Stop being terrified of sommeliers: Tips for talking to wine professionals and uncorking better wine experiences

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Among fully grown and otherwise confident adults, few things of similar triviality trigger as much vulnerability and self-doubt as a sommelier approaching your table at dinner.

Whether wine is something you consider nightly or just on special occasions, sommeliers and retail wine sellers should be the first line of defense for anyone making decisions about wine. After all, wine professionals exist to help consumers decode wine menus and bottle labels. The better ones have spent years studying wine just to suss out the perfect pinot noir or pairings for esoteric foods.

So why is it that we freeze up when a sommelier arrives with the wine menu and a smattering of cheerful questions? How often do you shirk past your friendly retailer even though yes, you very much do need help?

Wine is so laden with social pitfalls, explains Torrence O’Haire, the corporate beverage director at Gage Hospitality Group, which includes restaurants like The Gage and Acanto near Millenium Park. “There’s this pervasive fear that if you order the wrong bottle or drink the wrong thing, you’ll look like a fool in front of everyone,” he said. “Guests often choose not to speak to a sommelier because they’re afraid the sommelier will make them feel stupid, or shame them for not spending enough money.”

But wine professionals, on their part, are fully aware of how uncomfortable a subject wine can be. Most would be thrilled to take on the burden of your anxiety. If only you could just talk to them.

Make friends with your sommelier

Rule number one, O’Haire suggested, is to find a wine person you enjoy talking to. Granted, not every café or liquor shop is equipped with an educated wine team, but if you’re curious about wines, patronize restaurants and bottle shops where wine professionals are keen to build a relationship with you. “If they don’t make you feel comfortable enough to engage, you need to go to a different place,” O’Haire said.

Be upfront about your budget

Be clear with your sommelier or wine retailer about the parameters you want to stick to. Most importantly, how much you want to spend on wine. Price point is hands down the most efficient way for a sommelier or retailer to home in on what to offer.

There’s no denying the awkwardness of stating a dollar figure in front of a date, your judgmental aunt or a business counterpart. But whether you choose to point at a price or announce it aloud, “consumers should feel entirely nonchalant about stating their budget to their sommelier,” O’Haire said. “A wine professional’s job is to make you feel excited and supported regardless of whether you’re spending $40 or $400.”

Break down the communication barrier

If you walk away wondering whether you’re even speaking the same language anytime you attempt to engage with a sommelier or other wine professional, it’s not unusual. The language of wine is fraught with jargon and the gap between how consumers and wine professionals talk about wine is wide.

The problem goes both ways. “Wine professionals are so engrossed in the language of wine, we tend to use terms or refer to regions or grapes that most people have never heard of,” said George Day-Toles a sommelier and the beverage and education manager for Verve Wine, the Lincoln Park wine shop. “At home, my husband sometimes reminds me, ‘alright, now explain this wine to me like I’m a four-year-old,’” he says.

George Day-Toles, right, beverage and education manager at Verve Wine, flips a bottle of white wine upside down for customer Liam Marchant to see on May 18, 2024, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

“As a community though, and especially here in Chicago, we’re really trying to pull back the curtain to make wine more approachable and for our guests to feel more comfortable,” Day-Toles said. “It’s our goal to create relationships where guests know we’re hearing what they say rather than just pushing products on them.”

Consumers also inadvertently muddle the lines by misusing many foundational wine terms. Whether a wine is dry or sweet is a perennial misunderstanding among wine drinkers. By definition, a dry wine is a wine with no perceivable sweetness because little to no residual sugar remains after fermentation. Conversely, a sweet wine tastes sweet because it does contain residual sugar.

Complications arise when wine drinkers use the words “dry” to describe sensory perceptions beyond sugar content – the lack of overt fruitiness, or the astringency of tannins, those bitter compounds found in grapes or wood that give wine texture and a puckery feeling.

Similarly, many consumers mistakenly associate fruitiness in wine — juicy, mouthwatering flavors like cherry, mango or grapefruit — with sweetness even when there’s no sugar present. Indeed, the vast majority of wines that we might associate with big, fruity flavors — wines like sauvignon blanc or pinot noir, for example — are fully dry.

“When a consumer asks for a sweet wine, I always have to ask, ‘when you say sweet, do you actually mean sugary, like a wine that has residual sugar, or are you looking something that’s just fruity and juicy?’” Day-Toles said.

George Day-Toles, right, beverage and education manager at Verve Wine, discusses a white wine’s characteristics with customer Liam Marchant on May 18, 2024, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Smooth is another term that’s often more misleading than helpful simply because it’s so subjective. On the one hand, it might refer to the general texture of a wine, something that’s lower in acidity or softer in tannins, but it’s also a word that consumers use to describe everything from the presence of residual sugar to a lack of bubbles or effervescence. At its worst, smooth signals an innocuousness verging on limp.

“It’s fine if that’s what they really want,” O’Haire said, but there are a lot of unhelpful wine terms that remind him of a line from the movie, “The Princess Bride.” “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means,” he quotes.

This communications gap is why sommeliers like O’Haire often opt to wipe the slate clean of wine terminology altogether when interacting with guests, peppering them instead with questions about anything from their current mood to their favorite movie just to establish rapport and openness instead. “Sometimes, the most useful information a consumer is much more basic,” he said. “If a guest tells me, ‘at home we drink a lot of pinot grigio, I love Chablis but I don’t want to spend that much money tonight and I’m having fish for dinner,’ I can quickly triangulate from there,” O’Haire said.

After all, the best wine professionals are more than just wine experts. Sometimes a translator, detective and psychologist too, they’re your most underutilized advocate in getting the greatest rewards from your wine purchases.

Anna Lee Iijima is a freelance writer.

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