Dr. Strangewine, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sommeliers

Ordering wine in restaurants is easy with the right advisor
Jan 25, 2012

If you drink enough wine in restaurants you'll eventually come across your first sommelier. Take a deep breath. Fear not. Think of him or her as the lifeguard in that big pool of wine, ready if you need rescue. And we all need that from time to time.

For the uninitiated, sommelier is a big, scary French word that roughly means, "No, you can't have Merlot with sea bass," although I'll admit my translation skills are rusty.

Pronounced suh-muhl-YAY, in essence it means, "wine waiter." You won't find one at Applebee's, which is sort of a shame because if ever there was a restaurant that required a lot of wine to get through dinner, that's the place. When I was younger, I drank wine in restaurants for years before I knew sommeliers existed. Most restaurants in fact don't have someone dedicated solely to wine; only the ones that take wine seriously do.

The sommelier oversees the wine list, serves the wine and offers advice on what wines go best with the chef's food. (And despite the fears expressed by many wine newbies, rarely have I felt coerced into buying a more expensive wine.)

It's not an easy job, often thankless. Who, after all, could recommend a good Côtes du Rhône with the salad course? The good ones make dinner seamless but the bad ones make you want to order a beer.

Not all sommeliers, in other words, are created equal. This is a tricky issue because more often than not I've discovered a wonderful wine from a savvy sommelier's recommendation, and a good dinner became great. But it's one thing to get advice on the best wine with your dish and another to be strong-armed into a wine the sommelier loves.

What that really means is that sommeliers are prone to the same flaws and ego trips as the rest of us. For example, there seems to be an intercollegiate competition to see which sommelier can champion the most obscure region or wine. It's like a bet: "I'll see your Spanish Verdejo and raise you three Scheurebes."

You can always tell what sort of sommelier is in charge when you see the list of wines by the glass. I enjoy learning about and drinking obscure wines as much as the next guy, but if you don't recognize a single label or variety on the by-the-glass list, that says something.

Of course, some restaurants specialize in those sorts of wine lists and that's what makes them distinctive, but for most restaurants the wines by the glass are the welcome mat to the rest of the list. We all have favorite comfort foods and wine is the same way: Sometimes we just want a little comfort. And—gasp—even a glass of Chardonnay with that pork chop.

And sorry, sommeliers, if it irks you that people want Silver Oak Cabernet or Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, maybe you need a new line of work. Guidance and advice is good, but it's your job to serve the customer, not "fix" them. Thankfully, those sommeliers are in the minority.

What do you look for in a good sommelier? Do you have any pet peeves? And sommeliers, what advice do you have for customers?

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