Sommeliers: who needs ’em?

chase-2Are sommeliers really just glorified waiters trying to make customers buy the most expensive wine on the list, or something more?

The first time I ordered wine in a restaurant I got it horribly wrong. It was in London a million years ago and I was so desperate to impress this girl that I fell for the wine waiter’s trick.

“Perhaps Sir would like a nice bottle of Montrachet?” he asked, exuding knowledge and too much after-shave. Well “Sir” did, and very nice it was too. But I didn’t check the price—it cost a fortune and I can still see the waiter smirking. He probably earned a big bonus that night, like a holiday in Spain.

Now while this may have been a few centuries ago, it seems things haven’t changed very much. From a customer’s point of view, a lot of wine waiters—sommeliers, to use the posh French word—seem to be there just to sell you the overly expensive stuff.

And that made me wonder whether we really need these people. At the risk of being seen as a pariah next time I go to an upscale eatery, I have to say the world might just survive without them.

Not surprisingly, some restaurateurs and sommeliers disagree. Restaurateurs who hire fully-trained sommeliers say they’re worth their weight in corkscrews. They point to the increased wine sales that sommeliers generate and can’t praise them enough.

John Franks, general manager for Sydney’s Merivale Group, which includes Sydney’s est restaurant and the Establishment Hotel, says a professional sommelier often makes other restaurant staff more professional and knowledgeable about the wine list. “We have over 500 staff and we needed someone to educate them and build their professionalism and our sommelier Stuart Halliday has achieved this magnificently. He is on a different level.”

Franks can’t put a figure on a sommelier’s worth, or say how much more wine they are selling, but he says customers trust Halliday and wine sales have been “dramatic”. He says a good sommelier has the ability to raise standards generally.

Similarly, Roger Fowler, general manager of Stokehouse restaurant in Melbourne’s St Kilda, says introducing a sommelier to his restaurant was a great business move.  “Five years ago we had 200 wines and didn’t need a sommelier. Then we decided to get more serious about wine. We now carry 700 wines and have a couple of sommeliers. The wine sales are the best they’ve been.”

He says Stokehouse has a huge cross section of clients—from those who come in once a year and have no idea which wine to select and those who know exactly what wine goes with what food.

“We tell our sommeliers not to be intimidating,” says Fowler. “We don’t want wine snobs or people who look down their nose at customers. They are here to help customers with different vintages and with wines to go with their food.”

They also help compile the wine list. “This may sound wanky, but the sommeliers are here to take people on a wine journey. Let’s say someone orders Yarra Ridge Chardonnay—a nice wine, sure—but if you drink it all the time, why not try something different?” He says Stokehouse sommeliers will suggest another wine at the same price or up to $10 more. If the customer wants to stay with Yarra Ridge, then that’s fine.

They also help customers in other ways. “On a warm summer’s day we might suggest a nicely chilled Riesling that the customer might not have considered. When they say, hey that’s good, it makes it all worth while.”

McWilliams’s Wines value sommeliers so much they’ve joined with the Australian Sommeliers Association in sponsoring an award at Sydney’s Ryde College of TAFE. It’s the Sommelier Student of the Year Award and the inaugural winner will be announced on July 5.

“Wine education is an integral part of our focus,” explains McWilliam’s spokesman Katherine Ward. “Sommeliers are ambassadors of the wine industry and we have introduced the award to recognise the achievements of a sommelier student who pursues higher levels of wine knowledge.”

The award goes to the top student in the Hospitality (Sommelier) Course—a one year course that’s gaining recognition and momentum with students from some of Sydney’s leading restaurants. The prize includes a trophy and a $3000 educational trip to McWilliam’s Brands of Coonawarra winery during vintage.

Matthew Young, the wine guy at Aria restaurant in Sydney, insists people do need sommeliers and have become more accepting of their role. “We’re seen as someone who can demystify a wine list and I like doing that. I also like getting people onto a different wine—something they may not have tried before.”

Young says this applies especially to foreign tourists who often know little about Australian wine regions and the different styles of wine they produce—even if they’d heard of them before.

He says when customers ask his advice, he recommends wines at three different price points. “Price doesn’t always indicate quality and you should be able to recommend a cheaper wine as much as one at the top end.”

And he says he doesn’t get snooty if someone orders a wine that doesn’t really go with their food—say cabernet sauvignon with whiting fillets. “Some sommeliers may turn up their noses, but that tarnishes our image,” he says.

Young clearly disproves the theory that all sommeliers are dispensable. So does Lak Quach, the sommelier at Langton’s in Melbourne, who says the key to being a good sommelier is the way the job is done. “You make people aware of your services, you make them feel comfortable and you try to choose the right wine for them—not the wine that you like the best or the most expensive.”

Interestingly, Stuart Halliday—sommelier at est restaurant and Wine Magazine’s Sommelier of the Year for 2003 and 2004—wishes the term hadn’t been invented, saying he’s merely a wine waiter. “The job’s not rocket science and it doesn’t need an elitist name.”

He says it’s just not on to get someone to spend more on wine than they want to because it can ruin the whole dining experience. “We have people who come here for a big night out and I don’t want them to leave saying it’s a great restaurant with really good food, but the wines are expensive. So I try to have something for everyone.”

A quick check with wine merchants and distributors found another reason why wine waiters are worth their pay. With nearly 2000 wineries in Australia and, arguably, around 20,000 different wines, even the most astute aficionado won’t know every drop.

Halliday says wine waiters are often seen as the “gatekeepers” of a wine list and like to have some unusual or hard-to-find drops.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One, their clientele expects to find quality drops that are out of the ordinary. Two, all restaurants have overheads and can hardly charge $30 for a wine that’s discounted to $8 in suburban bottle shops.

Of course, if more restaurants included a brief description of the wines on their list (winemakers can provide this if the restaurateur can’t) and suggest a few dishes it would go with, there wouldn’t be any need for a sommelier. Would there?

And what about the notion that regular waiters can help customers decide what wine to have with their meal?

Let’s face it—if you’re Rupert Murdoch you might appreciate advice on which of the umpteen cobwebbed vintages of Bordeaux premier crus are drinking well right now. But for the rest of us, surely a well-informed waiter and an informative wine list can do the job? After all, it’s not rocket science.

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