While I’ve been seriously studying wine on and off for 10 years, this is the first year I’ve been a real sommelier. By that I mean I work in a restaurant that has a wine list with more than a few wines that I’m responsible for. Granted the vast majority of my wines by the bottle are mandated and my entire wines by the glass program is also mandated, but I have the ability to add more wines to the list and remove non-mandated wines. For years I was the “wine guy” at a restaurant or to my friends. Now that I’m a somm somewhere, there’s an added bit of mystique if you will.
I’ve learned a lot of things being a somm that you don’t learn from taking exams and blind tasting. There really isn’t a somm school per se out there to teach how to manage a wine program and how to avoid some of the pitfalls. I don’t pretend to have all the answers or to have experienced everything a first year somm could experience, but I thought I could offer some insight to those who are about to enter this world or who have just entered it. So in no particular order, and not the definitive list, here we go:
1. Encountering “that guy/gal” in your restaurant or even outside.
You all know this person. They are very knowledgeable about wine. Probably are an expert in certain wines or a specific region. And they want to test you. Even more so if you have a pin. And let me set this straight first. The pin doesn’t bestow some magical knowledge on you. There are plenty of somms out there that never bothered or don’t care to spend the time and money to earn a pin that are smarter than you are. And, by the way, all of these pieces of advice apply regardless of earning a pin or not, but sometimes having one paints a larger target on you.
OK, now that I got that out of the way, you’ve encountered that person that really only wants to see if you know more than they do. Here is where you can either fall into the fading stereotype of the snobby sommelier and try to one up the person, or be the type of somm that will stay professional. There are plenty of people that are specialists in particular wines or regions. Many somms are specialists due to the wine programs they manage. So having a broad general knowledge can be difficult.
I fall in the generalist category since I never concentrated on a specific region for nine years of study and six years of my 1337 Wine TV show. And if you’re a new somm you may also be more of a generalist rather than a specialist. If I know I’m getting tested by someone, I just let them know what I’m good at. I may have never tasted the wine they are talking about. Especially if I’m new, and the bottle is expensive. The reality is that I can’t just take a bottle out of inventory and taste it. I can ask my distributor to come in and do staff training or provide a “taster bottle” for my staff. Even then, it’s not likely to happen for an expensive wine or a wine that is highly allocated (which is ususally one in the same).
So what do I do? Since we are talking about a wine for a specific area, I can fall back on what the classic characteristics are to describe the wine. And if I’ve studied up on the particular producer, then I can either reinforce that or let them know that producer produces a wine that is different from the norm. What that person really wants is to look smart in front of the others and confirmation they made a good choice. Only if I know the person is looking for something better (value, quality, etc.) would I steer them to something different. If they are flat out wrong about something, I evaluate whether or not I can tactfully correct them while still making them look good. What if it’s not in my restaurant but say at a wine bar or hanging outside on someone’s patio? I’ll still be tactful, but I will correct them. I don’t want to become “that somm.”
2. Have go to wines.
Just like I’ve told servers over the years, to sell wine you need to have a couple go to wines that you can describe and sell with confidence. When you have 350+ wines on a list (and mine is a small one compared to some others I’ve seen with 1000-1500), that can seem like a daunting task. Pick a few in each section of the list. I’m still working on this myself and also changing these over time. These need to be wines in multiple price points. Don’t just suggest $300 bottles. Read your guests or flat out ask what price range they are looking for. Many times they will discreetly point to a wine in their price range to help you. Another thing is, like luxury cars, once you get to a certain price point, the wine is just flat out good quality. So if they can afford it, then all you really need to find out is the style of wine they want and bring them a wine with confidence. No matter what, your guest want to be assured the wine you are pouring is a good quality wine and a good value. If you are confident, then they will be too.
Of course the best way to find go to wines is to taste. Besides relying on reps to come in to hopefully taste you on wines you already have or bringing in taster bottles mentioned above, you need to find portfolio tastings from your distributors. When I first did this, I would just randomly taste wines that looked interesting. However, now I target what I have on the list first, then go for wines I think I might want to add. I’ve taken away the kid in a candy store temptation and replaced it with intelligently taking advantage of an opportunity. Also, buy them at retail. Buy them when you dine elsewhere. The reality is that you might have to spend some money. And….visit wineries. If you’re lucky enough to be near a wine region, then visit it as often as possible. At the very least, you’ll get an industry discount on tasting. Many times they’ll comp it if they are allowed to.
3. Don’t get seduced.
I know what some of you may be thinking. I don’t mean that. Well, yeah, it’s a classic sales technique to have the attractive sales rep to pitch any product, but that’s not what I mean. This is something I had to fight recently; twice in a week. Don’t get seduced by putting a specific wine on your list. If it doesn’t make business sense, then it doesn’t belong on the list. Just because it’s a cult wine, especially at a good price, that doesn’t mean you should add it. You need to think about who is going to buy it and if you can sell it. Many times the buyer of these wines will see it and buy it without needing you. Hell, it will probably happen on your day off. These people know what they want and if they see it, it’s a done deal. Even so, you will have guests that want the cool or hard to get wines. If you have a wine locker program, then these are wines to target for those guests. But the best thing to do first is get to know these guests and figure out if there are wines they covet. Don’t just buy the wine assuming because it’s the cool wine people will buy it. Know your clientele.
Now with that said, if you have a list that is the same as every other place in town, having a few of these different wines will set you apart from the others. But realize that if you’re adding these kinds of wines, you need to be prepared to sell them when the right guest comes in. Of course, if someone is requesting the wine, by all means, get it.
4. Add what makes sense.
Somewhat related to the previous piece of advice, add wines that make sense to your menu. I love white wine. It may not show in what I drink many times or what I review on my show, but I do love white wines. I work in a steakhouse. I’m not saying white wines can’t be sold in a steakhouse, but be aware of how many you already have on your list, and how often they get sold. I find white wines are much easier to sell when you have an outdoor area than not. When you can feature food items that traditionally pair with white wines, they do better. A seafood place will obviously sell more white wines than a steak place.
I’ve been tasted on some amazing white wines over the past year. I think I added one. And it was a rosé. A damn good one from Texas even. But that’s a different story. I have a ton of white wines that were former BTG wines. So I have to manage that inventory wisely. Plus I only have so much cooler space to use. If I ever reduce some of the non-mandated white wines from my inventory, I have a mental list of wines I’ll add. As a side note, many of my reps know I have no problem tasting white wines, but the likelihood of me adding is close to zero.
So when I taste, I look for what makes sense for my menu. I think of specific pairings. I also think about price point. Do I really need yet another $120 Napa Cab on my list? Or is this a cabernet from a different area for the same price point or in a price point I don’t already have five other wines in? Sometimes, the answer is yes for the right wine. It may be just too big of a name to pass up. Or I’m going to use that wine to replace another one I only have a couple bottles of anyway. Just try to make a smart business decision.
5. Going local.
This is easier said than done in most parts of the country. I live in Texas. A state, according to some, on the cusp of becoming a serious wine state. I’ve tasted a lot of Texas wines. Many are outstanding, and many aren’t. Just like any of The Big 4. But the not so good wines are what people remember when it comes to wines from The Other 46. If you find the gems in your state and can add them, do it. I started with one winery and had mixed success. Some wines will stay, but others won’t. I’m expanding that slowly to include more Texas wineries. Having 3-5 wineries is probably all I’ll do at some point. I have storage space and inventory dollars (see below) to consider among other things. Selling wines from outside The Big 4 can be difficult so I only want to have wines I can believe in at various price points.
6. Inventory dollars.
This ties into a lot of what’s been already said. How much money is tied up in your inventory? A wise GM once told me many years ago, an item that sits on your shelf is 100% cost. It’s a gross generalization, but if you’re not selling it, then you’re not making any money on it. While we know most wine has a shelf life of more than a year, that doesn’t mean it’ll last forever. Especially if you didn’t put it in a temperature controlled environment. Side note, it’s not like the wine was stored at 55º F from the winery to your restaurant the entire time too. Even at room temperature, most wines will be fine for a long time if they are at least laid down.
7. Find a mentor.
Depending on where you live and how active the wine culture is, that is may be another easier said than done type of thing. I have many fellow sommeliers I look to for advice. Sometimes that’s as simple as observing what they do at their place. Whether it’s their list or how they operate on the floor. Or I just flat out ask them. There are a few here in San Antonio whose opinion I trust implicitly. There are also some in Austin, Dallas, and Houston I trust. I’ve gotten to know them. And no, it’s not just the Masters and the Advanced somms. There are many that are Intro and Certified somms, or have no certifications, that I look to for advice and inspiration. And, yes, some of these people are wine reps or work in retail too. It’s ok to trust the salesperson. Just remember to recognize when they are pitching you and when they are not.
Having more than one is also great since many people have become experts in specific regions or styles of wine. Again, this can be due to the wines they mostly sell, and not some personal choice. Many would assume I’m an expert in Napa Valley since the vast majority of my list is from there. I’m not. I’m still learning, but I definitely know more about Napa now than I did a year ago. It didn’t hurt that I drove around Napa for 5 days last November too.
8. Join a group.
Find a tasting or education group. Or start one. Meet on a schedule. Give each other support. Get your suppliers involved to help defray the costs of wines. You’d be surprised that many of the distributors are willing and able to help with this. This will also help in finding those mentors. If you’re going to go beyond Certified, then it’s just about required you do this and have a mentor that is at a higher level who can sponsor you. Advanced and Master levels require references, you don’t just sign up for the exams and pay the money.
Ok, so this has already been alluded to, and it’s just good advice for anyone studying wine. Try to take at least one wine trip every one to two years. At the very least, if you live within an hour’s drive of some wineries, visit them on your day off. Since I’m talking to somms here and we are assuming you are in a restaurant, we’ll also assume you at least work every Saturday. You might even work every Friday and Sunday. This is great when it comes to visiting wineries. Why? Because when you can’t visit is when they are the busiest. Go during the week. Bring business cards. At smaller wineries, you might even be talking to the owner, winemaker, vineyard manager, etc. These may all be the same person too. Ask to see the presses, barrel room, bottling line, etc. If they have the time, I’ve found they’ll do it. For non-industry people this isn’t always the case, so take advantage that you are in the industry.
Now, I’ve also been blessed to visit many wineries because I’m there to interview someone. So I’ve also gotten access to people and areas that others can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask. I’ve learned so much by talking to the people that farm the land and make the wine versus reading it in a book or online. Seeing the process really helps. And if you’re not opposed to getting hot, sweaty, and dirty, volunteer to help with harvest. I’m not good with this part. I don’t mind the hot, sweaty, dirty part. But I do mind getting stung by bees or wasps (as long time viewers probably know – Wines and Wasps Don’t Mix – Episode 255).
10. Relax and enjoy.
Here’s the final piece. Ten is a good number to finish on, and I’ve typed a lot too 😉 Dude, or Dudette, you get paid to serve wine. Something that can make people happy. You get to taste a lot of free wine. You get the red carpet rolled out sometimes at wineries. Your fellow somms make sure you get the best deal on the list or the coolest wine. And people look to you for advice. How cool is that? Not many professions have the social interaction we have. Not many have the perks we have. And it’s not just limited to wine. Beer and Spirits count too. Your business card is like gold in many places. Sometimes it’s 24k and sometimes it’s 10k or gold plated, but it gives you access to things non-industry don’t have. Not to say that other industries don’t have these things, but remember to take advantage of everything around you. Good food, good wine, guests who come back to see you, and friendships that can last a lifetime.