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Carson Demmond, F&W’s new associate wine editor, spent time working as a sommelier at New York City’s vaunted The Modern. Her takeaway: The more information guests can provide about their tastes, the more a sommelier can do to find them the right wine. Here, she shares five questions every guest should ask a somm, as well as five that just aren’t helpful (and that are actually kind of annoying).
Five Questions to Ask Your Sommelier:
1. I recently tried [fill in the blank] and loved it. Do you have anything like it?
Mentioning a specific wine (the 2012 Domaine Drouhin) or even a broad category (Oregon Pinot Noir) is far more useful than giving a descriptor. You and your sommelier might have very different ideas about what “smooth” means, for instance.
2. I’ve been curious about [fill in the blank]. What bottle should I try?
Whether you’re new to Loire Valley Chenin Blanc or baffled by Bordeaux, this question lets your somm know you want something you’ve never had before and are looking for a relatively accessible introduction.
3. Can you point me to your favorite bottle under [name your price]?
Sommeliers don’t go around drinking expensive, rare bottles in their real lives; they always look for a deal. If the somm has recently been floored by a great value, this is your chance to get an insider’s tip.
4. What are you most excited about on the list right now?
The surefire way of landing a delicious bottle is also the easiest: Make it personal. Sommeliers benefit from constant exposure to wines from all over the world. So, what would they choose?
5. We’re all having fish but definitely want a red wine. What do you suggest?
Setting parameters helps narrow down choices. Red wine with fish? The sommelier will likely steer you toward lighter styles of red that won’t overpower delicate flavors.
Five Questions Your Somm Would Rather Not Hear:
1. Is this wine any good?
If a wine is on the list, the sommelier is the person who put it there. Chances are, he or she didn’t buy "bad" wines to mislead unsuspecting customers. Try instead, "What makes this wine special?"
2. What score did this wine get?
For most sommeliers, the least pertinent piece of information about a wine is its score. They’re more likely to consider how the wine goes with the chef’s food or their own knowledge of the winemaker and the region. Bringing up scores also intimates you trust a critic’s opinion more than the somm’s.
3. Are you certified?
Just because a somm hasn’t sought certification (through the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine & Spirit Education Trust) doesn’t mean he or she is not incredibly competent. The best way to learn about serving wine or creating a wine list, after all, is working at a restaurant.
4. Why don’t you have more [fill in the blank] on the list?
It could be that a particular kind of wine doesn’t work with the restaurant’s cuisine very well, or any number of other legitimate reasons. But asking this question will put the sommelier on the defensive.
5. Isn’t this a bad vintage?
Vintages aren’t good or bad, per se—they’re just different. Some years are cooler or wetter than others, but great producers still make great wines no matter what.