Masters of wine

They can be expensive, egotistical and snooty … but sommeliers can also boost your business to new levels.

They can be expensive, egotistical and snooty … but sommeliers can also boost your business to new levels.

With the proliferation of wine styles and varieties, do we need specialist waiters to deal with such wine sales and service? Ben Canaider has the answer.

Back when commercial leases were cheap, food costs were low, and wholesale wine was a relatively inexpensive inventory listing, the restaurant business must have been a much more straightforward game than it is today. Blame whatever you like (the real estate boom, celebratory chefs, the growth of wine expertise), but let’s all agree on one thing: it ain’t so simple anymore. Highly paid chefs begat highly paid floor staff.

And somewhere along the line someone figured a restaurant couldn’t be a restaurant without something called a sommelier, or a specialist wine waiter.

Sommeliers are an easy target. They have a French title, for a start, and with the possible exception of race horses, French names never win much favour amongst Australians.

They—the sommeliers—also know all the wine secrets. This garners similar disrespect from members of this island nation. Wine is woine; it is not beer, which is what we really should be drinking… Or is it?

As much as our beer tastes have changed (for instance, we now drink more imported beer and the growth of ales and boutique beers is on the move—brands such as Mountain Goat from Victoria support this…) so too have our wine tastes.

We are no longer Blue Nun drinkers. We now talk about cabernet not claret; hermitage is now called shiraz—or even syrah by some more serious wine insects. It is therefore no wonder that we need specialist waiters.

So here are three reasons why you need a sommelier:

1. Wine and beverage sales now generate more turnover for many restaurants; it makes sense therefore to have a specialised member of staff to stock, sell and serve this part of the profit margin.

A good sommelier can add a lot to your bottom line. It is a tough fiscal bullet to bite, but there’s some truth and worth in this.

2. Savvy service is now expected by the vast majority of fine diners. A third year university accounting student on $10 an hour will not be able to add value to the $38 main course by offering your customer a rooly noice boddle of sav blonc… If your wine list is going to carry a few obscure, rare or posh bottles of wine—and carry them at healthy mark-ups—you need someone slick, assured, and versed in the school of fine wine and food matching to do the job.

3. Sommeliers also run with a very close and tight pack of obsessive hospitality industry professionals. Sommeliers are in many ways the new rock stars of the restaurant scene. Having one is not only a symbol of sophistication, but it also gets you into the more serious punching division of other upper-echelon restaurants. Sommeliers also provide a good leg-in to industry events and new staffing opportunities. You’re serious if you employ a sommelier.

And here are three reasons why you’d be mad to employ one…

1. They cost heaps and they spend heaps. If you are not closely watching these people they will deposit their ego in your store room to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars of wine you will never able to sell, let alone drink yourself.

2. They remain apart from the other members of staff. They are the only true lion in the restaurant jungle—even the owner is a crass idiot who knows nothing about wine and has no palate. This notion of people being judged by their ability to taste the right wines in the right way is fundamental to the sommelier condition, and it is also their biggest weakness both as an individual within society and as a member of a restaurant’s staff.

3. They can be snooty. A lot of customers don’t much care to be ever-so-politely told that their choice for the first course would be ideally matched with a grüner veltliner from Kamptal in Austria. When sommeliers are not adding to the wine list’s inventory they are constantly re-writing it, often including their CV on the opening page. Is the restaurant about the sommelier, or about the food? Or even the customers?

I’m sorry if anyone is offended, but it is my job to try and spell out these complex hospitality industry equations as simply and perhaps as brutally as I can.

Some other advice: I would never have an assistant sommelier on the staff. All this means is that you’ve got too much wine and that the sommelier isn’t working hard enough.

And I would never have a sommelier, either; I‘d have an executive sommelier. If you are going to get sommeliered, you might as well go the whole hog.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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