The sommelier: friend or foe?

The days of trembling over your pronunciation of “viognier” in front of the sommelier are over, says wine pro Susy Atkins

A generation ago, ordering wine in a top restaurant often felt like an ordeal. The sommelier (always a man, and usually buttoned-up – in every sense) was rarely warm or welcoming, sometimes not even remotely helpful. Diners trembling over the pronunciation of “pouilly-fumé” or “viognier” would suffer the sommelier standing over them in silence, poised to take their order, lips pursed in disapproval.

Of course I exaggerate a little. But times have changed. Today your sommelier is far more approachable. He – or, almost as likely, she – really does seem to be there to lend a hand.

The best at this delicate job are, of course, hugely knowledgeable about wine – but that’s not all. Nowadays a sommelier must be a whizz at food and wine matching (not easy when the menu changes constantly) and have oodles of tips on the best cocktails, guest beers, latest craft gins and even the merits of mineral versus tap water. And of course they must be adept at serving wine elegantly and knowing when to top up, or when to leave the bottle with the guests.

Which brings me to the often overlooked part of the sommelier’s work. It’s not enough to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things “drinks”. The sommelier must be a psychologist too, size up each table of guests and suss out how best to help them order the right bottle. They must never talk down to that posh chap who knows (or thinks he knows) his clarets, and they must gently guide a young couple away from ordering the sweet white with the steak. They must also make a judgement on the approximate price point a diner finds acceptable – very tricky territory. As for always handing the wine list to a man – no modern sommelier would dream of such an assumption; it’s not difficult to work out, or even ask, who wants to see the list, after all.

The word “sommelier” comes from a French (via Latin) word that meant transporter of goods or, hilariously, animal driver. Clearly it became the word associated with those who supplied the wine to restaurants as I don’t think many of us behave like animals when eating out.

We’re lucky to have some of the best sommeliers in the world in the South West, we just need to use them a bit more – so make your sommelier work hard. Ask them as many questions as you like: get food-matching tips; get advice on value for money; and find out the best vintage for, say, burgundy on the list.

If you want a smaller glass, a colder sparkler or a lighter white, let them know. And if a wine tastes wrong or you really don’t like it say so. Then again, if it tastes great, tell them that too. Your sommelier could turn out to be your new best friend.

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november, 2022

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