You don’t really know unless you ask

unique-knowledge-copy1My wife and I recently hosted friends who were in town from Sonoma County in California’s wine country. One evening, the four of us dined at a trendy, upscale restaurant in Denver’s LoHi district. Being that our friends work in the wine industry and have uniquely informed opinions about pairing food and wine, I passed the wine list to Christopher.

Chris has held executive-level positions with Cakebread Cellars, Foley Family Wines, and Hanzell Vineyards. He has traveled the world to learn first-hand about nuances such as terroir – loosely defined as the physical environment in which the grape vine grows – and assemblage – the French term for the art of blending wine from different varietals. And his wine knowledge has been confirmed, having received certification from the Master Court of Sommeliers.

We were in very capable hands.

After several minutes discussing the entrees we planned to order, he identified a 2011 Château Musar ‘Jeune’ which, he explained, was from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and was a blend of a unique set of grapes: Cinsault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

About that time, we were approached by the restaurant’s wine steward who, noticing Chris with the wine menu, quickly introduced herself and immediately began spewing information about wine varietals, food and wine pairing, and her personal recommendations.

When she paused, Chris indicated that he would like to order the 2011 Château Musar ‘Jeune’ to which she responded, “That’s a good choice. It’s from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and is a blend of a unique set of grapes: Cinsault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.”

After she left our table, I asked Chris how he felt about their exchange. As I presumed, he felt patronized by the wine steward who failed to qualify her customer’s wine knowledge and made assumptions about his experience and background.

He said to me: “Steve, if she had just asked two questions: ‘What do you like?’ and ‘Why do you like it?’, it would have been a completely different experience for me.”

What I appreciate about Chris’s recommended questions is that they are specific enough to invite an expert to share his knowledge and experience, but vague enough to not expose a guest who has little familiarity with wine. Either way, the server will have qualified her guest.

Additionally, these questions invite guests to become active participants in an exchange that will result in a richer, more memorable dining experience for them and increased wine sales for the server/restaurant. Everybody wins!

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Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

  • This is a great story, Steve!

    I won’t claim to have your friend Chris’s wine knowledge, but I do know my way around a wine list. It definitely puts a damper on the experience when someone assumes you barely know the difference between red and white.

    On the other hand, when a server or a sommelier starts with a few questions, it often ends up being a fun conversation.

  • Jeff, exactly. Questions are also an effective way to express genuine interest in customers. And when we, as customers, feel that service providers are genuinely interested in us, it tends to leave a lasting positive impression. Thanks, Jeff, for taking the time to read/comment.