There you are, sitting comfortably with your special one at a great table in a fantastic place, looking forward to a memorable evening. You open the wine list and your mood changes. Trying to make sense of it feels like to going to Mass in Latin. Every now and then you catch a glance of a familiar grape varietal, but by and large nothing is registering. You don’t recognize any of the producers, any of the varietals, many of the regions. You feel a prick of anxiety, wondering if you should even bother with wine. The last thing you want is to drop a lot of money on a bottle you won’t enjoy.

If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, you know how frustrating and intimidating it can be. Relax. There’s nothing shameful in not knowing the ins and outs of the bottles on a wine list. Most people don’t have the slightest interest in the technical aspects of winemaking. They don’t care how high above sea level a vineyard is located or whether it faces north-south or east-west. They probably don’t care about the length of the maceration period (what the hell is maceration?); what kind of trellising was used; or how (and why) oak was used to make the wine.

But if you don’t recognize one bottle out of a hundred, you better pray to Bacchus that there’s someone in the restaurant who does. I don’t give a damn about the details of proctological medicine, but when it comes time, I want a proctologist who does. In the context of the restaurant, this is where the sommelier enters the scene.

Even with a good sommelier, you are not totally absolved of responsibility: What you have to do is make a decision. It’s not the one you may think, namely what wine do I order? Rather, you have to decide what kind of wine experience you want and then you have to trust the sommelier to help you to have it.

I often begin by asking my guests whether they want their wine experience to be like a childhood “blankie” or a road map out of town. Both are different, but both are perfectly legit ways to orient to wine.

If the blankie metaphor resonates, you will probably want a wine that is comforting to you. Familiar. Delicious in a way that you’re used to. In this case, tell your wine guide about the kinds of wines that you usually drink and like. Drop some bottle names and ask him or her to find you a bottle off of their list that will fire on the same cylinders.


Now if you find yourself curious about the ‘road out of town’ metaphor, then you’re like countless customers I’ve met who like particular wines yet are tired of drinking those particular wines. They don’t come to restaurants to eat food they could cook at home, and they don’t come to restaurants to drink wine they’ve drunk the night before at home.

If you’re in this second group, you can help the sommelier exponentially by letting him or her know what you don’t want to drink, the kinds of wine you hate. For example, if you don’t like obvious wines – wines that offer very discernible aromas and flavors – let your somm know!

Any somm worth a damn will care only about what you are looking for. Sure, somms have their own preferences, but good ones won’t let these preferences spill over into forced prescriptions about what customers should and should not drink. They’ll have recommendations if you ask them what they would drink with the particular kind of cuisine being served, but they should use your preferences as their first reference point.

This customer-centric philosophy is my basic orientation to every guest. It stands in contrast to what I’ll call an “expert-centric” approach – where you might hear a somm “unrecommend” a wine that a guest has asked for because it isn’t what he or she would select. Being customer-centric doesn’t mean I don’t use my expertise. The opposite actually. A great deal of expertise is required to understand what someone wants and to find that exact experience for them. The point is, I am nobody’s appointed arbiter of taste. If someone wants a juicy Zin with their fluke, I’ll find them the sloppiest Zin on my list, deliver it and smile as I watch them enjoy themselves. Period. All guests deserve that. As hospitality professionals, we somms are here to take our cues from them.

Whether a restaurant has a 20-bottle list or, as is the case in the restaurant where I work, a 200+ bottle list, choices need to be made. Your job isn’t necessarily to know how to make the choice – it’s to help the person who does know guide you toward the thing you’re looking for. Facing a wine list with the expectation that you should know it all inevitably leads to frustration. Instead, just remember to ask yourself what you’re after: blankie or adventure, and let the somm take you there.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.

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