Sommeliers are accustomed to answering the same wine questions over and over again. Can you recommend a good Pinot Noir? A wine under $50? A wine that goes with both chicken and fish?
Source: The Wall Street Journal. By: Lettie Teague.
While they’re generally happy to field any inquiry, some are thornier than others, requiring not only knowledge but tact and diplomacy. I asked seven top sommeliers to share the questions they most dread hearing-and how they turn a potentially problematic encounter into a happy event.
Most common wine questions:
1. What’s good on this list?
Rick Arline, beverage director of Girl & the Goat in Chicago, hears this one a lot. If someone asks this question, Mr. Arline might answer, “Everything is good. That’s why it’s here.” And he’s likely to follow up with a few questions of his own, to find out what kinds of wines the customer likes. Red or white, full-bodied or light? He might suggest the diner start with a sparkling wine-like the rosé of Raventós from Penedès, Spain, that he features by the glass-as they consider their options.
2. What’s your favorite wine?
Amanda Fraga said this is her least-favorite question because the world of wine is so large. But she quickly added that she loves to be asked for a recommendation. So, Ms. Fraga, the director of beverage and social media for the Genuine Hospitality Group in Miami, will reply, “Let’s have a conversation.” More often than not she will describe a wine she is currently drinking. “I’ll say one of my go-to wines is Barbera or Muscadet. I want to give them something I’m drinking the most,” Ms. Fraga said. Right now she is drinking the 2020 Ercole Barbera del Monferrato, a fresh, juicy red from Piedmont, Italy. “We pour it by the glass. It’s inexpensive and it comes in a liter size,” she said-adding that the wine showed up in a Taylor Swift video.
3. Do you have a wine like Montrachet for $75?
When a customer names a wildly expensive wine like this grand cru white Burgundy as a point of reference while asking for something reasonably priced, André Compeyre, head sommelier of Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York, must ask a few questions. First he must determine whether the customer is actually referring to the wine that costs thousands of dollars, or a much cheaper wine like Chassagne-Montrachet. (It’s usually the latter.)
Sometimes, this sort of question is posed as a challenge by someone who has only heard the name but never actually tasted the wine. In that case, Mr. Compeyre must put them at ease by talking about the wine. He might begin by discussing Chardonnay, the white grape of Burgundy, and then suggest other white Burgundies in a more affordable price range, such as Pouilly-Fuissé or Mâcon-Villages. They usually follow his lead. “The French accent helps,” said Mr. Compeyre-a native of Toulouse, France-with a laugh.
4. Do you have wines without sulfites?
There are many misconceptions about sulfites, and the biggest one may be that there is such thing as a non-sulfite wine. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation. June Rodil, CEO and partner of Goodnight Hospitality, a restaurant group based in Houston, Texas, gently points this out to customers. “I try to sum it up in a few sentences. I don’t want to sound too much like a teacher,” she said. She tries to determine if the diner is actually looking for a wine with low or no added sulfites, such as a natural wine. She will often suggest a wine from the Loire Valley in France, a region that’s home to a large number of natural winemakers and a wide variety of wines-red, white and sparkling.
5. What do you think of this wine?
This sounds like an innocent enough inquiry, but Erik Liedholm, wine director of Seattle’s John Howie restaurant group, knows it can be fraught. “People want validation,” he observed. This question can be especially tricky when posed regarding a wine the customer brought along to the meal. (Mr. Liedholm allows diners to BYOB to his restaurants, including the flagship Seastar, on Sundays for free and other times for a fee.) When the wine in question isn’t something he’d drink, he deflects. One customer brought a magnum of Sutter Home White Zinfandel to one of his restaurants and asked Mr. Liedholm, “What do you think?” Mr. Liedholm responded, “Let’s make it nice and cold,” and fetched an ice bucket.
6. Do you have any dry wines?
Jim Rollston, wine director of Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif., fields this one a lot. “I don’t necessarily hate the question,” he said. “It’s just so hard to know what people mean by dry.” He might respond by asking which dry wines the diner favors. “They might say, ‘I like Rombauer Chardonnay’ or ‘red blends,’ and that tells me something,” he said. (Neither is actually on the drier end of the scale.) Or he might ask directly what they mean by dry. “And they might say, ‘Something not too sour.'” Mr. Rollston could recommend the opposite, a ripe, fruity wine such as a Pinot Noir from California-though further probing about wines the customer likes can confuse matters more. “They’ll say Brunello di Montalcino,” he said, “and that’s about as sour a wine as you’re going to get.”
7. Last question of our list of wine questions: do you have any orange wines?
Longtime Brooklyn-based sommelier Lee Campbell has fielded the orange wine question a lot from “hipster clients” who, she said, are blind to every other kind of wine. It’s not that she is opposed to orange wine, or hasn’t had orange wines on her lists. It’s just the current single-minded fixation that she resists. “People are obsessed with orange wine,” Ms. Campbell said-particularly galling when they wouldn’t be able to recognize an orange wine unless it was designated as such on the wine list. (An orange wine is a white wine made “orange” by various means, including extended skin contact and/or deliberate oxidation.) To discourage a knee-jerk selection, Ms. Campbell, currently a freelance consultant, doesn’t separate orange wines into their own category but, rather, lists them with the white wines. “There is a lot of perfectly good white wine out there that isn’t orange,” said Ms. Campbell.
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