The role of the Sommelier

Stuart’s essay has created plenty of controversy – responses at bottom of page.

Who can forget the words of that 1960s hit by the inestimable Edwin Starr?

Sommeliers! Huh! What are they good for?  –  Absolutely nothing!

At least, I think it was sommeliers, wasn’t it? Anyway, I have had cause to recall the sentiment a little too often for comfort again recently.

When the first general wine guides for the mass market were published in Britain in the sixties, reviews invariably promised that that the book in question would arm us against that predatory martinet of the restaurant world, the snooty wine waiter. A picture was painted of eating out as a kind of Beirut, in which hapless ignoramuses had their dignity shot down by sneering waiters who only wanted to bilk them out of as much ready money as they legally could. I am far too young to remember such a time of course, but as we like to tell ourselves now, ‘Thank goodness that’s all changed, eh?’

Er, are you sure?

I ate at a tower on the South Bank of London last month – let’s call it the Oxo Tower, since that’s its name – and encountered that familiar problem of having to order a half of white and a half of red, as one wine was clearly not to going to serve both diners. The only half-reasonably priced half-bottle of red, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, was sold out (although nobody had bothered to amend the list), and I was directed to hop over the Frog’s Leap Zinfandel that was the next option, and on to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape that was a mere £13.50 extra – on a half-bottle, mind.

Our half of Pouilly-Fumé was rancidly corked, as one sniff confirmed. The resident expert poured himself a slug in another glass, and after much twirling and sniffing, declared sotto voce, ‘I don’t get it’, as though one had just told some wilfully abstruse joke.

At another colossally expensive roadside eatery in Berkshire a couple of weeks previously, the sommelier offered me a glass of dessert wine to go with our tarte Tatin (£37 for two). ‘We have a nice Sauternes,’ he offered, pointing at a Monbazillac. ‘That’s a Monbazillac,’ I countered, and was met with the kind of patiently indulgent smile that says ‘To you, sir, they are probably much the same thing’.

What is the point of these people? Surely not just to get you to spend more than you had intended to? How embarrassingly vulgar is that? Are they there to be consulted for advice on what would make a good match for the food you are going to eat, in which case why do they never ask what you have ordered?

Some years ago, a lunch at Bibendum was spoiled by a sommelier who began the proceedings by asking us, ‘Can I get you all a drink? Champagne?’ and then went on to reject my first choice of California Chardonnay for one that was ‘much better’, and turned out to be a mere £12 more than the first. (And this when the Conran empire was ripping everybody for 15% service charge.) If the first wine was not worth ordering, then what in crap’s name was it doing on the list?

xThe hope is presumably that you will be too ashamed to say that you don’t want to spend that much, so you gulp and accept the surcharge. But when, to the arrogance of presuming to know your budget, is added the technical incompetence of not being able to spot a corked wine even when it has wavy cartoon pong-lines coming off it, we are entitled to reverse the usual restaurant drill. A restaurant with a sommelier will not allow you to request your wine from the waiter who takes the food order, but insists on sending over the guy with the bunch-of-grapes lapel badge. Perhaps we should try waving him away in future and asking to order from a waiter who won’t contradict us.When all is said and drunk, the best sommeliers are those who simply take the wine order without trying to overrule you, but then, one wonders what distinguishes them from any other waiter, other than a fair amount of expensive training.

The question raised by the whole pantomime is whether indeed a restaurant needs a sommelier at all. In modern eateries where the wine list is very often a single sheet of carefully chosen bottles, perhaps amounting to two or three dozen in all, there is no particular reason for the general waiting staff not to be familiar enough with them to be able to advise the customer. And while it is by means a universal phenomenon, wine lists that are grouped by grape variety and style, with concise explanatory notes giving you some indication of what to expect, are quite enough for most people.

In the grand hotels, where they may well be selling ancient bottles that need careful decanting, and where one would appreciate knowing whether the 1978 Calon-Ségur is still drinking well, there may well still be a place for the sommelier. But how many customers does that cover? No more than a tiny percentage of all restaurant patrons on any given day. The rest of us can quite happily manage without being pestered by somebody to spend more, which anyway hardly adds up to the dignified profession we are enjoined to see in their role, but makes them instead more like catering’s equivalent of the estate agent.

A few years ago, a respected colleague Aileen Hall ordered some business cards from a printing company. On receipt, she discovered that they had rendered her job description ‘Wine Writer’ as ‘Wine Waiter’. They were quickly despatched back for correction. Wine writers themselves may not enjoy the most trustworthy of reputations among the general public, but who would want to be confused with a wine waiter? You’d have to go about in dark glasses and a hijab for weeks.

Responses to this essay

Christine Larsen
Maybe it’s in Britain that the Somm’s can be exceptionally snooty or Stuart has decided to direct all his frustration on the Sommelier profession. I happen to be one of these scourges in the fine dining arena, a professional “wine waiter” in Seattle, and people are often intimidated when I come up to the table. The joy I get in this line of work is guiding a guest into trying something they haven’t had before. When they do branch out from their comfort zone and try something different without sticking them for more money, sometimes less they are truly thrilled. They give me a handshake and come back again just to speak with me, excited to try something else. You pointed out, as in all great tragedies, your negative experiences. If it makes you feel you “got revenge” on those Sommelier’s, good, maybe you can relax a bit now.


Stuart’s response to Christine:
Christine – I’ll relax when I’m in my wheelchair, but thank you for sharing your thoughts and setting a professional standard.

Philip Abrams
I’m backing David Smith and his experience at Le Manoir over Stuart Walton any day. If you’re the kind of cheapskate who’s niggled about being charged £3 more than you might be what the hell are you doing eating at Le Manoir – where the food alone can easily set you back £75 a head.


Stuart’s response to Philip:
Dear Philip, Presumably you’re the sort of charitable soul who also doesn’t mind the banks overcharging you a few quid here and there, or the barman in the pub pulling you seven-eighths of a pint, or the garage mechanic sticking an extra tenner on for non-existent parts. I, and many others like me, however, don’t see ourselves as charities, whether we’re in Le Manoir or the local Tesco. Get off your knees mate.

Steve Hewins
Greetings from Stateside. Being a sommelier, I will of course have a difference of opinion with the thrust of your article. I can’t argue with your point about imperious, pompous, clueless bozos posing as sommeliers who ruin your dinner experience and hoover your money without a twinge of conscience. I think your article was pithy and largely on-point, but also sung a bit to the choir. Stories of being ripped off and abused in restaurants are ancient and plenty.

Is there no competition for business where you are? Here in New York City the competition for the dining dollar is acute and it’s not won by flash or celebrity (at least not in the long term), it’s won by service. A good sommelier is not in the wine business or even the restaurant business – he or she is squarely in the hospitality business and there is a difference. I must be blessed (or I don’t get out enough), because I have rarely come across a sommelier or similar creature that was so condescending or rude as to threaten my happiness at dinner.

In those instances where I felt that the service, either from the waiter or the sommelier, was in any way inappropriate, I let the establishment know in clear terms my disappointment, as well as my profession. By letting them know I’ve been let down they have information to work with to correct service problems and possibly to make amends before I leave the restaurant, though the latter is not the main reason for complaining. By letting them know that I work in the restaurant industry, I want them to know that I not only empathize with the difficulty of getting it right for every guest, but that I have some inkling of what I’m talking about and not just a crank. If they still don’t get it after that, then I am grateful that I am competing for business with them because they will drive guests my way.

For me, regardless of my role in the restaurant, the point is that it’s not what you say or do, but how you make people feel. You can have so-so food and treat people like long lost friends and you will have a customer for life. It’s not just some new-age, touchy-feely philosophical exercise, it’s good business. And if the waiter or the sommelier or the maitre d’ don’t get that, then you and I won’t be back. The Bad Sommelier is a symptom, not the disease.


Stuart’s response to Steve:
Thanks Steve. I wonder whether anybody else is beginning to feel this is a peculiarly British problem. Do we get the wine waiters we deserve in this country? Another anecdote: I once sent back a pair of glasses of corked champagne in the Ivy in London. The replacement that arrived were identically corked. I asked if they had been poured from a fresh bottle, to which the answer was an indignant yes. I rejected those as well. For the third attempt, an unopened bottle was produced in the presence of the sommelier for the first time, the bottle opened and the glasses poured. These were fine. ‘Thank you,’ was the response in heavily sardonic tones. The impression left was that I had been intimidated into accepting the third glasses only because there was a furious expert twat standing over me. Bon appetit, messieurs.

Peter Allinson
As a Butler in Clare College Cambridge, I am not a sommelier but my job does involve serving wine and advising people about wine. My comment would be as in all jobs , there are good wine writers and bad, sorry waiters!!! I would also add that if I was going to drink an expensive bottle of Bordeaux would it not be a good idea to enquire the day before what was available and to ask for it to be taken from its rack and stood up to settle which would aid decanting if necessary.


Stuart’s response to Peter:
Peter – Your comments take me back to student days at Oxford, where Lincoln College had one of the finest cellars at the university. Meetings of the Davenant Society (rarefied philosophical debates lubricated by booze) were often enlivened by the serving of expertly decanted vintage ports of the 1960s. Yes, it would be better to prepare the bottle the day before, of course, but this is scarcely a practical option for a restaurant.

Harald Trost
My personal experience with sommeliers here in Austria is rather different from yours in the UK. First, a sommelier is a rare treat for me anyway. Only fairly high-end restaurants care for that luxury.

OTOH, the few sommeliers I have encountered so far were rather helpful. They always pointed out wines to me (sometimes after some discussion) which proved to go well with the food and to be to my liking. And they more or less kept to the price range I set beforehand.

One important task sommeliers have to do is not mentioned at all in your article. A good sommelier will buy wines that are interesting and have a good Q/P ratio. Now that I myself know about as much about wine as a decent sommelier, I must say that quite often I really appreciate their choices (which have to include the “names” but often offer hitherto unknown choices).

As always though, there are people who are not up to their job. That’s bad. But the same can be said about cooks, waiters, restaurant owners, etc. Greetings from Vienna.


Stuart’s response to Harald:
Thanks Harald. With the intelligence we are receiving from the USA, Cyprus and now Austria, it’s beginning to seem as though practically anywhere is a happier place to order wine in a restaurant than the UK, where discourtesy, incompetence and money-grubbing still rage unchecked.

Giorghos Hadjistylianou
Well I’m not surprised that you had such experiences in London. On a recent trip with my brother we encounter the same problems, with waiters and “sommeliers”, trying to run our bill and suggest the most expensive items on BOTH FOOD AND WINE, to a couple of restaurants that we visited during our 3 day visit. I haven’t seen though any articles on waiters, is it because they are much more “important” to the equation.

We were really shocked and embarrassed for the whole thing. However London these days is extremely expensive and from what we gathered the staff were not very well trained, knowledgeable and attentive. I will not name the restaurants however both restaurants were 1 Michelin star. I’m sure the owners have invested a lot of money to put those restaurants. On the other hand if they don’t know what’s going on there then is of course their fault.

However, sommeliers are not like that everywhere since I’m one of them and my brother owns Barolo Food & Wine Restaurant in Limassol Cyprus.

I’ve worked for more than 14 years in the US and believe me things are not like that. In all the restaurants that I’ve worked in NY our policy was to get the guest price point or what they want to spend and work around there. Not to recommend anything more than $5-$6 from what they pointed out on our wine lists.

Where I work now there is not even a question that people will spent more than what they want to or can afford.

I do think that good sommeliers are important if of course know their job and he/she understands the guests NEEDS and budget. Rather the so called “sommeliers” are there for the show.

I believe wine list should not be 40-50 wines in good restaurants rather 100-150 at least, ours at the moment is close to 300 labels. I personally like going to restaurant who have hard to find obscure wines from artisanal wineries and not the commercial ones. A list with 10 chardonnay, 10 sauvignon blancs, and the rest cab, merlot, syrah and so on, they are boring.

In those instances is not only the sommeliers fault. The fish stinks from the head, upper management or ownership should never allow such a thing. But that’s another story.

London has done damage to this professions, waiters and sommeliers alike. Of course is not just your job, to mention it but also your duty and that’s great because that is how I believe things will change if the right people read your article.

May be a few more articles regarding this subject as well. However don’t give a bad name to the sommeliers around the world or even the ones in London, England or the UK that work hard to do their job. The ones who spent ours daily studying, researching to bring to you, us, everyone’s their new jewels from new regions or varietals that we haven’t heart before.

Wine makers around the world are working very hard to improve their techniques and methods in order for us to enjoy these wines. If not for sommeliers in the most instances these wines will never sell in restaurants because no one will put them on their wine list and the consumers will probably never get the chance to taste them. Then what is the point of trying to produce better wines from local grapes.

It’s all a cycle.


Stuart’s response to Giorghos:
Thank you for that considered contribution Giorghos, the best we’ve had so far, if I may say so. Eating out in the UK is still very much a journey through perilous terrain, in large part owing to the kinds of attitudes I have pinpointed. I have encountered more courteous and professional treatment in the United States too, although the drawback there is that they expect a 20% tip for everything. And yes, there are many shorter wine lists out there on which it is virtually impossible to find any white wine that isn’t made from Sauvignon or Chardonnay.

Becky-Sue Epstein
To paraphrase a principle of physics, it’s true about sommeliers that “for each great one, there’s an equal an opposite reaction.” That’s the key phrase that jumps out from another respondent: “For each sommelier I have encountered who has advised me badly or pushed an expensive bottle, there has been another whose advice has been exemplary..” The problem is, you never know when you’re getting the good sommelier and when you’re getting his or her evil twin. Here in the US., we often have people with titles such as Wine Director, as “Sommelier” is considered pretentious — and because we are farther from France, where they enforce such language. I have often encountered Wine Directors as well as waiters who have repeated such a startling amount of memorized information about a wine that even I, as a wine writer, was intimidated. What this means is simply that they have memorized information about their wine list. They may also know the most “popular” wines at their establishment. But they may or may not be able to help me make a selection that works for me. One that affects both the quality of my dining experience and my delicate bank account. I am left with the recurring predicament at every restaurant dinner: How do I know if this is the time to trust the sommelier?


Tom’s response to Becky Sue:
Stuart declined to get into an incestuous cycle by answering this one (Becky is also one of wine-pages columnists) but just to say that I agree there is a big national divide here: the sommelier/”wine director” in most of the really upmarket American restaurants I’ve been to is very much a showman (or occasionaly woman), presenting the wines as a bit of theatre with lots of pomp and lots of detail of the wine, winemaker, vintage, etc. Usually there’s lots of extravagent cork-sniffing, swirling and grand gestures as the facts and figures are trotted out for the diner, whether they want it or not. I’d rather have a bit of quiet efficiency personally!

responses below added 18/06/2004

Mr Grenouille
First of all, apologies to Tom for posting anonomously (Mr Grenouille is not my real name!). I’ve been biting my tongue on this for a week now, but really feel I have to address two points – the idea that restauranteurs are lining their pockets at the expense of their customers, and the perception of sommeliers as difficult and abrasive. Firstly, please remember that half of all new restaurants go broke in the first year they are open, and that it is impossible to make a profit in a two or three star restaurant in the UK. Gordon Ramsey drives a Ferrari, but that is because he sells cookery books and makes TV shows; he has never paid himself a penny from any of his restaurants. You may find restaurants abroad cheaper, which reflects many other political and economic factors, in particular the price of property (which has many consequences for staff costs as well as the restaurant building itself). How much do the staff get paid in those amazingly cheap little places in Franschoek? You may feel that wine should not subsidise the general running costs of the restaurants in the way it does, but the alternative is to double food prices. You choose, but I am afraid the prejudice that restaurants are a licence to print money is simply not true.

Any wine at over £20 retail (£50 in a restaurant) exists in a world of luxury goods where the price is determined by a nexus of prestige and scarcity rather than intrinsic merit, let alone costs of production. People drink these wines for the same reason they wear Rolexes rather than Swatches or drive Aston Martins rather than Nissans – as a form of conspicous consumption. They do it in restaurants because they’re conspicous places, and they do it because of, not in spite of, the high prices. If a restaurant like the Waterside put a £25 fixed mark up on its top wines, the customers they get would think there was something wrong with them. You might think this is a Bad Thing, and so do I, but if you’re going to march on The Square with red flags and flaming torches, don’t forget to burn down Jack Barclay’s Bentley garage round the corner.

Secondly, the rudeness and incompetence of wine waiters. About 85% of the people who come into the restaurant where I work order by number from whoever takes their food order, many because they know what they want, others because they have been taught by Stuart Walton and Malcolm Gluck that the world outside their front door is a strange and dangerous place, full of thieves and mountebanks (often in the form of talking amphibians), who are determined to trick them into swapping their cow for a handful of magic beans (when they can get perfectly edible beans for £2.99 from Morrisons, thank you very much). It is this 85% who make the production of crap Chablis and crap Rioja such profitable businesses. Of the other 15%, I always have positive experiences with the people who know nothing and the people who know everything – it’s the ones in between – the sort of people who have replying to this thread, and who are very proud indeed of knowing the difference between Sauternes and Monbazillac – that can be difficult to find the right approach to.

To be honest I have come to expect very negative experiences with, lets say, 10% (of the 15% of guests who I actually interact with, so 1.5% of everyone who comes through the door). We have about 500 tables a week, in a country with no established wine or restaurant culture, and the diversity of expectations about wine service is astonishing. (Even on such a trivial subject as whether glasses should be topped up, or whether this is another way to trick you into drinking toom much). In this culture wine, like asking for directions, carries a lot of alpha-male baggage, and ties into a huge range of personal neuroses and social insecurities, so that it is almost impossible to hit the perfect tone with every guest, although obviously trying to do this is what we are paid for.

Mr Walton talks about ‘expensive training’. I am paid £14,500 a year for a 50-55 hour week, and my employer retains all gratuities left by customers. In the last 2 years I have spent over £4000 of my own money, and typically 15-20 hours of my own time a week, on training (WSET diploma fees, travel, books etc) with no formal support from any of my employers in that period (although my individual bosses in that time have taught me a lot). Most British restauranteurs consider time and money spent on training to be time and money wasted, which is why most sommeliers (like most nurses) are poached from countries with a training culture. I would suggest that cultural and language difficulties might be a cause of some of perceived aloofness of wine waiters (all the ‘the sommelier looked at me in a funny way’ nonsense), and it might be gracious of native customers to try to take this into account.

Finally, two tips to help you have better experiences. Firstly, RELAX; eating out is not a competitive sport. If you want to bully and humiliate waiters in order to show off to your girlfriend/boss/whatever, that’s great, and I hope it gets you laid/promoted/whatever, but it is not a good way to get good service. Most waiting staff want you to have a good time and if you relax and be gracious you will have one. Secondly, COMMUNICATE rather than make us guess. Say ‘I want to spend less than £X’ or `I’m thinking of between £Y and £Z’; say ‘I normally drink such-and-such at home, do you have anything similar/completely different?’. I mentioned before the customers who know everything (by which I mean MWs, professional winemakers and suchlike); they always ask, but what they usually do is say ‘I’m considering (three of four choices), what do you think?’ If you do this, firstly you communicate what styles you like and what you’re looking to spend, and secondly you will find out whether the wine waiter has anything to add to your evening or not. If not, just stick to one of your original choices.

Stuart’s response to Mr Grenouille:
Thanks, Monsieur Grenouille, for a carefully argued and enlightening response. I’m not best pleased with being mentioned in the same breath as Malcolm Gluck, but we’ll let that go.Do I lead readers to believe the world out there is a ‘strange and dangerous place’? I’d say they know it already. It is a ‘dangerous’ place full of people trying to separate you from your money on a variety of pretexts (or hadn’t you noticed?), but in the sense that that is a drearily familiar phenomenon, in which sommeliers still play an energetic part, it isn’t anywhere near ‘strange’ enough. As to this 85% class, I’m not sure I follow. If these are the frightened majority whom Superplonk and I have talked into being content with £2.99 swill from Morrisons (a typically over-professionalised bit of rank snobbery that, by the way), then how can they also be responsible for the production of crap Chablis and crap Rioja, neither of which retails at £2.99?I’m not ‘very proud indeed’ of knowing the difference between Monbazillac and Sauternes (are you?), I just happen to know it. What I don’t like is the presumption of ignorance, a la Waterside Inn. ‘You don’t look like someone who’ll know the difference, so I’ll just call it a Sauternes, because you’ve probably never heard of the other.’When I described the training as expensive, I meant just that. I didn’t say or imply that the employer typically paid it. If they are underpaying you, as seems likely (and especially in the light of what they could probably afford – look at those markups on champagne by the glass, mate, and the ascending inflator applied to the most illustrious bottles), they’re hardly likely to sub you for going to the WSET.

I presume all these issues arise, anyway, at the annual conference at the National Union of Sommeliers. If not, what mechanism is there for stamping out the disreputable practices that bring such dishonour on the trade, such as that of helping yourself to a slurp of everybody’s wine as it’s opened, as witnessed by one of our contributors at the Manoir? I’m guessing you yourself would rather be seen dead than getting gradually pissed at the punters’ expense of an evening. What do you say to those colleagues who do, though? Or is it just easier not to rock the leaky boat?

Alan Baldwin
I think Stuart Walton misses one important role a good sommelier can play. That role is putting together an interesting wine list. It doesn’t exuse the poor service highlighted by Stuart, but if a sommelier can use skill and knowledge to source, purchase and present an interesting wine list, then that can only be good for wine lovers.

I’m disappointed with how many good restaurants offer inventive, freshly-prepared food, but present boring lists of anonymous wines, usually put together for them by a wholesale supplier. usually the only consideration is repeatability and price. The same restaurants would not countenance pre-prepared meals being delivered by some big catering company for them to heat and serve, yet they abandon wine to a third party without much thought to balance, variety, interest, value or even suitability for their food.


Stuart’s response to Alan:
I take your point. I think a large part of the explanation for the apparent sense of dislocation there is between the culinary aspirations of many restaurants and their wine lists is that food and wine are still, to a great extent, two fully autonomous departments within the same faculty of that venerable institution known as British catering.

Ken Cormack
Bad service is unacceptable, whether we are talking about wine or anything else. The evidence presented by Stuart is dissapointing and I am sure it ruined or at least detracted from his enjoyment of the meals in question.

Sadly as the parents of 2 young boys my wife and I are no longer regular visitors to the better (Sommelier serviced) restaurants in Edinburgh however a visit to Restaurant Martin Wishart late last year does stick in my mind as much for the level of service as for the food. Both were of the highest standards. The Sommelier in question took an interest in our food choices and chatted in a friendly and absolutely non patronising manner throughout the meal. We drank a lovely Crozes Hermitage. We finished – it was my birthday – with a sensational Armagnac which he ‘prepared’ at our table. Sure it was a little bit of theatre but it completed the lunch perfectly and left us with a great impression of a great restaurant.

Sommeliers have their place and lift the dining experience. Perhaps more of them need to understand that they are there to advise and serve the (paying) customer rather than dictate to.


Stuart’s response to Ken:
Dear Ken, If only all experiences were as happy as yours, we’d be making hay.

David W Smith
My experiences with Sommeliers is somewhat limited but I do well recall a meal at Le Manoir where the young French sommelier was one of the highlights of the meal.

Courteous in the extreme he did not turn his nose up at the two half bottles of Burg we ordered (one white, one red). Our bottles were opened at a central table, sniffed and a small amount of each taken in glass and tasted before the bottles arrived at our table for our inspection. Following the careful pouring they were returned to the central wine table with all the other wines from the other diners.

One thing that stuck in my mind was the expert portion control. We were having the degustation menu and somehow our glasses were never empty, only ever filled to around a third full and always the better wine for the course being eaten was offered. He was performing this for around 20 tables simultaneously, never seemed rushed and the whole thing was pure theatre and added greatly to the pleasure of the meal.

Is there a difference between a wine-waiter (someone who just takes the wine order and opens the wine?) and a sommelier (someone who understands and cares about wine?) I wonder?


Stuart’s response to David:
I wonder why you are happy for a sommelier to help himself to a slug of your wine at your expense? I have seen this appalling practice quite widely in London, as though the customer’s opinion were somehow secondary to that of the resident expert. In the case of half-bottles, and at Le Manoir’s hideous markups, there’s a good chance he’d had about £3 of your wine out of each bottle before you were deemed fit to come near them.
David just wants to add:
I don’t want to get into a semantic discussion with Stuart but at no time did I say that the sommelier had helped himself to ‘a good slug’ of my wine. Stuart’s confident assertion that he had ‘about £3 of wine out of each bottle’ is ludicrously wide of the mark. He barely wet the bottom of his glass – merely enough to test it was not corked. I understand that Stuart is deliberately exaggerating for effect but if these myths don’t get challenged they become received wisdom and since another post has responded quoting Stuart’s incorrect assumption best to get this right I’d suggest.

responses below added 15/06/2004

Tim Jackson
I’d just like to recount briefly a story which has stuck with me. At a dinner to mark leaving my job to return to studenthood, 2 years ago, I think I made the mistake of actually selecting the wine myself without discussing with the sommelier.

We dined at 2 Michelin-starred, French haute-cuisine restaurant “The Square” in London. I was allowed to choose the wine, but since someone else was paying, I wasn’t choosing the most expensive! I know something about wine, and had had a recommendation for Sociando-Mallet previously, so when I saw a 1995 for £55 on the menu, I thought it would be the best trade-off of age to price, from amongst the lengthy list, and to match the tastes and platters of the 3 of us dining.

However, I think the (French, probably Parisian) sommelier must have got insulted that I simply asked for a particular wine (either that or he was just not good enough for a 2-star restaurant), because he subsequently i) brought the bottle to the table, uncorked and immediately poured – without mentioning “decanting” which I think might have helped the young-ish bottle to open-up, and worse ii) later emptied the small amount of sediment into my glass with the last of the wine. Nice.

Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I suspect that Stuart has hit on a problem amongst sommeliers – that a small number of them are too superior for their own good (though I didn’t have a problem with the Oxo Tower’s sommelier last year, I must say!).


Stuart’s response to Tim:
If somebody who is paid specifically to know how to treat wine seriously for the benefit of customers, and separate you from £55 in the process, has apparently never heard of decanting a youthful Bordeaux, and is going to pour you a glass with some nice deposit in it at the end, then clearly this is a job any idiot could do. Half the staff in Woolworths might quite like a change of scenery on that basis.Once, at a now defunct place on the King’s Road, London, I and a companion ordered a 20-year-old bottle of Bordeaux, which had thrown a heavy sediment, much of which was present in the first two glasses poured. When I queried it, the glasses were removed, two clean ones brought, and the remainder strained through a muslin. But when the bill arrived at the other end of the evening, had anything been allowed for the two glasses that were chucked? Not on your life. I asked for a consideration to be given, and we were told we could have a free drink at the bar. We resolved it simply by underpaying the bill, and inviting them to sue us for the remainder. As we left, we were asked not to darken the premises again, and guess what? We never did.

Julian Wannell
I have met several of these strange creatures over the years and whilst I have had a few experiences similar to the ones recounted in your article, I must – out of a sense of fairness – respond with counter arguments. Whilst you and many of your friends and associates must know a great deal about wine and might, presumably, be qualified to be sommeliers yourselves, the great majority of the restaurant-going public do not have the expertise that a well trained sommelier would normally utilise in guiding them. For each sommelier I have encountered who has advised me badly or pushed an expensive bottle, there has been another whose advice has been exemplary – even to the extent of recommending a cheaper (and better) bottle than my own choice, or demonstrating such depth of knowledge and passion for the subject as to leave me astounded and humbled. However, I fully accept that when I walk into a restaurant, however charming it might seem, I am entering someone’s business premises; they have every right to conjure up ways to maximise revenue – and a good sommelier always has some conjuring tricks up his sleeve.

Yes, I have had amusing arguments with prickly young sommeliers who were reluctant to concede that Sancerre rouge is made with Pinot Noir, or that England produces sparkling wine, but I’m a bit of a wine enthusiast and if I wasn’t, I would be grateful for their generally helpful knowledge of the subject, especially applied to their own wine lists. As for corked wine, every wine lover and professional should be educated to identify an obviously corked bottle, but there is a huge divergence of opinion and ability when it comes to picking out what I call “lightly corked” examples, upon which even true experts seldom agree.

As with most things in life, there are professional amateurs and amateur professionals – and like grape and grain, the two should never mix. Maybe those of us who really need the sommelier should take the trouble to enquire as to his/her credentials before accepting any advice; however, I suspect that most of us go to restaurants to eat, drink and be merry, not to undertake a candidate profiling exercise. I agree that there are some charlatans out there, but they should not be allowed to bring down a métier which – thanks to its true professionals – still has an aura of mystique and nobility about it.


Stuart’s response to Julian:
I’m not much in favour of auras of mystique. They sound a bit Gipsy Rose Lee to me, and frankly, that’s about the same level of professional aptitude displayed by some of these hired nuisances. You’re right though. You can hardly start an evening off at a restaurant by asking the sommelier what his or her qualifications are. One is there to eat, drink and be merry (strictly in moderation, mind), but what a dent is put in the occasion when one is contradicted or overruled in the interests of, as you put it, maximising revenue.