What to Do When There’s No Sommelier to Help

Waiter taking order at restaurantI was reading the other day that one of America’s most accomplished sommeliers, Kevin Vogt, was getting out of the sommelier business.

For close to two decades, Vogt curated the wine lists for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s Las Vegas restaurants: Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, Delmonico Steakhouse and Table 10. Now, he and a partner are taking over space formerly occupied by the historic Groezinger Wine Merchants shop in the Napa Valley town of Yountville, and opening their own shop.

Do not fear; Emeril’s restaurants will continue to have excellent wine lists because Vogt headed a team that developed and maintained those lists. There are at least a couple people on the staff who are well qualified to assume Vogt’s position.

That got me thinking about the sommelier’s role in restaurants, and how it’s evolving. It’s still a very important position at many fine-dining establishments, particularly those that have mammoth lists. It’s a true skill to know both a restaurant’s wine list and its menu, and to be able to pick the perfect wine that will pair nicely with two to four different dishes.

Some restaurants opt to go sommelier-less, depending on their distributors to develop their wine list, and on server training to help diners make selections. Other restaurants have opted for smaller wine lists, and print specific wine recommendations next to each dish on their menus.

But what if you’re flying solo? What if you’re at a restaurant with no sommelier, untrained servers, and no recommendations on the menu? How do you select the perfect bottle?

Well, truthfully, pinpointing the perfect bottle can be problematic because you may not know exactly what a given dish is going to taste like. We always try to base the wine pairing on the dominant flavor of the dish, but some servers may not be able to help you even with that.

What to do?  Begin by coming to a consensus among the diners — whether it’s just your Significant Other, or your S.O. and another couple. For instance, if you’re all having meat, you could begin the process by selecting one type of red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chianti, etc.). If you’re all having fish, you could begin by selecting one type of white wine (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, etc.).

Many wine lists will be categorized by wine type, with the wines listed in order from most expensive to least expensive. Choosing the most expensive wine doesn’t necessarily mean you’re choosing the best wine. On the other hand, choosing the least expensive wine quite likely means you’re choosing the least interesting selection.

A sommelier friend once told me that if you select the second-least expensive wine in any given category, you’re virtually guaranteed of getting a very good wine — and at a fraction of the cost that the wines at the top of the list command. If you want to play it a little “safer,” move up one or two additional positions from the bottom.

I can tell you that I have utilized this method literally dozens of times when encountering wine lists with unfamiliar labels or vintages… and it has worked each and every time.

It’s the best way I know of for making a wise wine decision at a restaurant without a sommelier or a well-trained wait staff.

And by saving some money on the wine, you won’t feel so guilty about ordering dessert.

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Posted in Wine Buzz
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