How to Talk to a Sommelier

Get the wine you want without sounding like an idiot

113529475Ordering wine. Yeah, you’re doing it wrong. Carnevino beverage director and certified sommelier Kirk Peterson cuts the foil and pulls the cork on everything you thought you knew about doing the deed.

There you are, sitting in a beautiful restaurant, wine list in hand. You crack it open and are immediately confronted with myriad confusing choices, some of which cost more than your first car. The next thing you know, someone in a suit is standing there offering his or her assistance, and all eyes at the table are on you. No need to panic; all you need are some basic principles to get the wine you want for the price you’re willing to pay, and look competent while doing it.

RELAX. The sommelier is there to help you. Sommeliers are hoping to guide you through the wine list, to aid you in making selections that you will enjoy and that will complement your meal. Despite what insight you may think your subscription to Wine Spectator has imparted you, they still know more than you do. Use their knowledge to your advantage. And put your phone away. (Good luck asking Siri how the wine you aren’t familiar with pairs with the food you haven’t tasted yet.) Your sommelier knows more about the food and wine combinations at the restaurant than some random website.

HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY. Don’t say “Bring me the best one” or “What’s your favorite?” Even something as simple as “red wine that goes with lamb” or “I really like pineapple” is enough to start a dialogue that will help the sommelier find you a bottle you’re going to be happy with.

IF YOU CAN’T SAY “SOMMELIER” DON’T TRY. It should sound like “SOMM-uhl-yay.” If that’s too much of a tongue twister, just say “wine steward.” Sure, it makes you sound a little old-fashioned, but that’s far better that being called a “SUMM-un-yay,” or “somm-ILL-ier.”

DON’T PRATTLE ON ENDLESSLY about the amazing cellar you have at your house, the tremendously rare and expensive wines you’ve enjoyed in the past and your last trip to Bordeaux … and then order a $35 bottle of sauvignon blanc with your porterhouse steak. Wine shouldn’t be about pretension; it should be about enjoyment. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, either say so or point to a price on the wine list and say, “I’m looking for something like this,” and your guests will be none the wiser.

DON’T COMMENT ON THE “LEGS” of the wine, for God’s sake. It is confounding that this particular speck of minutiae has made it into the popular consciousness regarding wine, and actually stuck. The saturation of color and rate at which the drops of wine drip down the side of the glass does give some minor insight into the wine’s origins that can be helpful in terms of professional blind tasting. But otherwise, it’s a completely useless detail that clearly reveals you to be someone who has no idea what you’re talking about.

TAKE A PROPER TASTE OF THE WINE. When the sommelier pours you the first taste, actually taste it. Get a mouthful of wine, swish it around a little, swallow it and see what you think. Don’t take a tiny little baby sip. Wine has flavor and aroma, but it also has texture and structure that are just as important in terms of your total enjoyment of the wine.

Finally, stop looking at the pin on my lapel. My eyes are up here, buddy.