Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What I should have known in the beginning, and wish I could always remember now

Looking back over a decade of sommelier service, I seem to have made every mistake twice. Sometimes three times. This is probably because I am stubborn. But it has been through failure that I have really learned what not to do. And just in case you would like to have a successful sommelier career that sidesteps all (most) of the pitfalls, I thought I might share what I know with you. I should probably read through some of these again myself. Sometimes I forget.

People think this is a business about wine. It's not. It's a business about people. And hopefully it is about people who like wine, but it is about people.

Go work at a restaurant with a wine culture and with bottles open to taste. A culture is more than one person.

Don't move for the gold rush. Put down roots.

Today's busser is tomorrow's waiter. Today's waiter is tomorrow's sommelier.

Help with the gruntwork. This is a physical business. You are going to have to lift cases of wine.

Do inventory. You can't serve a bottle of wine if you can't find it in the cellar.

Use professional tastings as tastings. Spend time with the wine in your glass. Think about it. There is no substitute.

Remember stuff. If you can't do that, write it down.

Don't disparage wines that you don't like. You are going to change. Your palate is going to change. There is a good chance that you might eventually like a wine you once criticized. And then you'll probably feel a little bit like a dummy.

Don't get psyched out in the beginning. Remember that it is actually easier to talk to customers if you are one step ahead of them knowledge -wise, because you have more in common with them, than if you are ten steps ahead.

Heroes: they are so important to inspiring you to do something better. And they will open mental doors for you. But keep in mind that fads are fads, and group think is group think.

Reading is fundamental. You've got to do the homework.

Being smart about a subject is really only helpful if you can communicate that nicely.

Every day there is a change out there. In the laws, in the labelling, in the who is doing what. Try to keep up as best you can.

The real skill is in the buying. That is also where the profit is.

Pairing wine with meat or fish: easy. Pairing wine with dessert: difficult. Try the pairing out before you go recommending it.

Make a list of wines to help people have a nice evening. Don't make it for any other reason. This is the real litmus test of a wine director. And the hardest rule to follow.

Create a theme for your program. Stick to it. Don't try to do everything. The wine world is too BIG to do everything. You cannot have every bottle. Do what you do,  and have the bottles that go with that.

Introduce new products. Don't try to sell the same wine 10 different ways. New wines keep it interesting.

Create some excitement. Come in and show people what the fun is about.

Relationships with distributors: you'll never have a great list without sourcing great wines from the people who are bringing them in.

Time management is the key to doing this for the long haul. One part of that is being organized. Another is deadlines, and getting it done today (not tomorrow). And you've got to inspire the people you work with to work hard with you.

Partying: don't let it be why you do the job. If you do, you'll lose the job.

People don't come to a restaurant for the wine. Winebars are a different story. But people come to restaurants for the food. At the end of the day, there is no restaurant without the food.

Which brings us to the next point, which is: whatever the problem might be, the chef is right. Just remember that.

Understand, after a very long day, that you did this because you like wine.

You are going to be working with a lot of managers. Remember that managers like solutions to problems, not more problems. And remember that a good busser will be at that restaurant longer than most any manager.

Remember seasonality. Customers will want to drink differently based on the weather, and based on what produce is available on the menu. But this will just happen one day. No one is going to tell you ahead of time.

Closeouts: get that order in fast.

The 750ml bottle is an obstacle to get around. Think of ways to get more wine in glasses and out of bottles.

Being a good citizen outside of your venue. Don't speak ill of other programs. Don't ask for anything for free because you are in "the industry." Don't be the last table to leave an empty restaurant. And leave that nice tip.

Make regulars by recognizing them.

There are only so many fine dining regulars. Be nice to them.

Look for the wine lover in the crowd of customers. Share an extra (gratis) taste of something with him or her. Wine is cheap. Make a friend.

Make your staff a partner in the success, beyond the financial incentive.

Be your own PR person. Don't wait for someone else to get your message across.

Email vs. Face to Face: email in the orders so they come in exactly and there is a record. But remember that emails aren't a relationship.

If you are fighting for office space at the restaurant, then come in later in the afternoon and work late at night when everyone else has gone home. Then you can use the fax, the printer, whatever. Turn on some music to keep things lively.

A sommelier is still a busser. Or should be.

Be careful about lateral movement. Don't go getting "promoted" to the same thing you've always done. Look for new challenges.

It takes a year to really get a wine program going full speed. That's a full year, 365 days. Don't fool yourself into thinking it is going to happen sooner than that.


Engage writers who engage you. Reach out to them. They like to be appreciated just as much as you appreciate them.

Remember the ageing curve of wines on your list. Don't assume the taste of a wine is static. That misunderstands what wine is.

Remember how long a bad buy can stay with you. Years is the answer. It takes 5 minutes to makes a bad buy, and it can take years to get rid of it all.

Getting it right the first time: price it right in micros, spell it right on the list. Then you don't have to do it over again later.

If you take over a program from somebody else, the first thing you should do is check all the pricing in micros. That is the very first thing you should do. Right after you figure out where the employee bathroom is.

Prevent heat damaged deliveries. Think twice about ordering a 20 case drop for delivery in the middle of the afternoon in July.

Make the wine list user friendly. Warn people (in writing) about wines they might find too stange. Encourage people (in writing) to order the wines you are excited about.

Remember that the people who work the vineyard rows and put the wine in bottle do the real work. We are their advocates.

TRAVEL to vineyards.

Update the wine list online frequently. Customers use it as a resource. It frustrates them to spend time picking a wine that no longer exists.

The possibility of a family. "Floor sommelier" is a young person's game. Remember that at some point you might want to have children of your own, and that you might like to spend time with them. What is your end game scenario for when that time comes? If you figure it out, let me know.

Say thank you and be sincere.


The Glamorous Gourmet said...

Love this post - fabulous advice and insight into the life and career of a sommelier. Thanks for sharing:)

Sput said...

great post Levi... Certainly anyone in the hospitality industry could learn from vasinis...

scotty8m8 said...

Outstanding. I am printing this and posting it on my office wall!

Tobias ├śno said...

Sincerely thank you.
Many good thoughts to ponder.

Michele B. said...

Loved this post! So many good tips that don't just apply to a sommelier but to anyone who works in the wine/restaurant/hospitality biz.

Thanks much and cheers!

leviopenswine said...

Thanks, everybody. Very kind of you. Thanks.

The Wine Mule said...

Lots of good advice here for the retail side, too. Especially about communicating nicely (customers want to know that you know your stuff, but they don't want to be hit over the head with it) and about doing the grunt work. 80% of wine retailing is stocking the shelves! I also really appreciate the hardest rule, that the job is to help people have a pleasant experience.

Ben Wood said...

Levi, Great post man! Lots of good advice for retail and service and all of that! Required reading . . .

LAC said...

Wonderful post Levi! And great of you to share...

What We Drank said...

This whole blog is completely brilliant!

Jordan said...

This is excellent advice, and Levi's voice is pithy and thoughtful. Thank you for great reading, reminders, and some fresh points!

wine man said...

It is my life, i have reached the end of the page....

Thank you for telling the world our life and passion!

Adrian M said...

I dig the style, my fellow wino. There is a lot that is left out in Sommelier training, and you cover a lot of ground with grace. Thank you.

Unknown said...

This is not only great for avoiding pitfalls, but for confirming that I have done some things right in my new position! Thanks so much for being a voice.

Paula said...

Fantastic post. Distilled nuggets of wisdom that shall benefit us all. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

1. Thanks for the blog. I've learned a lot in 30 minutes reading. Your generous sharing of your experience is inspiring.

2. What are micros?

leviopenswine said...

Hi, thanks for your feedback.

Micros is the name a popular restaurant POS system. It is the computer system that servers use to put in orders and print guest checks.

Thanks for reading.