Terry Theise On What To Say to a Sommelier

Editor's Note: You may know wine importer Terry Theise from his book, Reading Between the Wines. Or you may know him from seeing his name on the back of a bottle. Or you may not know him yet, in which case you're in for a treat. This week, Terry has advice for how to get the most out of the sommelier when you go out for a fancy meal. Take it away, Terry!


[Photos: Theise portrait, Daniel Lerner. Wine glass, Vestman on Flickr]

We have a high-priest class in fine dining restaurants. They possess the mysteries, and while nearly all of them are remarkably affable and helpful, one's heart can quake when they approach the table. "I must, as a civilized being, be able to navigate this crucible if I want anyone to even like me, let alone get...lucky."

So what does an otherwise capable person do in this delicate moment? How do you make it through with your aplomb intact, and furthermore, how do you get the most from your sommelier?

If you know little or nothing about wine, and are indifferent to it, please don't worry that your ignorance will be exposed and that you'll be exposed as a poseur. Remember when the sommelier approaches the table, that while she knows more about wine than you do, there's something you know more about than she does, and you are together in your mutual desire that the evening be graceful and delicious.

Don't pretend. Tell the somm that you're "really not all that much into wine." She will not succumb to the vapors and fall to the floor with a keening poignant cry. She's heard it before. She's trained to make you comfortable—don't forget that. Tell her you want something she thinks you'll enjoy, from "the bottom 20% of the price zone," or words to that effect. Why spend a ton on something you don't care about? And paradoxically, you are the person the somm can help the most. She'll bring you something good and fairly priced. She's part of a team that wants you to come back. She's not going to exploit your ignorance to foist some weird-ass wine on you that no one else wants.

If you know a little about wine and are idly curious to learn more, remember that the restaurant isn't the place to "be educated." They're busy, and to the extent they do educate, it's an ancillary function. But still, here comes the sommelier, and what do you do? If you've never really paid attention to whatever wines you've drunk, so that you can't identify "the kinds of wines [you] like," then ask the somm to select for you in the price range you indicate (you can point to a price on the list and say or imply this is what I have in mind to spend), and when the bottles arrive it's perfectly fine to ask "Tell me a little about this."

When the wine is served, pay it a modicum of heed. Notice how it tastes with your food. Feel free to ask "This is nice; can you tell me why you selected it for us?" This is a reasonable drawing from the Somm's expertise, and he'll appreciate your questions and make time to answer you.

If you know something about wine, to the point you've established preferences, you can go two ways.

The sad way is to get stuck in your partial knowledge. You're not happy with what you know; you're insecure about what you don't know, and you're glad to be done with the process of learning more. It's likely you cling to your tastes as a kind of Safe Place—and you are the very person who makes the somm's eyes roll. Maybe you'll win the battle; you'll get the wine you demand, but you've lost the war. You've stayed stuck, you've lost the chance to widen your exposure, you've wasted the expertise of a kindly professional who wants you to be happy, and even if you kept your ego intact, your humanity is shattered. But you can be redeemed! It will suffice to say something like "I like drinking big oaky Chardonnays and Cabernets; is there any way to serve us those kinds of wines with our meal?" If this proposal is truly dreadful, many somms will gently try to steer you away. Let them. Override your every impulse, and just let them. And if your "safe" wines could possibly manage not to murder your food, many somms will acquiesce to you, and "live to fight another day."

If you know something about wine, have established preferences, and are willing to keep learning (the happy way) it is perfectly fine to say "I've been liking these kinds of wines a lot, but you're the pro; what would you suggest we have?" Such a question starts a fruitful dialogue. It's good for you, and makes you look good to your companion(s).

If you know a lot about wine, the first thing I'd ask you to do is to read the list online before you go to dinner. Make a short-list of likely choices, either in your head or on paper. Otherwise you're sitting there absorbed in what may be an absurdly large wine list, your companion is being ignored, and when the somm does arrive, you enter into a Talmudic conversation that may eventually get you the wine you should have, but doesn't make you attractive in the process.

If you and your companion are both into wine, get two lists, and decide between yourselves what you want to drink. Let it take the time it takes. And if you're hedging, or if you disagree, involve the somm to help you break through. He'll be happy to, and can hone his exquisite diplomatic skills in the process.

I myself have come to a point where I'll scan a list to see if there's wines I really have to have, or whether there'll be loads of attractive choices that I'd rather not be bothered sifting through. In those instances I'll request of the somm, "Surprise me, but Old World only, alcohol no higher than 13.5% and ideally lower, and oak's OK if it's subtle but not blatant unless the dish calls for it." You may be tempted to find this a little OCD ("a little?") but I'm not paying restaurant prices to experiment in wine zones where I know I'm unlikely to be happy. Or at least, a lot less likely.

A few theoretical questions that can be helpful:

"You guys taste wine all the time; what's really blown your mind recently?"

"You've seen the food we ordered; how on earth would you reconcile all these flavors?" Say it smiling. It's gonna be fun. You're curious to see how she'll finesse it. Invite her to share her thinking.

"I usually like drinking Burgundy (or Barolo or Chianti or whatever) but it's like a zillion degrees outside and I'm craving white wines, something cold. Is this possible?" (Oh yeah it is! And the Somm will be oh-so glad you asked, and glad you're actually trying to drink wine in context.)

"What are a few of your go-with-everything wines, and could they be called for with us this evening?"

"What's a wine you personally love but that doesn't sell enough? Can we have a bottle?" (Your somm will love you so much for this question he might actually buy you a car.)

Define the mood of the occasion. Pre-consummation but consummation devoutly wished? Young love? Not-so-young love, but relationship landmark in view, e.g., a proposal or other declaration? Married, anniversary? Long-married, celebrating deeply? If you find a way to convey the subtext of the meal, you can then ask for the wine that will best express it. That is a splendid and delicious question. It draws not only from the somm's expertise; it draws from his heart.

Summing up, there's no reason the sommelier-encounter has to be fraught. And it starts with you relaxing, letting down your guard, and submitting to happiness. Nothing is more loathsome than the diner who's there to be obeyed. Oh, he'll be obeyed all right, however grudgingly, but he casts a pall over everything around him. And nothing is more cheering than the diner who's there to be delighted, because he will be, and everyone around him is included in the nexus of delight. Take that approach to wine—it's just another way to be delighted—and you'll know exactly what to ask your somm, and will receive a thing of beauty in return.

About the Author: Terry Theise won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional. He imports artisanal small-production wine from Germany, Austria, and Champagne, and is the author of Reading Between the Wines. You can read more about his wines at Skurnikwines.com.