Great service is a mindset, one that’s intended to make a guest feel like the only person that matters in the entire establishment. From the moment a guest steps through the door, he or she is taken care of, and treated not like a patron or customer, but as a guest in your own home. Service is often taken for granted as an exchange—“I give you money, you bring me things.” Only when things go wrong does the guest become focused on the intricacies of service. “Where’s that Coke I ordered 5 minutes ago? We’re missing a side of Brussel sprouts! What do you mean I ordered a filet?! I specifically said I wanted a Ribeye!” What the diner doesn’t know is that box of Coca-Cola ran out and the backup box is half a city block away, or that a line cook burned their Brussel sprouts and rather than let their whole meal die in the window the expediter decided to “drag” those sprouts and send their meal, or that they did indeed order the filet, or maybe the server messed up and wrote “F” instead of “R” on the ticket. When service does go wrong (and it always does), the key is not just to recover, but to rebuild the trust and relationship that we have developed with our guest that gives them the faith to believe that we will make it right. That is great service. Sommeliers like myself are in the business of listening, interpreting, and translating what guests tell us, and they trust us to bring them something that they will love.
Great service begins with a simple mantra: take better care of our guests. From a three Michelin star restaurant to a local dive bar, the experience may be different but the thought process is the same. “What can I do to make this person’s day better?” It is not about being able to mark a guest’s next course without them knowing, or being able to pour shots faster. When we talk about wine service in a restaurant – and perhaps use terms like “traditional” or “proper” wine service – there is something fundamentally missing in our conversation as sommeliers if we are not constantly thinking about how we can make our guests’ day better. While there are myriad of different restaurant models and interpretations of wine service, there are a few golden rules that are part of the interaction between the guest and the person serving their wine.
First rule: don’t be a jerk. This swings both ways. For the sommelier it means be approachable and comforting. Don’t lord over your guest the unfathomable amount of knowledge that you have accumulated through countless hours of studying, reading, pounding note cards, tasting, slugging cases, et cetera. After all, wine is fermented grape juice—you didn’t make it, so don’t take it personally if someone isn’t stoked about the new Pét Nat wine you just got in. Listen to your guest. Translate whatever mix of adjectives, images, and anything else they have to give you into wine speak. This is why you spent the countless hours studying, tasting and learning— so you can translate any range of information into something that is useful to you. If a guest is feeling purple and wants to drink something that makes them feel even more purple, then it is up to you to figure that out! For the guest, it means don’t try to show off to your dining companion about how much you know, what you drank yesterday, or how much you spent on it (that said, knowing what you drank prior to joining us helps give me reference for what you like). In other words, don’t make me call over the busboy to sweep up all the names you dropped. It just doesn’t help.
Second rule—don’t haggle over pricing. You don’t walk into Starbucks and say I want a “Venti” for the price of a “Grande”. A good sommelier will find a bottle in a price range you are comfortable with and that you will be happy with. If they can’t, the restaurant won’t be around long. A sommelier’s concern is taking care of you but we too have a business to run and bosses to report to. No matter how good we are at taking care of you, we need to be compensated for doing so.
Third rule—with any recommendations we may give, feel free to take our advice or leave it, it’s entirely up to you. That said, you would be wise not to dismiss the intimate, almost carnal knowledge that a good somm has of their list. When I eat out I often ask the somm for their opinion as to what is drinking well. Even though I know the wine and may have had it recently, odds are they have had it more recently. I don’t mind when people pull out their phone and quote a score or read a review from an app they use—it’s part of the changing landscape of consumer knowledge that has become common place in the digital age—just remember that those reviews often were scribed when the wine was still in barrel or on release. Wine is a living, breathing thing—it often is not what it was in years prior. This is not a knock on wine writers or reviewers, just remember that they aren’t the ones having dinner with you.