Generally speaking, during blind tastings, sommeliers are split into two groups: the ones who feel most confident with their sense of smell, and the ones who mainly rely on their sense of taste.
The question is: are there ways we can improve one or the other element in order to become a better taster?
And the answer is: of course!
- Sniff therapy: Smell the spice, the fruit/veg you’re struggling to recognise in the wine. Try this for a minute for several times each day for a few months. You will finally be able to identify the strong white pepper spice in Gruner Veltliner, for instance.
- Run or walk: It is proved that additional moisture in the nose after a cardio activity helps to improve our sense of smell. So weirdly, exercise really helps! Just 15 minutes of exercise is enough.
- Reduce your alcohol intake: before exam or competitions, drink wine only during blind tasting, and do not heavily consume alcohol for at least a month before the important date.
- Look around you! Smell the coffee or tea you prepare in the morning, sniff the body wash you’re using, the parmigiano shaved on your pasta. Go to the grocery store and pick up whatever you can in order to stimulate the receptors inside your nose. And yes, you can’t be afraid of looking like a fool!
- Make sure you drink plenty of water and add zinc or Vitamin B12 to your diet. This is found naturally in oysters, lentils, pecans, eggs, fish.
- Make a note of the sensation that certain types of flavours are able to generate within you. The nerves that control your sense of smell are directly connected to the emotional part of your brain, overlooking the rational one.
For anyone who has experienced Covid-19 we know that the sense of smell can take longer than expected to recover. So my suggestion would be to take the opportunity (virus permitting) to focus on the other essential fragment of blind tasting: the palate.
The book ‘Beyond Flavour’ by Nick Jackson MW (about £15 on Amazon) literally changed my perspective on blind tasting.
Traditional tasting notes are sometimes not enough to reach a logical conclusion for a wine. However we can always rely on its acidity and tannic structure.
The explanations and advice given in this book are concise, vivid and with practice and training they make total sense.
So for instance, Nick says that “Syrah tannins are tightly coiled, found on the tongue” or “Chenin Blanc acidity is crescendo, bracing, almost uncomfortable”.
Here’s a quick example of how the book encourages you to spot the differences and learn how to carefully examine a wine’s structure.
- List the grapes you are struggling the most to identify. One of my weaknesses is Malbec vs Syrah, for example.
- Write your own notes and insights on these black-listed varieties following the guidance of the book.
- Sit down in front of a couple of glasses filled with your blind tasting enemies and your notes.
- Start a comparative tasting but focusing on the palate rather than on the nose. Write down your sensation. Draw your feeling. Give a mental shape to the wines and their structure. Where do you feel the tannins? What shape are they? Are you feeling the acidity straight from the entry or does it develop further in the mouth? Is that acidity horizontal? Vertical? Or does it act like a rollercoaster?
- Train every couple of days and, if you can, find a group of like-minded sommeliers so you can taste and compare. One day focus on neutral white varieties, one day on aromatic ones, one day light-bodied reds, the next full-bodied examples. Exchanging opinions is crucial to opening your mind and refining your own perspective.
To conclude, the best way to become a better taster and achieve a full understanding of the wines in front of you is to pay more attention to the flavours you encounter every single day. Describe them with your own words, and spend more time examining them.
Then, I honestly think you should read this mind-blowing pocket guide and learn how the structure changes for every single grape variety and forget the old school descriptors.
Wine is three-dimensional; it is about intensity, sensation and layers.
With this two-track approach, I’m sure we can all become better – and more successful – tasters.
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
‘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.
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!
‘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!
The first five minutes with any new guest are crucial. Get them right and the chances are that the rest of their meal will go perfectly too; get them wrong and it could be a struggle.
Of course, every guest is different, but there are certain key principles that we can all follow to ensure that those early encounters set up a positive environment.
First, get the non-verbals right
At the very beginning look carefully at their manners and their movements; try to understand who you are going to be dealing with. Then make eye contact and give a smile to establish a connection before stage two: show time.
It’s Show Time!
Let’s start with a positive, personalised introduction: Customers like to interact with humans, not robots. Introduce yourself clearly and make sure they understand your name and your role in the restaurant. Reassure them that you’ll take care of their table.
Let’s continue “small”
Questions like: “how was your day so far”, “have you been here before”, “how was your weekend/vacation/summer etc” are always an effective way to open a conversation, or, if it’s honest and you feel comfortable enough, you could compliment them. Maybe about a necklace, a dress, a pair of glasses they are wearing. By praising them, you’re making them feel good about themselves, proving that you’re paying attention, and moving the focus away from you. They are at the centre of your attention, remember, so show interest.
Now for the tough part: listening and caring
Listening is the easiest way to make people appreciate you. So genuinely listen to what they are telling you about and resist the temptation to break in with personal opinions. That way you will likely win them over. Care about their needs and desires and do your best to satisfy them.
Recommendations: your time to shine
Now that you have absorbed their insights and have a clear idea about their taste and preferences, I’d suggest targeting three different products at different price points and make sure you are able to clearly explain the differences between them. Don’t be too cocky suggesting only the product you think they will like. There is a very fine line between aggressive selling and smart selling.
And finally, here’s a general list of rules that I like to keep in mind for each table:
- Project confidence
- Be a chameleon, and adapt. We need to shape ourselves based on someone else’s needs and behaviours to make them feel comfortable, as if they were at home.
- Do not forget to SMILE.
- Mind your manners. “Thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “goodbye” and “hello” never grow old.