LifestyleThe SIP CruA Sommelier's Process: Behind the Scenes

A Sommelier’s Process: Behind the Scenes

The following article will give you insight into a sommelier’s process in choosing a wine. While every sommelier has their own method, this is typically what went through my mind when I was working during the dinner rush. If you’ve worked in the service industry, you may get some flashbacks.

The Chaos

It’s 6:54 p.m. on a Thursday night in mid-October. The ambience of the restaurant is mellow but the chaos behind the scenes is just beginning. The servers meticulously manage their sections for the 7 o’clock rush. Linens. Candles. Plates. Perfectly polished wine glasses. The kitchen is prepped for the 36 orders that will blast out of the ticket machine in the next 15 minutes. The bussers fill water. Guests trickle in through the door dressed elegantly for their celebrations as the host greets them with a smile. The manager’s keen eyes are on every employee.

The Experience

However, my job is not about managing the chaos; it’s about creating an experience for my guests that will transport them to a different time, place, or country. In every bottle, there is a story to be told and a memory to make.

A couple sits in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant. It’s their anniversary and they’re ordering a three-course meal; a lost art in the new tapas-style culinary world. For appetizers, they order the Crispy Pork-Belly and the Burrata; for entrees the Lemon-Pesto Gnocchi and the Red Snapper. They haven’t decided on dessert yet.

I ask them what type of wine they like to drink so that I can get a better understanding of what their palate is used to. Pairing is not necessarily about perfection. It is about understanding what the customer will enjoy and how to create an exquisite experience for them. They inform me that typically drink white wines or a lighter style Pinot Noir.  

Exploring Options

As a sommelier, my job is to explore the boundaries that this couple will enjoy without breaking them. My mind immediately goes through every wine on the carefully selected 400-bottle list in a matter of seconds. I stick with whites, first jumping to Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand; but no, too acidic, too light. Sauvignon Blanc is a wine to be sipped on a summer afternoon by the ocean. Chardonnay from Sonoma; too heavy. Too bold. Too dry. The buttery notes will overpower the lightness of the Burrata and make it taste like movie theater popcorn. Riesling from Germany; too sweet. While it could compliment the Gnocchi, it will bring too much sweetness to the Red Snapper. I need something with more acid. Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa, or Vouvray from France? Both could potentially work; they would pair beautifully with the Burrata and the Lemon-Pesto Gnocchi but I think something with more body and brightness will work here.

Choosing the Wine

A Premier Cru Chablis from France. Yes. An unoaked Chardonnay with vibrant acidity, notes of lemon, pears, minerality, and a touch of salinity. It will cut the salty-fattiness of the pork, while its heavier body and acidity will complement the smoothness of the Burrata and the creamy pesto sauce, but won’t overpower the snapper. A perfect pairing for the diversity of the dishes they’ve ordered.

They go with my recommendation. Slowly using my corkscrew, I peel the foil from the bottle, place the screw directly into the cork and turn. I make casual conversation while slowly extracting the cork, just like I’ve done a million times. I ask how long they’ve been together. They’re beaming, 10 years. While it is typical to pour a taste for the person who ordered the bottle, I think it’s important to give them each a taste of the wine that will celebrate their years together. I pour them each a sample of the wine, they swirl it in their glasses, sip, and proceed to nod in agreement. I place the wine in a chiller as they ease into the night.

Their dishes are placed on the table. I observe how they interact with the food and wine, always making sure their glasses are full and everything is to their satisfaction.

Dessert Anyone?

The last drop of wine is poured and the dessert menu is placed on the table. The server informs me that they’ve ordered a chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream and a decadent caramel sauce. I decide to bring them a 10-year-old tawny port, made in the year they started their journey together. An aged dessert wine with smoothness, refinement, and character. This wine starts out as an unbalanced, overly acidified blend, but as its years in the bottle morph together it changes into a smooth blend of chocolate, nuts, and cedar. Just like people shape each other and change over time.

They ask for their check, thank me for the recommendations, and our team sets the table back up to standard. Wine is about the memories we make together and I love to curate these experiences.

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