The savvy sommelier requires selling skills to augment floor presence and wine knowledge.
Spending money in a restaurant, unlike a makeup counter or a car showroom, is not an optional decision once the diner sits down. But you can influence just how much spending will occur by how you greet, read, and interact with your guests.
Selling skills begin with setting the stage. The first step is to make your guests feel comfortable and pampered. Give them a warm greeting, and begin to establish a bond to the extent appropriate for a guest-server relationship. After a long day at work, a hectic commute, or even anxiety over what to wear, guests may need a little coaxing to unwind. Take the edge off with a bit of humor or a simple compliment. Once your guests begin to relax, it is much easier to lead them in the direction you propose.
High-end establishments attract a demanding clientele who are used to being pampered. A savvy sommelier knows this, listens carefully, and delivers. These customers can buy anything they want with their money, but what they really crave are warm, sincere interactions with you and your staff. The most successful chefs work the crowd because they know the power of bonding with their guests, if only for a moment.
Tuning in to customer personalities is critical. Do not make assumptions based on physical appearance: a suit no more implies expense account than blue hair implies iced tea. Treat all guests equally, with sincerity, humility, and warmth.
From that point, begin to establish what kind of wine experience they may be looking for. One way to do this is to ask which wine they have enjoyed recently. If they mention Beringer White Zinfandel, suggest entry-level, perhaps off-dry selections, as well as other options in the same price range. If the wine they mention is higher-end, adjust accordingly. Another option is to run your finger across to price, asking the guest, “Something like this?” This is a highly effective and non-threatening technique, because the host is not forced to disclose verbally what he or she wants to spend, while the sommelier gains a better idea of what to recommend.
While working as wine director at Aqua in San Francisco, a high-end fish house with chef Michael Mina at the helm, I sold quite a lot of high-end Burgundy. One night, an older couple came in. My new assistant greeted them, and the gentleman told him that it was their 25th anniversary and they wanted a nice bottle of Chardonnay. “Great!” he thought, and he raced to the cellar to get a $400 bottle of Corton-Charlemagne. He didn’t know the couple, so he wasn’t going to go too crazy. He presented the bottle, and the guests seemed to enjoy it. When the bill arrived, however, the gentleman looked as if he were going to have a heart attack. In his mind, a nice bottle of Chardonnay would have been about $50.
It is the sommelier’s job to present guests with all options, starting with the best. Just as servers present and sell through multicourse tasting menus and high-ticket appetizers and entrées, so should you suggest the glasses and bottles of superpremium bubbly, white, red, and dessert wines. Always start at the top, but be ready to skillfully and swiftly work your way down. Keep smiling even when they order from the bottom.
Knowing your products is the best way to sell them. When I passed the service portion of my Master Sommelier exams on the first try, I was told that I had earned the highest score in the history of the Court, and that it was my selling skills that had garnered such high marks. After my suggestions of wines like the 1945 Château Lafite-Rothschild were turned down, I moved down my mental list to mid- and then low-tier selections. I knew my products.