For many people starting out in the restaurant industry, wine is a mysterious and esoteric subject that creates more anxiety than pleasure. I can remember walking up to my first table as a waiter and thinking “please don’t ask me about the wine list…” Really though, having a working knowledge of wine is one of the most important things a server can possess (other than the ability to flirt with anyone). If you want to make the most out of your current job, or find an even better job, wine knowledge will do nothing but help you.
How to open a bottle…
1) The first thing a server should learn – the absolute first thing – is how to open a bottle. Nothing will undermine you more than looking clueless with a bottle in one hand and a wine key in the other. (If you don’t know the term “wine key” you should probably start there.)
There are a lot of online tutorials, but I like this one the best.
How to describe a wine…
2) The next thing you should know is how to describe a wine. This is a subtle art. You’ll want to be as analytical as you are fanciful – people want a show, after all. Develop a structure and just fill it in with relevant descriptions. Think of it as a Mad Lib.
Break it down into the following descriptive elements:
- Body Words: Full, Light, Fat, Thin
- Structure Words: Tannic, Acidic, Soft, Bright
- Aroma & Flavor Words: Raspberry, Blackberry, Grapefruit, Cut Herbs
‘This wine is [Body Word] and [Structure Word] with hints of [Aroma & Flavor Word] on the nose and an [Aroma & Flavor Word] in the finish.’
Using terms from above we can get: ‘This wine is Full and Tannic with hints of Raspberry on the nose and Blackberry on the finish.’
Know your regions…
3) Now you need to know your regions. This is the tough part. Go out and buy yourself The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson and channel your inner cartographer. Wine is like a vacation in a bottle. Spend the time and get a feel for what regions produce what grapes. For example, the Burgundy region of France grows Pinot Noir. Napa Valley in California is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
Learn your wine grapes…
4) Learn your wine grapes. Each wine grape has a distinct personality, which is in turn developed by its region. You should know the difference between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, or between a Pinot Noir and a Merlot. No need to learn every grape – Pineau d’Aunis only comes up occasionally (if not never.) A great resource for learning about individual grape varieties is good old Wikipedia.
Know enough to bullshit…
5) You should now know enough to bullshit your way through the wine list. If you know your grapes and regions you can make some fairly accurate guesses as to the nature of the wine. Pinot Noir from Burgundy tends to be a lot lighter in body than a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. A Chardonnay from California is going to be richer, rounder and oakier than the same grape from Chablis in France.
Once you learn your basic facts, you can work your way into the specific details. There are two types of people after all, those who can extrapolate from incomplete data sets and…
Finally, if you’re talking with a guest who clearly knows more about wine than you do, try to get them talking. People love to talk about the things they’re interested in, after all. Ask them if they’ve ever traveled to a wine region – they’ll love the attention.
Understanding wine and being able to explain your wine list to your guests will increase your sales, and then your tips. And when you find yourself on the job market, your wine skills will give you a distinct leg up on other candidates. So open a bottle and hit the books – the world of wine is yours!