Sommelier vs. Server

I think it’s safe to say that on the topic of wine, most restaurant servers are strictly “Order Takers.” They want you to order wine, and they want you to order the most expensive bottle on the menu. They always want you to order a bottle that is more expensive then the one you chose, but they’re seldom willing to do any leg work to suggest something better. From time-to-time, they’ll say “If you like that $30 Pinot Noir, you’ll LOVE this $50 Pinot Noir.” That’s a simple attempt to up their sales, the restaurant’s sales, and add a few bucks to their pocket. There’s nothing wrong with that. if you go with the up-sell, in theory, you got a better bottle of wine out of the deal.

A sommelier, or guru, is different. My ultimate goal is the same: bigger sales and better bottles, but I have a different way of going about it. And hopefully a different result.

When it comes time to order wine at dinner, there is a HUGE uncomfortable grey area that servers don’t want to confront. You as the guest are typically not comfortable talking about it either. I’m not talking about who you will vote for in the next election; I’m talking about how much you want to spend on a bottle of wine. Servers will never ask. Perhaps I shouldn’t ask. But, if we get that elephant out of the room at the very beginning, you will enjoy your wine so much more.

I frequently ask tables “What is it that you’re looking for in your wine tonight?” The answer that I get 100% of the time is perfectly acceptable, but doesn’t really help. “I’m looking for a nice bottle of Burgundy.” Here is what that means to me: “Please choose for me- one of the 70 Red Burgundian wines on your list. I know they range from $50 to $2200 a bottle. Just pick something good.” My very next question is, “How much do you want to spend?” It’s not comfortable to ask and not comfortable to answer, but how else will I know if tonight is a Joseph Drouhin night or a Domaine de la Romanee Conti night?

Here is the best way to handle this, as the guest. “I was looking over the Napa Cab section, and I was thinking about a bottle of Silver Oak.” Here’s what I heard:

  1. I want to spend between $150-$200
  2. I want a Cabernet
  3. I want to impress the people I’m with because everyone knows the name Silver Oak
  4. I’m going to go with a name I trust because many of these selections sound unfamiliar to me
  5. I will probably not order more than one bottle of wine tonight (not because of cost, but because I’m starting my meal with a huge bottle of Napa Cab, which eliminates the possibility of a white or a Pinot Noir to go with salads and appetizers)

Here is what your server heard:

  1. You will get $30 in your pocket because I ordered a $150 bottle and I’m going to tip 20% on it. You had better not break the cork!

Your servers reaction:

  1. Silver Oak, coming up!!

My reaction:

  1. I’m going to bring you a $225 bottle of Dalla Valle 2001 Napa Cab. I’m going to explain the difference between the two wines, and I’ll probably say something like “After tasting this wine, the words ‘Silver Oak’ will never leave you lips again!”

The difference is, for potentially $25 more, you got a wine that in my opinion is easily twice as good. The server would have been happy with the Silver Oak sale and been done with it. You may have turned me down on the added $25. Should that have been the case, the restaurant would have covered that $25 so that you could taste exactly what I was talking about. I want you to taste wine that I KNOW you will love, and I’m willing to make up the difference. My commitment to your wine enjoyment goes as far as taking house calls from your server for my suggestions.

The moral of the story is: your server wants you to spend money on wine that you enjoy. Your Guru wants you to taste the ABSOLUTE best wine that you’re willing to pay for.Trust your Guru. He has your best interest and taste in mind.


View my restaurants’ wine lists:

The Blue Star:


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  1. #1 by heatherlovesherbrother on March 7, 2011 - 6:16 PM

    Well said big brother.

  2. #2 by Marti Mitchell on March 8, 2011 - 12:43 PM

    I need a suggestion for a wine. We are having speg and meatballs made with ground chuck and ground deer meat,along with hot Ilt.sausage. Can you suggest something?

  3. #3 by Sam Callan on March 14, 2011 - 4:07 PM

    A trick I heard from a server one time was to ask the customer what he/she was considering, that will help you nail down the price range without having to ask the uncomfortable question.

    The customer should also be honest and say “I was not looking to spend that much” and go from there. Of course if you are the server and the couple is on a first date, the price thing can get tricky. The person paying (do people do “dutch”?) can be placed in an awkward situation.

    Another thing is that if you suggest a wine and the customer does not blink, then go “or…” at a higher price and let the customer choose. I feel far less trapped.

    • #4 by nosh121 on March 16, 2011 - 10:54 PM

      I love the tricks of the trade Sam. I made the mistake on Valentine’s Day of asking a younger couple what they wanted to spend. His response was “We have no limit!” I don’t think he knew exactly what that could have meant to me. I fit them nicely in to a $56 bottle of Sergio Carlei “Tre Rossi”, an Australian blend of Shiraz, Nebbiolo, and Barbera (Try it sometime! Unique, and INCREDIBLE!). The same night I tried to suggest a $105 bottle of Mitolo G.A.M. (One of my personal favorites) to another couple. He immediately re-routed me toward the Kaesler “Old Bastard” ($250).
      I try to encourage as much open communication as possible. I love the “Silver oak” line, as I said, it tells me everything that I need know, and gives me so much room to play.
      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! Where did you discover it?

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