What to say to a sommelier – and hint at your budget

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Speaking to a sommelier can be an intimidating business, especially when it comes to being frank about your budget. Dispel your insecurities with our experts' guide, with tips from Decanter's columnist Andrew Jefford, chief restaurant critic Fiona Beckett and wine writer and sommelier Emily O'Hare.

Restaurant Palaegade - Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit: Palaegade
Restaurant Palaegade - Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit: Palaegade

‘A really good sommelier is a kind of speed-dating psychologist’

Get the most out of your sommelier, after all they have years of dedicated training and an encyclopaedic wine knowledge at their finger tips.

‘Ask them what they’re excited about on the list,’ recommends Decanter’s chief restaurant wine critic Fiona Beckett. ‘Far from ripping you off most sommeliers will relish having a chance to share their more offbeat discoveries with you.’

Andrew Jefford, Decanter’s columnist and DWWA Regional Chair for France has mixed feelings about sommelier advice. Here are his outlines of the good and the bad sommeliers you may encounter…

The good sommelier

‘A really good sommelier is a kind of speed-dating psychologist. He or she can work out what sort of person you are, how well off you are and what you really fancy most with a few sentences of chat — and then take you there quickly, picking up on any hints you drop along the way.’

The bad sommelier

‘The sommeliers I dislike most are those who insist on you trying their own personal obsessions. They shove some alarming Dornfelder or bretty artisan Pinot Noir your way, when all you wanted was a friendly bottle of claret from a nice warm vintage. I’m not against variety and innovation, but meeting the customers’ needs should take priority.’

An impressive wine selection at Château-Cordeillan Bages restaurant in Bordeaux
An impressive wine selection at Château-Cordeillan Bages restaurant in Bordeaux

Indicating price range — the subtle way

First things first, giving waiters or sommeliers an idea of your budget is essential and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about it.

‘There should be great wines at every price point; if a sommelier can’t find you a decent wine at a lower price this suggests a badly considered list’ said Emily O’Hare, former head sommelier and wine buyer at London’s River Café.

‘At River Café there were so many good wines at the lower end of the price spectrum, that I was once accused of insinuating by my suggestions that the customer couldn’t afford more!’

However, if you do feel a little bashful about money talk then O’Hare has the answer:

‘Point to a few wines of a certain price on the list and the sommelier will get the idea — don’t think you’ll get a big sigh and a sad look if you go for a lower price.’

Of course, it’s probably a good idea to gauge your table’s price range first (unless you’re footing the bill).

You can do this in a similar way by tactfully offering different wine options at different price levels, and gauging the murmurs of assent or muted alarm.

Translated by Leo / 孔祥鑫

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