Hiring A Sommelier: What Restaurant Operators Need To Know
In terms of wine, it’s perhaps the most valuable asset a restaurant has: A sommelier.
This is the person responsible not only for compiling your wine list and pairings, and choosing which wines you carry, but also being able to communicate information about the wines to your customers.
Hiring a sommelier is, needless to say, of paramount importance. Wayne Gotts, vice president of the International Sommelier Guild (ISG), Coral Springs, Florida, and Peter Bodnar Rod, one of the longest serving instructors/department heads for the ISG, gave RMGT some tips on what to look for in a sommelier hiring process.
1. Excellent communication skills
A good sommelier needs to be able to communicate with restaurant guests, staff and the chef.
It’s a good idea, before hiring one, to see them lead a pre-shift meeting to see how they communicate to staff, Gotts advises.
“Sommeliers have a bad reputation but we don’t want to hire a defensive person,” he adds.
It’s also a good idea to have a conversation with a sommelier candidate in a role-play scenario and have him or her explain wines to the person who’s hiring, as if he or she is a customer.
With customers, a sommelier needs to demonstrate speed, clarity of speech, and the ability to gain trust. “Making a sale is important but it’s not as important as establishing relationships,” Gotts says. An example of how they’d garner trust could be by offering up a wine that’s in the cellar but not yet inventoried.
In terms of customers, sommeliers must also be able to tailor their conversation to the level of the customers, not talking under or over a level that they understand.
“The sommelier has to be comfortable interacting with people and can’t intimidate them,” Gotts explains. “Some of the most knowledgeable people are not good on the floor.”
Adds Bodnar Rod: “Great sommeliers find out what their clients want, or need often before the client knows him or herself by asking the right questions and listening closely to the answers.
“They observe body language and look and listen for other hints to guide them in their recommendations. The recommendations they make should delight the clients more often than not.”
2. A broad knowledge of food.
It’s important to not only be able to pair foods, but to know how different food preparations can change which wines work, Gotts says.
During the hiring interview, ask a potential sommelier to pair items on the menu or bring in portfolios showing the restaurants they’ve worked with and any pairing lists they’ve created or special dinners that have pairings that they’ve done. Also ask about favorite foods, regional dishes they like, and where they’ve traveled.
3. A broad knowledge of the history, production processes, regional styles, service specifics, and major producers in the world of beverage alcohol, and an ability to communicate that knowledge to non-professionals.
This is important for the creation of your wine list and what you purchase for your restaurant, Gotts says. It’s essential for purchasing support and so your operation doesn’t get stuck in a situation where it’s limiting itself.
4. An ability to discuss the business side of the sommelier profession.
A sommelier candidate should be able to define business objectives and describe a process for meeting those objectives.
The hospitality industry is in the business of generating profits from wine and food sales, Gotts explains.
“So, it’s important to make sure the candidate is able to describe how his or her beverage program will generate revenue, both in the short- and the long-term. The sommelier should be able to speak confidently about budgeting, wine costs, staff training and inventory policies, purchasing policies, and so on.”
5. An attitude of hospitality.
Many restaurants hire attitude first and experience second. “It takes years for a sommelier to reach his/her peak in the industry—the point at which knowledge of products and knowledge of business procedures catch up with each other—so I don’t really recommend hiring someone who is as green as the rain forest,” Gotts says.
“Experience matters. But finding someone who can bring experience and a genuine enjoyment of people and their dining-out foibles, a genuine enjoyment of fellow staff members, a genuine love of service, a passion for exceeding the expectations of care of just about everyone—that’s the challenge.
“Wine knowledge and business processes can be taught. Service techniques can be taught. But the attitude of hospitality is an in-born trait.”
6. Strength and fitness
Simply put, says Gotts, there’s a lot of schlepping boxes in a sommelier role.
7. Be first class managers
A sommelier must act professionally at all times and should be a good mentor to junior staff, Bodnar Rod says. He or she should always lead by example and work above and beyond the call of duty.
“Sommeliers must always keep the needs of the business top of mind with a keen awareness of financials. They must design wine programs that work for the demographic they cater to, not their own personal likes and dislikes. I've always said it is much harder to create a great small wine list than a great huge one.”
By Amanda Baltazar