7th Jan 2013
The Secret Official Sommelier Manual
by Ron Washam
When I officially became a sommelier, I had to swear on a stack of Karen MacNeil Wine Bibles purchased from the remainder table at Border’s, piled right next to Whole Earth Catalogs (who knew you could order a whole earth?), that I would never reveal the contents of The Secret Official Sommelier Manual. But I’m not a sommelier any more, my retired tastevin is on display at the C.I.A. Greystone where it serves as an ashtray/after-dinner mint dish and occasional cup for Ms. MacNeil to wear in intramural softball games, and I think it’s important that the average restaurant wine consumer understands what a sommelier’s job actually entails and what is expected.
I shopped The Secret Official Sommelier Manual around to various publications, but it was rejected by all of them out of sheer cowardice. Decanter was fearful that it would be targeted by sommelier suicide bombers, who affix highly explosive Natural Wines to their bodies that leave a smell behind that lingers for months, though it’s a highly effective cockroach fumigant. Food and Wine was fearful someone might actually read their magazine, exposing how little content actually exists there. Wine Spectator thought sommelier was a war-torn country in Africa and sent Tim Fish there. I’m guessing they knew it wasn’t really an African country. So I’m publishing excerpts from The Secret Official Sommelier Manual here. Pray for me.
From Chapter 6 “Wines By the Glass”
Your wine-by-the-glass program (or WBG, which stands for Wine Brings Gazillions) works for your restaurant in many ways. It is not, and never was, designed to satisfy your clients. Don’t be stupid. The point of WBG is simple. If they’re too cheap to order a bottle of wine because they hate to pay restaurant markups, then make the markup higher on WBG. They’re gonna drink. Sure, a few will order a “craft” beer instead, a sucker’s category exactly like “designer” water. Come on, it’s beer, for God’s sake. But most will feel better paying $10 for a fifth of a bottle of wine that you’d normally charge $40 for. Makes ‘em feel smart. They saved $30! All you need is four other idiots who think the same way. Look there’s a party of 4 now, and they’re all texting! See, God loves you.
WBG works for wineries too! A winery with too much inventory will offer you huge savings, often 50% off the retail price, if you buy ten cases or more and swear on your dry cleaner not to tell anyone. The winery is thrilled to move their product and be featured in your fine establishment. For the winery, the choice was your place, or be part of the next BevMo 5¢ sale. Food or fraud, right or Wilfred Wong—not a tough choice. Now, you just pretend you paid their regular case price, and markup accordingly from there! Remember, in the WBG game, it’s go big, or go Sutter Home.
Flights are also a wonderful way to move unwanted inventory. Flights are the brochettes of the restaurant wine list—leftovers strung together and run as a “Special.” Face it, you’ve purchased a lot of wines you wish you hadn’t. You were drunk. It’s understandable. The salesperson is hot and you’re lonely. Yes, you’re lonely, moron, you’re a sommelier. Deep down everybody hates you. They’re nice to you, but they hate you. You’re basically a wine dentist—get ‘em in the chair and make ‘em suffer. So you gave in and bought a bunch of wines you can’t really sell. Flights can move three or four wines at a time! Offer three pours, a few ounces of each, and watch that unwanted inventory vanish. The best thing about a Flight is that you don’t have to feel guilty that one of the wines, at least, sucks! Clients want to compare wines, they want to decide which wine is the best. Make it easy for them! Serve them one nice wine and two wines that have more faults than the Pacific Ring of Fire. They’ll thank you for the education.
From Chapter 7 “Sales Reps”
Never tell the truth to a sales rep. Remember that you are superior to them in every way. You’re always fucking right. You’re Sean Hannity in a suit that fits. You’re Alex Trebek, only better—you’re not from Canada! You’re Stephen Hawking with his new Whitney Houston voicebox transplant. You’re Donald Trump without his butt plug. You’re Ann Coulter without his butt plug. You’re not just God, you’re Old Testament God. They may speak to You, but You will not answer in return; you speak only through your representative here on Earth—the hostess who answers the phone.
From Chapter 8 “Developing the Sommelier Style”
Remember that as sommelier you represent the highest aspiration of your restaurant. Money. Is there any higher aspiration for a restaurant? Yeah, yeah, hospitality and good food, blah blah blah. Sure, and John Boehner’s tears are because he cares, and not from plucking out his pubic hairs one at a time. Clients see you approaching the table and, ideally, they should start nervously checking for their wallets. Tell them to relax, that if they just relax, no one will get hurt. Practice this attitude along with rapists portrayed in the opening tag of any “Law and Order SVU.” As sommelier, you carry prestige and clout. Just being seen at their table gives the clients caché. Other customers at other tables are impressed that you are spending time with them, that you’re gracing them with the benefit of your wisdom and three years of WSET exams, which are mutually exclusive.
There is often no need to taste wines that you’ve ordered for your wine list. Order all the rare and glamorous wines you like, put them on the list, then sell them to a client. Once the host has sampled the wine, approved, and then spent a few minutes enjoying, approach the table and ask the host if he’s enjoying the wine. Of course, he is. It’s expensive, he knows enough to know he’s required to admire it. So ask him, sincerely and politely, to describe the wine. He won’t. He’d be too embarrassed, too intimidated, to try and describe a great wine to a sommelier! He’ll offer you a taste. A taste is defined in The Secret Official Sommelier Manual as four ounces. Anything less is an insult to your status. Thank him for the “taste” of his $500 wine, and do not describe it for him.
Remember, they trust you, they respect your position, they know you know more than they do. It’s like selling fake wines to the Chinese. Nothing could be easier, or more satisfying.
Ron Washam is a recovering sommelier and former comedy writer, who also judges at many major wine competitions, whether he's invited or not. He blogs regularly and rather pathethically at HoseMaster of Wine.
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