By definition, this person is the resident wine expert in the room — even when the definition is under debate. They are the accomplished authorities who, with a few deft questions, can help us learn how we can make our meal, and our experience, better through the bounty of the vineyard.
But it turns out being a wine expert actually requires much more than just being an expert in wine. The best sommeliers are also:
No matter how they choose to break a sweat outside of their workplaces, you can pretty much guarantee that when your sommelier is at work, they’re doing a fair amount of heavy lifting.
Not only do cases of wine — containing a backbreaking 12 bottles on average — appear at the back door regularly. But it’s often the job of the sommelier to lug each case to the wine cellar (emphasis on cellar, meaning most often at the bottom of a flight of stairs), store each bottle properly (sometimes on the topmost shelf, meaning another climb up a ladder), and then document the location of each for future reference (which, if you think about it, makes them keen librarians, too).
Although we all know a single wine bottle isn’t heavy, holding, opening, and presenting them ever-so-perfectly for the 8- to 10-hour (or longer) shifts most sommeliers put in also takes its toll on the arms.
And that’s not even getting to the glute-defining work of being on your feet — and jogging between tables — all night. When you add it all up, these folks aren’t just experts in wine. They can probably give you a few time-tested tips on how to relieve sore muscles, too.
Ok, so they’re not cutting people open — which, let’s face it, is the defining part of a surgeon’s role — but sommeliers are required to be extremely precise.
Each wine bottle, for instance, is supposed to be opened at a very precarious 30-degree angle, so as not to stir up any sediment. No jagged bits of foil should remain after the capsule is removed. And each glass should be filled to the exact same level — even though sommeliers are responsible for pouring each one on the spot and from above, the hardest vantage point for precision. In fact, this is such an important part of the role that the Master Sommelier certification exam actually includes a test of precision pouring.
Although the perfect amount may not seem like a big deal to the casual consumer, consider the implications. If a sommelier consistently under-pours a certain individual, it gives the appearance that the diner is drinking much more rapidly than they really are, and than the rest of their group — a definite social no-no. Not to mention, it could be inferred by a sensitive individual that the sommelier is showing preference to others if his or her glass is regularly half empty.
Considering that these wine professionals are typically employed by upscale restaurants dedicated to providing the absolute best in customer experience, it’s no surprise that these subtle details are important.
Bear with us as we tell you this: Sommeliers are, in fact, appraising you as soon as you walk through the door. But not in the disapproving way you may think. Instead, they’re just playing detective, evaluating every behavioral clue that could help inform which wine would be best for you.
Are you sauntering in slowly with a very intimate group, waving off tasting menus in lieu of the wine list? Chances are, you’re not there to indulge in the food. Instead, you’re most likely looking to drink a bottle — or more — of something full-bodied.
Are you walking in with a festively dressed and gregarious group that can’t seem to stop comparing notes on the menu and eyeing other diner’s dishes? Chances are you’re celebrating something and will require not one, but several varietals that can pair well with different dishes — and satisfy every palate that is sharing it.
A sommelier can’t determine the absolute best wine for you from your behavior alone, however. They still need to ask questions to get to the root of the issue.
Not even wine experts agree on absolute and infallible terms to describe the taste and experience of wine. When asked what they prefer, many consumers, even those well versed in vino, will describe a flavor sensation in a way that is very particular to them. It is the sommelier’s job to decipher what the consumer means, and then make the determination of what in their stock is best suited to that request.
And that doesn’t even get into the delicate matter of cost. That’s why sommeliers are experts at subtly giving you opportunities to dictate your price point without having to say it out loud. They may point to the price of a wine and say, “something like this,” indicating that they’re requesting your preferred cost. Or they may take a leap of faith and suggest two appropriate wines in two very different price points, making the determination of your budget based on your selection.
Regardless of how they find these clues about you, the point is that sommeliers aren’t trained to tell you which wine is best; they’re trained to tell you which wine is best for you. Not just for your tastes, but also for the food, mood, and experience you’re looking for at that time. And to do that, some serious, and seriously subtle, detective work is in order.
Want to make friends with your local body-builder-surgeon-detective-sommelier? The best way is to start where they work. Below are just a few of the great wine spots we’ve found across the country, or you search for one right in your own neighborhood.
Remember that you must be at least 21 years old to drink in the USA and to always drink responsibly. This information is intended for informational purposes only, and not to promote the consumption of alcohol.