30 seconds to a minute is what a sommelier has in front a guest to figure out what wine a person might like, match it to their dish and within their price point. Not long at all. When you consider the large encyclopaedia lists many venues have, it sounds as daunting as it does impossible. But it isn’t.
The skill resides in effective communication. Asking a few key questions and most importantly, listening. Listening helps you guide a guest to where they feel comfortable and or to their exploratory boundaries.
In all my time as a sommelier, I’ve never once sold a bottle a wine based on facts and figures; it was on style and story. When it comes down to it, a guest is not there to have dinner with you and they’re certainly not there for a master class so good sommeliers keep it simple without dumbing it down. With such limited time, bamboozling people with wine making bullshit is neither helpful, meaningful or useful.
I used to drill this into my sommelier staff by asking them to describe a wine and time their response. Often it would be ‘well, it was picked at 13.5 baume, did its primary fermentation in stainless before being transferred to new french oak, from seguin moreau, with a light toast, before a little battonage to build some texture as well as a partial malolactic fermentation of 30%, blah blah blah …. ‘. You get the drift.
Say that tirade to a someone who knows a bit wine and they’ll look at you annoyed and say … ‘please go away and get me a glass of wine’.
Say that to someone who doesn’t know a lot about wine they’ll look at you annoyed and say … ‘please go away and get me a glass of wine’.
The issue is getting caught up in the process without giving them a connection to people and place; the story. We remember stories more than facts and figures. Why? Because they’re far more interesting than stainless steel tanks.
Imagine wait staff telling you about a steak along the lines of ‘… this is grass-fed Angus beef from Gippsland and what we do is put it on a truck, take it to the abattoir, stun it, slit its throat, hang it upside down, strip it of all its skin off before chopping it up into smaller pieces, dry ageing some so it goes a little grey before cryovacing it and putting it on another truck to a warehouse and then here to the restaurant where we cook it’. Enjoy your meal.
Don’t get me wrong, what happens from paddock to plate is vitally important but I don’t necessarily want to hear about it over dinner. As a diner, I’d like to assume your produce is from ethical and sustainable sources. It’s the same with a wine and or wine list. I assume the sommelier has done the hard work as the proof is in the wine list and or glass in my hand. I’m already invested.
At the beginning of each of our events we brief our wine producers by giving them a little pep talk as to who is attending and what to expect. We say ‘… if we hear one mention of baume levels, trellising systems, clonal selections and any other of that wine making bullshit, we’ll yellow card you. Hear it twice and it’ll be red’.
A tad militant? Perhaps. But our point is that process shouldn’t be the default setting nor opening line. Why not start with ‘Hello’?
Much like a sommelier in a restaurant, at an event a wine producer has around 30 seconds to a minute in front of a guest to tell their story and make a connection to the person in front of them. Telling them who they are, where they’re from, why they’re there and what style of wine they make will have far more resonance than any production method.
It’s the vinous equivalent of a 140 character elevator pitch.
Is yours ready?