How to Successfully Interact with a Sommelier

Feel a bit intimidated by the sommelier? Here's how to get over your fear and ask for help

As the Gramercy Tavern beverage director, Juliette Pope manages every aspect of the restaurant’s wine program, from selecting wines to meeting budgets to the logistics of cellaring, all with an eye toward delighting their eclectic clientele. She chooses wines for a busy casual tavern, a more formal main dining room, locals who frequent the restaurant three times a week, and tourists with no fine dining experience. Pope knows how a list full of unfamiliar wines can make guests anxious, since Gramercy Tavern never pours your typical pinot grigio by the glass. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, she offers advice on how to make your interaction with a sommelier a success.

When should you ask for the help of a sommelier?
Any time you don’t see a bottle that rings a bell or fits your budget, ask for help. If the only sauvignon blanc by the bottle is $100 and you want to spend $50, you need to talk to somebody.

How can a sommelier help you?
A sommelier can direct you to a wine that is stylistically up your alley, even if it is unfamiliar. For example, I find people who typically drink sauvignon blanc to be good candidates for grüner veltliner from Austria. The wine may sound Germanic and unlike anything they are used to drinking, but it often lines up well with their tastes and budgets.

What is the point of tasting a wine before it is poured?
Technically, it is to see if the wine is flawed, but for the restaurant guest, the point of tasting a wine before it is poured is to see if you like it. Our crew is trained to taste each bottle before it goes out to ensure flawed wines don’t reach our customers. If you don’t like the wine, you can send it back. We believe this is an important part of service, because we don’t want people to sit at a meal with a bottle they are not going to enjoy.

Do you have any advice for getting the most out of your interaction with a sommelier?
Don’t be shy about budget. The best way to indicate your budget is to use your finger to point to a price on the wine list and say, "I am looking for something along these lines." The number doesn’t get verbalized, but the sommelier knows where to take you based on your price requirements and the style of wine you described enjoying.

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