wine bottle pouring on wine glass

Service flashpoints and how to avoid them

Smooth and unflappable, almost Bond like, being a good sommelier is an art form, based on knowledge, experience and time.

Every service and every customer is different, so you’re always having to assess situations and make decisions.

And it’s a fine line between getting it right – and creating a memorable experience for your guest – and getting it wrong.

Of course, every sommelier is different and has their own opinions and experiences. But I have selected a few examples here of tricky situations that seem to occur pretty regularly and suggested the best way of dealing with them.

These are all scenarios that I myself have been in (you probably have too) and I didn’t always get them right. So the key thing is to learn from our mistakes, and do the right thing next time. Hopefully this will save you some time!

By The Glass v By The Bottle

crop man pouring red wine in glass in restaurant
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‘I will have one of those,’ says the guest, pointing at a glass  of Chardonnay (Meursault) from the Coravin page that is listed at £35 per 175ml. The question is, do they know that the price is for a glass, not a bottle? And, more to the point, how do you broach this matter with them without looking like you are suggesting they don’t know what they are doing or (maybe even worse) don’t look like someone who would normally be drinking wines at this price?

The best approach is to confirm their order and show them the Coravin; talking about the wine they’ve chosen and making it obvious that it is a premium GLASS of wine.

If they’ve made a mistake they’ll probably say something along the lines of ‘Oh heaven no! I was looking for a cheap bottle of wine and like Chardonnay! Thank you for letting me know’.

As you walk away a small part of you might be regretting the money you could have made. But your attitude and honest approach have just built a trusting relationship with this guest, and they may even ask you for further advice (and added sales income) when it comes to desserts.

Order Confusion

One of your colleagues – maybe not the sharpest tool in the box – has taken an order from a table. “43” he says to me. I look at the list… It’s a top wine from Margaret River priced in 3 figures. Above that on the list number 42 is a Sauvignon Blanc at a quarter of the price.  You have not sold this expensive wine for over 2 years and your heart beats fast.

The question is, do you go for the gung ho sale or do you go back and confirm with the guest, who at this time is loudly entertaining his party and clearly ready for a glass of wine?

And even if you show them the more expensive bottle, if they’re not really concentrating, they could be in for a nasty surprise when the bill arrives. They’ll leave feeling disappointed and we could have some negative comments on TripAdvisor or a complaint letter the next morning.

My approach here would be to always double check. I would quietly interrupt the table and just confirm with a wine list explaining that my colleague was ‘not sure’ which one they wanted.

Interruptions like this can be annoying for a guest – particularly if they’re in a boisterous mood – but trust me, they would be more annoyed with an expensive bill later on!

woman in black blazer holding pink and white book
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‘I Like It So You Should Too…’

‘I would like the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,’ says the customer. ‘But I have a new wine just come in from Greece; absolutely amazing, same price; a bit more aromatic and richer,’ you say, talking them into buying the wine. The trouble is, they don’t like it.

For me the style of communication is absolutely key here.  To gauge a guests’ individual requirements and desire can be very difficult.  Our job is to advise and guide them without being too dogmatic. Enthusiasm is fine, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision.

If you’re trying to shift them into something a bit left field that you really believe in, I’d consider letting them have a try of the wine first, and explain clearly why it will work with their food.  But remember if, at the end of the day, they want to stick with their original decision who are we to say no?

The Wine Flight That Isn’t…

‘I want the wine flight but I only drink red,’ she says.

The price of the wine flight is expensive at £130 and is mainly white.  So do you just adjust the wines to get the sale?

I have had this happen to me numerous times and I believe again communicating to the guest and being honest allows you to take control. You can perhaps give them their own “unique” wine flight, so that they won’t match the food as such, but the customer still gets the spiel and experience and tries lots of wine!

Or you could direct them into choosing a nice bottle of red that you think will go throughout the meal.

The Money Question

Asking what kind of budget a guest has and how much they want to spend on wine is one of the hardest subjects to broach.

Approaching them in a relaxed and soft manner will help prevent them feeling uncomfortable or patronised. Euphemisms such as ‘is it a celebration?’ can be a good way to break the ice.

Using words like ‘accessible’ and ‘value for money’ as opposed to ‘cheapest’ or ‘house wine’ also helps with what is a sensitive topic. Even describing a wine as ‘special’ is fraught.  After all, surely all the wines on the list are special!

The key thing here is that the guest needs to trust you and know you are trying to help them, not rinse money out of them.

There are so many things to think about when in work mode but the guest experience – and trust – should be at the heart of all of it, even if sometimes it means having to park our ego, bite or tongue or say goodbye to an easy big-money sale!

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