by the Glass: Domaine Lignier-Michelot Chambolle-Musigny Vieilles Vignes 2008 ($30, 6 ounce glass; $15, 3 ounce taste)

Jack Folbe
Huntington Woods, MI —  July 26, 2011 9:22am ET
I wish someone would ask about etiquette related to wine pouring. I have often asked to pour the wine at the table after the first pours. I do this because often times the waiter rushes to refill glasses (and finish the bottle so another is ordered)regardless of the pace of individuals drinking. Usually there are some who drink one glass and refills just stay in the glass at the end of the meal while others drain there glasses. Unfortunately many wait staff become offended when I ask if they mind if I pour. Is this wrong?
Mary Jane Phillips
Farmington Hills, MI —  July 26, 2011 2:12pm ET
Jack, I totally agree with you about waitpersons who are too quick to top off glasses. Also, I prefer to let the first pour breathe, and change in the glass and this is thwarted when more wine is added to it. This does not require extensive training of staff, just common sense to ask if it is a preference of the diner.
Cheers,
MJ

Winekey Nyc Inc
NYC —  July 26, 2011 5:06pm ET
Pours are a delicate topic. Overzealous restaurant managers do not want to see a guest have to pour their own wine (this is a big no no), so they push the staff to keep wine glasses topped off just like the water in your water glass. This is what separates restaurants with beverage programs, from ones that do not. If a restaurant is small or not "fine dining", they sometimes feel there is no need for a beverage manager, or a sommelier. These are restaurants where you will most likely encounter glasses being topped off, or sometimes downright overfilled to the very lip of the glass. I don't know of a beverage/wine director, or sommelier in NYC who would dare overfill a guests glass. Most people in the (restaurant) "industry" go out themselves quite a bit and appreciative tasting wine in small amounts to enjoy the wine opening up, and experience more of the aromatic components of the wine in the glass. This cannot be done if the glass is half full, regardless of the glasses size. On the flip side, you do have the guests who drink wine like water and as soon as you fill a glass you take 5 steps away from the table and the GM is grabbing your arm to show you the table has empty glasses again. It is naive to think that everyone out dining on any given evening has the same expectations from the restaurants service. Ultimately the goal of truly great service is the anticipation of guests needs. This is not something that comes easy for everyone in the service industry. There is a certain amount of finesse and panache involved that cannot be taught, but comes with experience. It is important to read the guests demeanor and gauge what level of attentiveness is required at each table to remain unintrusive, but always presciently attentive to guests needs. I have personally worked with people who have almost ESP like intuition, and others that have been in the "industry" forever and still don't get it. In closing, the overall restaurant experience is the combination of so many elements happening simultaneously, when you are at a great restaurant...it's all in the details! Salute!
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  July 26, 2011 10:20pm ET
Proper etiquette would demand that staff be inconspicuous when tending to glasses that need to be refilled. This puts the onus on staff to be properly trained to understand that wine doesn't need to be topped up like all-you-can-drink cola.

When wait staff are discretely refilling glasses, it is up to guests to indicate when they do not wish to have more wine, either verbally or by putting their hand, palm down, above the top of the glass.
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  July 27, 2011 3:32pm ET
During a recent visit to Jean Georges (for lunch, one of NYC's unheralded bargains at $32 for a 2-course lunch), we enjoyed a White CdP. I don't recall the vintage or vineyard, but it was light, crisp, minerally...all the hallmarks of a great viognier. And, at $68, it stood out as an outstanding value on an otherwise well-balanced wine list.

I might suggest to Mr. Sun that JG consider putting its wine list on its web site, allowing customers to make some preliminary choices before their visit.
Mike Stith
La Quinta CA USA —  August 1, 2011 4:27pm ET
Sometimes we open several Cabs at dinner and the poor server has no clue who is drinking which wine. Sometimes they try to fill up a glass with a different wine even when there is wine left in the glass. This always get's them going.
Nathan Wesley
NYC —  August 2, 2011 2:06pm ET
Jack, I put your question to Bernard, and here's his response:

No, you are not wrong to ask because you are the host. However, if the server or sommelier is asking your guests first whether they would like more wine before they top off a glass, you may want to give the service staff a chance as they are doing their job correctly. We generally never know how much anyone drinks beforehand therefore we always should ask first before we pour more. However, if you feel the staff is still refilling too fast, you can always elect to do it yourself though sometimes this may make some of your guests uneasy as they may not want to show how much they really like to drink. They don't want you to notice that fact and be embarrassed by making you keep refilling their glasses.

I believe the best scenario is to utilize the server or sommelier to serve your guests as this is their job. Just make sure the service staff understands that they have to ask first before refilling. A good sommelier or service program should always be doing this automatically without being asked.

On the point where guests may have a full glass of wine at the end of the meal, if the step of service above is followed, we can't say no nor control when a guest wants more wine but does not finish the glass they had asked to be filled. If the guest doesn't want any more wine when asked, all they have to do is say no more. We will then not offer any more to that guest. By etiquette though, the staff is taught to always try to keep the glasses at a good level. They are working for you, the host, to keep your guests happy and sated as if this was your home. We do this by making sure your guests have enough to eat and drink, or as they say a full drink in their hand and by keeping the chip bowls filled.

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