For the first 20 years of my life, I had only been to my uncle’s luxury hair salon. Eventually, I moved away from home and had to seek out other hairstylists. I couldn’t find anyone as good as Uncle Vince and my cousin, Gia. Everytime I went home, I would sit back in Gia’s chair and live the glory of the best haircut experiences ever. The things that made those times still the best for me are the same for what makes great sommeliers. These are the lessons that I’ve learned…
You have to be a good listener. It is not what you want, it is what the guest wants. Gia takes the time to understand what I want. It is difficult during crunch times in service to give some guests the time you need to translate their untrained palate and adjectives into what makes sense for us to pick that perfect bottle of wine. That is, however, exactly what our training and expertise is for. Listen.
Remember that the experience matters. Some people are not dining to order wine at all. Yet when they know there is a somm on the floor, they want to share with you their experiences of when they visited some producer or another. Listen. You helping them to relive their amazing experience is what will make whatever price tag attached to their bill worth it. You may actually learn something from them as well. For example, many of my guests are proud cellar owners – from huge collections to just a small rack in the corner of their kitchen. Since they have taken the time to intimately know the bottles they care for, they are often able to give you some excellent information. Listen.
2 Gauge their tastes with tasters…
If I wanted to change my hair style, I would describe it to Gia and then she would pull out books with photos for me to see. “Did you want it to look like this, or more like this?” In the same way, if you are not understanding exactly what the guest is looking for, pour them a couple tasters of wine you pour by the glass. Tasters help clarify their needs and your guests will appreciate the extra gesture.
3 You have to get it right.
I do not score with 100% accuracy. Sometimes, you may need to go the extra distance to make ammends for not finding that subjectively perfect bottle of wine. I’m always happy to take back the first bottle a guest tries and I’ll sell it off by the glass. Or, you can use it for staff training. In the same way, good hairdressers will not charge you to come back to change a haircut you don’t like.
Of course, if the wine is a rare, old vintage wine taking it back may not be an option. You might just knock off a few bucks from the price. Guests buying expensive vintage First Growth Bordeaux probably know that it is difficult to find that perfect bottle of wine and are ok with experimenting. Feel out the guest, and respond as necessary. Just as ‘hair will grow back’ for some, the non-perfect bottle of wine may not be a big deal.
4 Open yourself up, educate and share.
After seeing Gia, I always left feeling a little wiser. Her stories about life’s meaninful interactions made me feel completely human. As a sommelier, open yourself up and share you and your experiences with those that want your attention.
5 Know what you know and what you don’t
Sometimes, Gia says, “No, that haircut won’t work with your hair.” If you know that bottle won’t work, say it. I offered assistance to some men choosing a bottle of champagne. The gentleman very clearly wanted nothing to do with me. He ordered a bottle of Moët Nectar from the server. I’m still kicking myself because I didn’t find a way to let him know that Nectar is a sweet Champagne. I found out afterwards that, of course, it wasn’t what he wanted.
I also appreciate Gia’s honestly when she says, “I’ve never done that style before.”It is ok to let your guests know, you don’t know…and then, look it up!
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