Tips on how to talk to a sommelier
We’ve all been there. A suave sommelier leans over your shoulder and asks if you’ve chosen. Sweat beads on your forehead as you try to remember your Merlots from your Malbecs, your Semillons from your Sauvignons. And your brain malfunctions with the mental arithmetic of calculating the price per guest.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sommeliers are bursting with encyclopaedic wine knowledge, and keen to introduce their customers to new wines. You just need to ask. To help you in this quest, we caught up with two highly experienced sommeliers – Liam O’Brien and Bert Blaize – and asked them to share their top tips for getting the conversation started.
Sommeliers Liam O'Brien and Bert Blaize
Sommeliers job to impress
Bert - Don’t feel like you need to impress the sommelier. You’re the paying customer, so it’s their job to try and impress you! They are experts on wine, but they also need to be expert in helping customers choose a wine they’ll love.
Most people who work with wine do so for the love of it. So don’t feel bad about giving them a chance to talk to you about their favourite subject. In fact, if you ask a wine waiter for help with your wine choice, you’ll probably make their day.
Asking for advice from the sommelier is a sign of confidence, not weakness. Be open about what you know and don’t know, and ask about anything you don’t understand or recognise on the list.
Liam - Breathe. We're not there to trick you, make you look stupid or rip you off. We are nerds who love geology, agriculture, history, biology and chemistry. In fact, sometimes that can even get in the way of us achieving what we want - to help you find a drink you like.
Have a plan
Liam - Chat with your table and come up with a game plan for the meal. Are you drinking for the occasion? The food? A holiday you took together? Or to explore a variety you've read about, or a wine that you like the flavour of?
Bert - It can be useful to ask a sommelier how they’ve organised their list – for example, by region, grape or style. Every sommelier does this differently, so understanding their logic will help you find your way around their list more easily from the get-go.
Cutler & Co. Dining Room in Fitzroy, Australia
It’s (not) all about the money
Liam – Your sommelier will always be happy to work to a budget. If you don't feel comfortable talking about money, you can point to the list and indicate a number that you are comfortable with. It makes the whole process so much easier.
Bert - Don’t assume a sommelier is there to fleece you. Yes, restaurants are businesses, but restaurant staff know that it’s great, thoughtful service that keeps good restaurants full – not ripping off their customers at any opportunity. You probably don’t assume that a person who takes your food order is going to try to scam you, judge you, or press you to order the most expensive dish for the sake of it. Well, neither is the sommelier!
Wine is more expensive in restaurants compared to shop prices – but spirits and cocktails generally have a much higher mark-up than wine, so if you’re out and drinking, good wine is a relative bargain.
Keep an open mind
Liam – There are a few comments I hear from customers that can make my mood sink a bit. Things like "I don't recognise any of the wines on this list", delivered somewhere between an observation and an accusation. Or "I'd normally drink this (grand cru), or this (back vintage), and I've got heaps of this (benchmark producer) in my cellar, so we won't be drinking that today.” That said, most customers approach the wine list with an open mind, and I love that.
Bert - What you love is always a good place to start. If it’s easier to name wines that you’ve tried and liked before, go for it – it’s often the best way to describe your tastes without having to drift into wine-speak. Equally, if you’ve been on holiday somewhere and love the wines you drank there, that can also be a great clue for a sommelier as to what you’re into. Once you’ve explained what you like, be clear if you want something similar to your usual, or if you’re happy to be gently led out of you comfort zone. Both approaches are equally valid.
Birch in Hertfordshire, UK
Hold the jargon
Liam - I haven't done any formal education for a while so I have softened my stance on certain jargon being right or wrong. Language is a living thing, right? If you do say anything jargonistic, the most important thing is to read your audience to see if they’ve understood – if the word fails to get the message across then you're not doing your job.
Bert – Discussing wine shouldn’t be seen as a test. It’s just a chance for a fruitful chat about what you like, so that you can drink something you’ll love. You aren’t supposed to be a wine expert and have all the lingo down: nobody is, except people who do it for a living.
About Bert Blaize & Liam O’Brien
Having previously worked at Birch, La Belle Epoque in Manchester, Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, Clove Club and the Mandrake Hotel, Bert has been named in the top 50 most influential people in the wine industry by Drinks Business and nominated by GQ for ‘Sommelier of the year.’
In 2020, Bert published his first book with Penguin ‘Which Wine When: What to Drink with the Food you Love’. It was shortlisted for The Fortum & Mason Award for Drinks Book of the Year 2021. We recently spoke with Bert to discover his Super Bowl snacks and wine pairings featured within his book.
Liam is currently the Wine and Beverage Manager for Cutler & Co. Dining Room and Marion Wine Bar in Fitzroy, part of Andrew McConnell’s Trader House Group. Both venues have been awarded best wine list in Victoria by The Good Food Guide. Liam was also a finalist for Sommelier of the Year by Gourmet Traveller. In 2010 Liam was awarded dux of the Len Evans Tutorial, described by James Halliday as “the most exclusive wine school in the world.”
In addition to his role at the restaurant and wine bar, Liam also founded and is the driving force behind Athletes Of Wine. Read our conversation with Liam to discover his journey from sommelier to wine producer.