Dr. Mitchell

Food & Beverage

More Than Wine - The Real Contribution of the Sommelier

By Brian Mitchell, Principal, Mitchell Performance Systems

Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Senior Consultant, Mitchell Performance Systems

** This is the second article in a series on improving revenue and profits from F&B

People tend to defer to wine expertise. And by no means merely wine novices. On any evening, in any fine dining restaurant, anywhere in the world, you'll find seasoned diners seeking reassurance of their wine selection through the approval of that arbiter of taste - the sommelier.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, the sommelier's role is "to ensure that any wine ordered is served correctly and, ideally, to advise on the individual characteristics of every wine on the establishment's list and on food and wine matching." There's more than a hint here of the popular caricature of the sommelier - an imperious figure of vast snootiness pontificating on the intricacies of wine with an air of the grandest condescension, while shamelessly picking our pocket.

A misrepresentation? Absolutely. But then the role of sommelier lends itself to much misinterpretation - and even more under-appreciation. Not having a clear fix on what the role really involves will prove immensely costly to an establishment.

There's a vast difference between a sommelier performing to the fullness of the job, and just playing the wine expert. And the impact on revenue can be just as large. Each layer of the job brings in additional opportunities, which are there to be taken but are too often lost. So join us while we analyze the sommelier role and what it should contribute. The findings may surprise.

The Tactician

Though not the be-all and end-all of the sommelier's responsibilities the wine list is the place to start. It's here that the wine expert becomes wine tactician.

The first point to be made about the list is its elasticity. It's a revenue source with the capacity to increase or decrease profits. That alone should cause management to give it more than passing interest. But the importance goes further. More even than the dining menu, the wine list is a statement about the establishment. A quick read of its standing and style - how it sees itself.

Further, it's an assessment of the establishment's clientele - a commentary on their tastes and limitations (with all the potential to offend that comes with any assessment). This judgment won't pass unnoticed, because the wine list matters to the diner. It substantially adds to or lessens their enjoyment of the dining experience. It's a reflection, positive or negative, on the host or one who chose the venue. And not only will it influence table spend, but also whether those diners return to the establishment, and what "word of mouth" they're inclined to give.

No expensive advertising or persuasive PR can overturn the negative impression caused by a wine list.

So what's most crucial? What omissions in a list are most likely to grate with diners? In our book The Psychology of Wine ( www.psychologyofwine.com ) we point to balance and diversity as the core requirements of a quality list. Most diners will notice a lack of balance - a hole in the list, as it were - by the absence of a region/variety/style they'd particularly wanted and had looked forward to ordering. A lack of diversity - the touch of the new and different that tempts diners to move away from their comfort zone - may not be noticed immediately. However it will nag away and disappoint, like a flat wine, if not at the time then later, when comparing it to other lists.

Diversity brings its own demands - the less well-recognized the range, the greater the need for sound and sensitive advice. Good sommeliers won't wait for diners to ask, as quite likely they won't. Consider the mindset of a customer contemplating a list featuring the southern Italian grape fiano - Does that rhyme with piano, or 'Ti Amo'? What's it like? Will I like it? No matter, there's a chardonnay I can't go wrong with… The sommelier should resolve these uncertainties and guide the diner to the ideal choice for them. Yet as soon as an interaction with a table begins, the role expands - now we're dealing with "selling".

The Salesperson

There's a chapter in our book citing four channels of wine authority - "winemaker, wine writer, sommelier, fine wine merchant." The sommelier's position within this group is unique. Wine writers tend to converse with other experts. Winemakers too, and when talking to the public it's typically only their own wines they're discussing. Wine merchants converse with the wine drinking public but from a protected position. They can comfortably inquire of a customer "how much were you thinking of spending?" and no-one would bat an eye. But the same question to a dining patron would be the worst kind of gaucheness, and a violation of dining etiquette. It would have the capacity to embarrass that diner in the eyes of friends and family, romantic interest, or business colleagues (and consider what that's going to do for "word of mouth" and return business).

The sensitivities peculiar to the dining situation require a level of astuteness and discretion, far removed from mere wine expertise. Perhaps the most psychologically delicate aspect of any professional selling role is qualifying the customer. It demands more than just finding out what they want. Unspoken objections and implicit resistances must also be teased out. When they're not, they'll just fester beneath the surface, and any sale made is likely to be less, much less, than it could have been. Accurately and disarmingly qualifying a diner as to their wine tastes and price sensitivities requires selling skills of the highest order. (We make that observation on the back of fifteen years of consulting in sales and negotiation strategies, to some of the most professional sales operations in the US.) And this goes double when we consider that the qualification of diners is complicated by the need to factor in food preferences. Advising on the marriage of food and wine is an art in itself.

The sommelier is beholden to two masters - the customer and their employer. They must tread a fine line between not seeming to gouge a customer, yet not missing any opportunity with diners willing and able to spend at the top of the list. And, unlike most other professional salespeople, they don't have the luxury of time. Their qualifying must be done on the run, since they're in such demand everywhere on the floor.

The Educator

Thinking about it logically, revenue must be squandered when selling the wine list is left solely to the sommelier. Unless an establishment is prepared to deliberately pass up revenue and diner satisfaction, everyone on the floor should be able to talk to the list with some degree of confidence. The best prepared wine list cannot sell, or explain, itself. And customers driven to frustration by a lack of advice are unlikely to make for good spenders or references. Consider situations we've observed many times, in many restaurants across many countries...

  • A diner says, "I don't recognize any of the wines on this list" - and is clearly not happy about that…
  • A diner says, "I've just come back from Italy, and I loved Vernaccia di San Gimignano / Morellino di Scansano / Cerasuolo di Vittoria / Cinque Terre Sciacchetra - what do you have like that…?"
  • A diner orders a particular wine, only for it to be discovered currently out of stock. Besides being clearly annoyed by the unavailability, the diner now appears at a loss as to what to order in its place…
  • A foreign visitor clearly knows a good deal about wine in general, but little about the local wines represented on the list. He asks for recommendation on a local wine that will impress the table…

Staff have seconds to respond, before they've lost the table, and their trust. Sure there'll be a sale - of something. But at what cost to diner enjoyment, table spend, and the reputation of the establishment? There's a right way to handle each of these situations. And a whole lot of wrong ways… The right way begins with a qualification of the diner. And as we've already seen, this isn't simple. The sommelier's skill in this area, or at least some of it, needs to be passed on to floor staff. So the wine expert, tactician, and salesperson, now must also be an "educator".

We understand that staff education isn't a subject likely to bring senior management to a state of keen excitement. It's typically delegated then forgotten. But when reduced revenue, and profit, and customer satisfaction, are the consequences of getting it wrong, it's worth looking a little deeper at the method.

It's only natural that specialists, in any field, will equate this with producing "mini-me's", clones of themselves. In the case of sommeliers it often means falling back on tasting notes - details on palate weight, flavor profile, texture and mouthfeel, appellation, style and so on - to educate floor staff in wine talk. The problem with this approach is that no-one, least of all a novice, feels comfortable using terms they'd actually battle to explain. They know there's a good chance they'll be caught out (and frequently they are). And when they do use them, it invariably comes across as stilted and unconvincing.

Educating floor staff via tasting notes is a trap. It doesn't work for them, or the customer. Wine knowledge is not the way to sell wine. Oh a sommelier and experienced wine waiter will carry it off (though even here it's always backed up by other skills) but it's a poor investment of time with the average floor staff member. The best sommeliers know that the best way to sell wine is the best way to sell anything - through techniques. The time spent attempting to turn floor staff into junior sommeliers is better spent with brief instruction in methods that will actually work for them on the floor. And brief means brief. Just a handful of uncomplicated techniques will address the problem in a satisfactory way - to the benefit of the establishment, the floor staff themselves, and the diners (who'll end up having a more enjoyable evening).

Most sommeliers find it extremely difficult to squeeze staff education in with their other pressing responsibilities. And there's another hurdle with which they have to contend - the distinction between improving staff abilities, and getting the best out of what's already there. Immediate profitability demands that sommeliers work as well as they can with the real, not the ideal. And there is such a spread of talent, experience, competence, confidence, aptitude and attitude across any front of house team.

Somehow the task of getting the front of house up to scratch in using the wine list to build business and meet diners' expectations, must be dealt with - and effectively. The cost to the establishment, in a whole range of ways, is too expensive. Giving them the basic essentials of selling in a restaurant setting is the only practical solution - and the best way of making floor staff education a realistic and meaningful part of the sommelier's job.

The Sales Manager

Giving floor staff methods that work, while providing them with all the support they require, has benefits aside from all-important revenue. It makes for a less stressful, more motivating work environment. And all things being equal, this should help to limit the scourge of staff turnover.

An individual expert in the product, who can think tactically, sell professionally, educate meaningfully, and contribute to staff motivation, there's a name for that. It's called sales management - the fifth string to the sommelier's bow, and possibly the most significant of all.

The Sommelier in Perspective

The role of sommelier has a proud history, dating back hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. One of the most distinguished, as described by Roy Strong in Feast: a History of Grand Eating, was Sante Lancerio, bottigliere to Pope Paul III in the mid 16th century. Not only did he refine the precise matching of wines to dishes, but he actually pioneered the vocabulary of wine - how we describe wine's appearance, fragrance, flavor and the complex interplay of myriad distinct characters. There you have it. A sommelier originated the language of wine as it is spoken today. Not a winemaker, or even a wine writer.

A Som was the First to Talk the Talk

In the past they were favored functionaries and courtiers to kings and popes, nobles and aristocrats, who basked in the limelight of an esoteric knowledge of wine. Today's sommeliers have it much tougher. They can still enjoy the satisfaction of knowledge that few have and many envy, and can "bask" to some extent in the status of a highly specialized profession. But they carry the responsibility for the well-being of their employer's business, so their feet must be on the ground (metaphorically and literally).

No-one front of house has so many productive opportunities - to generate revenue, drive profit, and enhance the dining experience of patrons - as the sommelier. The range of skills and attributes they bring to an establishment shouldn't be under-appreciated or under-utilized - they must be recognized and valued highly for what they are and what they bring. If not, then the bar is being set too low - at a large cost to the establishment.

** Please refer to the preceding article

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This article was co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Senior Consultant, Mitchell Performance Systems. Mr. Mitchell's interest in the dining experience began in his university years when he worked as a waiter and later sommelier in leading Australian restaurants. On graduating from the University of Sydney with an Honors degree in English Literature and Psychology, he continued to work in the restaurant industry until joining Mitchell Performance Systems (MPS) as a designer and consultant. After a number of years working on sales productivity strategies for leading US consumer products companies, he returned to his earlier love, the food and wine area. He now leads the MPS consulting activities within the restaurant industry. He has co-authored three publications on wine and numerous articles on the dining experience. Mr Mitchell can be contacted at emitchell@psychologyofwine.com

After completing a PhD in Psychology at the University of Sydney, Brian Mitchell spent several years in clinical practice. He moved into retail consulting with the Mandev International group. He became President of the North American, Asian, and Australian operations. He also pioneered performance management systems within a major football code. In the mid-1990’s Dr Mitchell established Mitchell Performance Systems (MPS), consulting with the consumer packaged goods industry. The company worked on techniques to improve sales and negotiation. Mr. Mitchell has also worked on improving revenue and profits in restaurant Food & Beverage. Dr. Mitchell can be contacted at brian@loveandwine.com.au Extended Bio...

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