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Getting squirmy with the somm

34 comments

Besha Rodell is a restaurant critic and blogger for LA Weekly. She blogged yesterday about an incident that occurred when she dined, along with some friends, at what she called “one of L.A.’s most highly regarded restaurants.”

From the sound of it, she and her companions had a very uncomfortable experience, and it had to do with the sommelier.

Go ahead, read her post and then come back here. Briefly, Besha and her friends can be faulted with not having asked the sommelier for the exact prices of the bottle and glasses of wine. So, in that respect, Besha doesn’t have any basis to complain about paying nearly $200 in wine costs. And since she knew in advance how “highly regarded” the restaurant was, she should have anticipated that she was going to end up spending a lot of money on vino.

On the other hand, the somm can be faulted for not telling Besha exactly how much the wines would cost. After all, “not too expensive” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was responsible for the bad experience. There’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone to share.

When I read the article, I remembered how uncomfortable I sometimes am at restaurants with sommeliers. You’d think a wine writer like me would be able to negotiate the restaurant-somm waters with ease, but that’s not the case. There’s something that almost always makes me queasy, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I can relate to Besha’s not asking the somm for the specific price. She was embarrassed. Now, you can argue that she shouldn’t have been, but the fact is, lots of us are embarrassed to ask about bottle prices, unless we’re made out of money, and who is? If I were a sommelier, I like to think I’d be on the customer’s side in terms of helping him find the precise wine that suits his meal, in the most comfortable price zone. But I don’t know how somms are paid. Do they get a percentage of the bottle price? Are they under pressure to push more expensive bottles? And the tip, which is a percentage of the total bill, also goes up with more expensive wine, doesn’t it? Not knowing exactly what the somm’s motives are can make the somm-customer interaction murky and stressful. It’s almost like there’s a subtext to the conversation, with the somm prodding the customer upward in price and the customer resisting, politely and tactfully. That is not the stuff of which good restaurant experiences are built.

I don’t think the situation is the same with beer or cocktails. I mean, the customer’s relationship with a bartender is much easier than with a somm. It’s the fact that wine is so much more expensive that really distorts the dining experience. If you eat at a top restaurant, you almost feel like the servers and sommeliers and even the customers are looking at you and expecting you to spend a bundle on a bottle (or 2 or 3) of wine. (Don’t you look to see what other people are drinking? I do.) It’s like, if you don’t splurge, you risk looking like a cheapskate. I don’t know about you, but paying $120 for a bottle of wine, when the meal itself costs maybe $50, isn’t something I’m prepared to do very often. (And, as Besha knows, a bottle simply isn’t enough for a meal. You’re going to want a couple of glasses, too.)

How do you feel about the customer-sommelier experience? Does it ever make you feel weird? How do you handle it?

  1. I check out the list, make several choices in my price point and then ask the Sommelier which wine would go better with what we’re eating. If they suggest something else I make sure I’m willing to pay it before agreeing. Never put down the list. More isn’t always better, but am not sure sommeliers or waiters agree with that. She could easily have checked the prices herself and then swayed the conversation back into her price range without actually mentioning prices. It’s a tricky business for sure.

  2. I’ve never felt comfortable around sommeliers. While all restaurant industry people are working for tips, the sommelier is the only person that seems to be pushing customers to spend more than they are comfortable spending. I don’t mean to disparage someone who curates a fantastic wine collection at a restaurant, which is an important job that I always appreciate. But I’ve definitely felt the disapproving glance of wine snobbery looking down on me as I eliminated every option over $50 from a wine list.

    When navigating a restaurant wine list, I will usually narrow down my choices to 3-5 wines, then talk to the staff from there. If they recommend one of those wines, or something similar, I am always happy to take their suggestion. If they start pushing me up the price list, I say thank you and pick one of my original choices.

  3. Most sommelier’s are pricks….that’s the bottom line.
    I know, I was once one of those pricks.
    Whatever they say about making it easy for the customer, teaching the customer….whatever…..all bs
    Bottom line is they are trying to make money.
    There are only a handful out there who are nice about it.

    In the above case it’s the sommelier’s fault. She, despite being the salesman, should have offered three wines at three different price points (in a discreet way ie point to three diff wines in the list) and let the customer decide. That is taught in “wine pouring person 101″
    Sommeliers should be and are fully aware of customers lack of confidence when ordering wine, they need build on that lby creating a trustful relationship, not take advantage of it…

    Me and my wife know what we like wine wise, so in restaurants one of us explains that to the sommelier and give them a price range to go on….that way you are giving them the freedom of creativity with choosing from the list, but not letting them drop some ludicrous 1/3 acre Grand Cru Burgundy that costs more than a week’s rent.

  4. At some level a really good somm should be able to gauge the customer’s level of neurosis, and comfort or lack thereof. But honestly, most somms I have met really suck at this. Personally I have never had an uncomfortable experience with one, unless it was on the part of the somm. Me: “Why, yes (sotto voce: you pompous little shit) I DO know that Listan Negro is grown on Tenerife.” The fact is in more than three decades doing this I have probably forgotten more than the guy who got his pin last year will ever know. And I’m not going to let the somm ruin my meal with attitude.

  5. I’m going to chime in here only because I worked as a sommelier for 19 years, and in restaurants for 30 years.

    Every restaurant is different in terms of how the sommelier earns his tips, though he usually does get some share of the tip. He is better paid than the waiters who usually only make minimum wage plus tips. His main job is exactly what everyone else’s job in the restaurant is, to provide service and the best experience possible. A sommelier who gets a reputation for being a snob and for pushing people into higher priced wines or second bottles doesn’t last long. Nor does his restaurant.

    In my experience, a large majority of guests already know what kind of wine they want when they sit down, even before they open the wine list. Most are creatures of habit. It is a pleasure to work with a guest who is open to new wines, new varieties. That’s actually what makes the job fun. Sommeliers do NOT usually decide what the prices are for the wines. Usually it is the owner who decides the markup. The biggest cost of running a restaurant is usually rent. So in nicer areas, with high profile and traffic, a restaurant is going to pay exorbitant rent and will then usually charge a higher markup on the wines. But there are lots of other factors, too. My point is simply that the sommelier did not choose to make the wines overpriced. So if the owner says we mark the wines up three and a half times cost, it can be hard to find interesting and great wines that land on the list under $50. At two times cost, it gets a lot easier, but that’s just part of the gig.

    I would suggest to everyone, especially Besha Rodell, who seems unusually naive for someone who is supposed to be a restaurant critic, to talk to the restaurant management when the problem you’re having occurs. Don’t go on Yelp and bitch, don’t go home and write a post about it, register your complaint with the restaurant. A successful and great restaurant will try to do something about it. Once you walk out the door, then your complaint sounds phony to the management. You wouldn’t believe how many people call and complain two days later about their meal, usually hoping for the restaurant to offer to buy them dinner. But if Besha had explained her dilemma and her sticker shock to the management, which is perfectly acceptable behavior, they most likely would have done something to soothe her and make her want to return. Why lose a guest’s future business when all it takes is a financial negotiation to make them feel happy and want to return? Always talk to the management if you’re unhappy. If you don’t, it’s your fault you leave unsatisfied.

    How hard is it to say No? Or to say to the sommelier or server, “I’ll pour my own wine, thank you.” I’ve never had an issue with a sommelier, though I never introduce myself as one. I do think that younger sommeliers believe too often that the wine list is about them. It takes some time for many of them to realize that, in fact, the wine list is about giving the guests what they want.

  6. Steve!

    I’ve heard rumor that Somms like to sprinkle in great value, off-the-beaten path selections into their lists (wines they like to drink) and that these wines are on the softer underside of the piggy bank, so-to-speak.

    When presented with a list, esp a daunting heavy tomb from an acclaimed restaurant, with pages and pages of $500+ wines, I think of it as a challenge: can I spot the brilliant wine at the absurdly reasonable price point and will it pair well with my meal? Or will I have to play the Somm to find out?

    Is this true? Wishful thinking? Either way, the challenge of finding this secret value wine takes the pressure off to spend more than I want to because I’ve convinced myself that there’s a gem and the Somm is the gatekeeper, secretly championing a needle in a haystack and if prompted in the right manner, will point it out.

    This presents another problem I run into often: spending half the meal trying to figure out the right wine. Alas.

  7. doug wilder says:

    I agree that bringing this to a public forum is unprofessional. If you are a customer with a problem, bring your displeasure to the management then and there and own your part of it. If I am at a loss of what to order off a list, I will ask the somm what they think of a number of possible choices I am considering. One thing it will do is signal to them that I am looking for let us say examples of Sonoma Coast, vineyard-designated Pinot Noir under $100. In that instance I would be dismayed if a $300 burgundy showed up on my tab. Unquestionably the guest needs to be aware of what they are asking the employee to do and understand if something seems out of synch. I remember an important lesson I learned as a 17 year old when I took my first car to a body shop to get a minor dent taken care. It was one of the first experiences I ever had of negotiating services. When I asked how much it would cost, the bodyman said simply ‘a bill’. Not wanting to appear like a clueless kid, I said OK, reasoning that ‘a bill’ is $20. Come to find out that wasn’t his definition (after forking out $100). Maybe the writer doesn’t realize that the rule of thumb in a restuarant is that pouring wine by the glass, the first bottle pays for the whole case.

  8. Bill Geofferys says:

    The vast majority of somms are worthless, label drinkers. Their opinions are rarely built off of actual taste and more off of a framework built on a false notion of what Robert Parker likes and dislikes.
    Somms talk about balance, but are really interested in creating a misguided dialectic of Acid vs Fruit (or perhaps minerality vs fruit) where acid, in the current fashion, is the privileged term. They often confuse acidity with quality
    Somms have deemed that it is only ok to like Californian wines if the producers are overly apologetic towards European (primarily French) wines
    Somms have dictated that a wine’s quality can be judged by reading its stated ABV.
    Somms like to spread bullsh*t like it’s science. Saying things like “the flavor you’re getting is a result of the limestone in the soil” is about as informative as saying “we are on earth because God put us here” both are intellectually lazy and mistake fantasy for causation
    Somms have decided that if your taste doesn’t align with theirs, you should be the subject of derision.
    Somms are the TeaParty (TeaBrains) of the wine world

    That said, people should NEVER be intimidated by them and should always question the motive of the somm on duty. Not doing so is just naïve

  9. “Either way, I learned my lesson: Drink somewhere else.” There seems to be an irascible nature to this article, one that avoids commenting on the quality of the wines or the lack of it, neither was there a comment on the overall dining experience; was this just about the wine? Should the entire restaurant be rejected because of a misunderstanding with the Somm, or did I miss-understand her rejection?
    Waiting on the public, especially the public with big expectations, can often be frustrating and dehumanizing. $200 doesn’t pay for one bottle “Hillside Select” Cab. and isn’t an outrageous sum even for us hicks in the NH woods. When a group of people are eating at a “good” restaurant, I think you have to expect something like this, or order your own choice in wine; maybe one of those “B” wines from South Africa, or maybe Barefoot.
    MOOM: mountain out of molehill.

  10. Thank you, Steve, Ron and all.
    I would think that she should have had an “event” with the manager and, as a restaurant critic, written about that and her wine experience. (My kids cringe when I have an “event” at a restaurant.)
    But, remember, restaurant critics know zip about wine, primarily because it is not their metier and because the budget does not provide for a glass of house wine, let alone a bottle of Burgundy etc..
    This wine/pairing/somm at a restaurant is simply out of the price range of 99% of restaurant critics and freelancers (unless they are comped and then one asks “is this legit?” Whether it is or not.)
    If a wine is out of a critic’s range, should it be within the range of the critic’s readers? Sometimes yes, sometimes no but important to be clear about the wine and the price, not so much about the somm connected to wine. A somm is service.
    As a former newspaper editor of restaurant critics, I know this is true.

  11. Hi Kathy, thanks for weighing in!

  12. Bill G., some very controversial statements! Thanks.

  13. wow, the hosemaster comes to the defense of wine snobs. who saw that coming?

    this has been a really interesting thread of comments, and has taken the question of “how do you handle a somm?” and turned it into, “how to make the best of your restaurant experience”.

    it looks like a few people share my philosophy of starting with an idea, and then sharing it with the staff, to see if they can recommend something you might like, or are just there to push high-priced wines.

    i like the suggestion of talking to the waitstaff when you are unhappy with your experience. i recently ordered a $40 bottle of beer by accident, and when the bartender saw my reaction to the price, she gave me a discount and REFUSED A TIP, without me ever asking for anything.

    as for the idea that most somm’s are label-whore douchebags trying to show-off their wine knowledge….i find that to be true for about half of all somms. The other half are lovable wine geeks who just want you to appreciate the amazing food-compliment qualities of riesling and gamay. as a diner, the important thing is to know which half you are dealing with

  14. Gabe,

    You misread me. I don’t defend wine snobs. An awful lot of HoseMaster, the character I play, is aimed at lampooning wine snobs and experts. But lots of folks go off on sommeliers for the wrong reasons. A jerk is a jerk, whether he serves the food, cooks the food, or chooses the wine list. You don’t want to meet a jerk during your night out to dinner no matter what he does. I just think most people don’t even know what the sommelier job entails. A sommelier has to deal with wine novices, wine experts and wine snobs, all in the same night. “Most sommeliers are pricks” (not your statement) is a stupid remark, take it from me, I’m the King of Stupid Remarks, and an all too common stereotype. It’s not hard to understand why he’s no longer a sommelier.

    Every profession is filled with many incompetent people. Some attract scorn all the time, among them lawyers, wine critics, politicians and sommeliers. It’s part of the job. People hear “sommelier” and think “wine snob.” It’s no big damn deal. It’s only wine.

  15. Lesson that should have been learned: ASK the price, if the price is that important to you! While I agree that the somm should have made some effort to communicate pricing to the customer (good policy in general and in particular here, where the customer had mentioned that price *was* a consideration), it’s the customer who is spending their time and their money to have a good experience. The somm has the opportunity to make it a *great* experience (and insure a return visit from that customer. as opposed to having the restaurant’s name thrashed in a public forum). Enough fault to go around (60% customer/40% somm) — ALL of which could have been avoided if only the customer had asked the price.

  16. Sherman: “ASK the price,” or if the somm had suggested it. I think the embarrassment factor was on the somm, who sensed, shark-like, that she smelled blood in the water, and could move in for the kill.

  17. Steve and all,

    Am I the only one who’s a bit bothered by the fact that Ms Rodell writes that “It’s something that’s happened to me before”? If it is true, then she has only herself to blame. How hard is it to tell the somm : “We are thinking about spending no more than $65 on wine”? I absolutely agree with the Hosemaster; people are people and there are jerks everywhere; Sometimes, even the customer can be the jerk!

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand the basic premise and hate the snobby tributary of our tribe, but this story has a bit of a “man bites dog” odor.

  18. I reread Besha’s column and looked at some of her other columns and Tweets. She is a v. good restaurant critic and writer. She rarely mentions wine and her liquor fascination seems to lie with cocktails (her brother is a NOLO bartender, she was in the restaurant biz).
    I wonder if the combo of uneducated servers, somms and the reality that a customer is tasting wine blind is behind the rise of restaurant cocktails. Whatever the price of a cocktail, it is clearly stated and it is what it is, parasol and all. The only normal option is to move the liquor up an ultra-premium notch and the price with it, all out in the open.
    With wine, one usually doesn’t know the exact taste as it can vary by a skein of factors. So, what is the most reliable factor? Price. Then recommendation or brand. All, as Ron and others noted, have to do with the training and focus of the restaurant (or restaurant chain, hotel chain or catering) relative to the bottom line. “Smelled blood” is over the top.
    I don’t know why she didn’t identify the restaurant, though.

  19. In London, the “wine waiter” (as we amusingly call them) will usually point to the wines in question on the list, allowing you to judge the price. And his pronunciation.

  20. Ron,

    Fair point. You didn’t really defend wine snobs; in fact you probably did the opposite, by saying that not all sommelier’s are wine snobs. And they are indeed easy targets for ridicule, although I have said in previous parts of this thread that I do appreciate the work they do.

    One other point you mentioned had to do with the restaurant mark-up, and this is where the job of a somm gets tricky. I feel like I have been to wine shops where someone is excited to sell me their favorite $10-$15 bottle that they drink twice a week. Getting that kind of service from a somm seems much more rare, possibly because it’s a fancy restaurant and not an empty wine shop. But I usually rate wine lovers on a sliding scale from total wine nerd on one end to wine snob on the other (somehow, i consider total nerd to be a high compliment). As a total wine nerd myself, it seems like most somm’s I’ve dealt with fall closer to the wine snob side of the spectrum, although I’m sure there are plenty of wine nerds somm’s out there.

    And btw, I didn’t really mean to say you were defending wine snobs. Like politicians and sommelier’s, the hosemaster of wine is also a pretty easy target. :-) No offense meant, I enjoy your website. Keep up the good work.

  21. Gabe,

    A guy writing the crap I write has to be able to take it just as easily as he dishes it out. You didn’t offend me in the least.

    I think Kathy makes a very strong point. A restaurant that has an offensive or snobby or shark-like sommelier may just end up selling a lot more fancy cocktails. Which, by the way, are FAR more profitable in the long run than wines with even the most outrageous markups. Alcohol of every sort is the profit center of a restaurant, but most consumers focus on the wine list. It’s easier to see the markup, but there’s a lot more money in martinis and foo-foo drinks.

  22. whats a somm says:

    Last year my wife and I (along with my sister in law and her husband) celebrated our 4 year anniversary at PRESS in St. Helena. My sister in law is not a big wine drinker but she was in the mood for some wine, so we asked our waitress if she can send the somm over for a recommendation off their wine list. She stepped away for a few minutes and came back saying “The sommelier recommended the Arietta.” I was baffled. The somm made this recommendation based on what? This was the first time I ever requested advice from a somm. The experience made me question exactly what it is that they do. I always assumed that part of their job at a restaurant is to help make recommendations for diners based on their preferences. Not sure what to think of this but from there on our dinning experience there went downhill…but that’s another story.

  23. dear whats a somm: that is an unbelievable story. That “sommelier” should lose his or her job!

  24. This problem has a very easy solution. My standard line to the sommelier – “You pick the wine, keep it under $X.”

  25. I once was stuck with a suggestion by a somm in one of those pricey Napa restaurants…..as I have my own cellar, I know what I would have chosen, but my companion wanted advice….a horrid over-oaked pinot…..I gagged it down and swore that I would bring my own bottle(s) next time……I prefer Cheetos with my Cabernet!

  26. Ed Masciana says:

    It’s the term, sommelier. It sucks. Most people can’t even pronounced it so yippee, the first thing you’ve done to your customer is intimidate them. Great PR guys! Just use a different term like Wine Steward, Wine Person, Guy, Gal, whatever. It’s this pretentiousness that makes me crazy like just ’cause you know about wine you’re cooler than the next jerk. NOT!

  27. Joanna Breslin says:

    If you do not want to state your price range out loud, you can point to it on the wine list. If you are the sommelier, you can ask the guest to do this – “show me where you would feel comfortable”, while indicating the price column with a gesture.

    As the March Hare said to Alice, “you should say what you mean”. That goes for both parties.

    Sommeliers, read your table! Guests, tell the sommelier what you want!

    BTW, plural nouns do not have apostrophes.

  28. this is a great discussion. It is very unfortunate that Sommeliers have behaved in a manner that illicits some of the comments & names.

    What many of those… Less than helpful Sommeliers don’t think or care about is that their interaction represents something much bigger than a larger bill & tip. The sommelier represents the restaurants character, culture & reputation…along with the wines they recommend.

    It is too bad that sooo much arrogance & ego is in the business as a whole & the sommelier position.

    Thank you Steve for hosting such a lively debate

  29. For its simple for me, with a new restaurant where I don’t know the Somm I act dumb but am very specific on price, grape, style, country and even region. Then I either agree with the Somm and order or tell them they are full of shit and why, OK I have sent Somms away crying, but never up sell garbage or tell me something that is absolutely BS which is how some Somms get by. Besides with my list of requirements they should have caught on to the dumb act if they were any good.

  30. Michael Donohue says:

    Years ago in Toronto I was hosting a Burgundian negociant (combined wine experience approx. 50 years) at an upscale restaurant and wanted to show him a Canadian wine and ordered a Sauvignon/Semillon blend from British Columbia. We both nosed it and rejected it immediately as riddled with TCA (cardboard, fruitless, etc.) The waiter took a glass to the somm for adjudication and came back with the response “the wine tastes exactly as it’s supposed to”. We insisted on a new bottle and it was bright, lively and very satisfying…the somm came over later to apologize for having just had a cigarette and brushing her teeth…CLM anyone?

  31. I find it quite amusing that many are writting about a-hole sommelier’s being wine snobs but also being full of shit, make things up, and being condescing. While I am not going to defend the somms, from my perspective it seems like you are behaving in the exact same manner that you are complaining about. Perhaps these somms can sense in your tone that you are a condescending a-hole who hates somms.

    Speaking to a somm is like going to a financial advisor….if you are not explicit with the parameters that you are comfortable with, you may end up losing your pants and not in a fun way.

  32. * condescending

  33. Joanna’s right. I am a sommelier and was a server for a long time. I have no sympathy for Ms. Rodell. Nobody goes into a car dealership and says, “I’m looking for a Lexus, something with four wheels and an engine, but not too expensive,” and then hands off the credit card because they’re embarrassed to discuss price, with or without friends present. Price is absolutely central to the buyer-seller relationship – it is fundamental. There is no compelling reason for two rational people, already in a discussion over a potentially expensive product (price range at my restaurant was $40-$10,000/btl), not to discuss acceptable price parameters. I would have guys say “not too expensive” and be referring to under-$1,000/btl. And then some people would be referring to a $100 bottle. I would have young women come in alone and drink $300 bottles at the bar. Yes, the sommelier ought to read the customer; yes, most people, when they say “not too expensive” (it’s absurdly common), mean $40-65; on the other hand, most bottles in most “highly regarded restaurants” are not in that price range, and most people who go into “highly regarded restaurants” are not looking for a $40 bottle of wine to share with their girlfriends. There are tactful, quiet ways to discuss and to disclose prices – for example, point to a price on the menu and say “something around this price, give or take 10%.” I would encourage Ms. Rodell to learn to eat at a restaurant, and I would encourage the sommelier to communicate better. Eating out is a skill like any other, and, I would imagine, a vital one if one is a self-anointed food blogger. On a related note, no sommeliers I know or have met make the gratuity on the wine they sell, nor do they make a commission. And none that I know have any interest in gouging customers.

    Say what you mean!

  34. Chris made me laugh with the opening lines.

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