It's Getting Personal with Sommeliers
Despite what some say, according to California Editor Virginie Boone, superstars in the service industry are stepping it up.
BY VIRGINIE BOONE
At the Farmhouse Inn, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Russian River Valley, Allyson Gorsuch does more than suggest a pairing partner for your dinner or pour your favorite Napa Cab. Gorsuch, the estate wine director, gets to know you and your preferences even before you’ve stepped foot in the restaurant.
This next-level, personalized sommelier service kicks off when you make a reservation. Diners are asked a series of questions: Will you want red, white or bubbly? Are you interested in local or international offerings? What’s your drink of choice at home, say, on a Tuesday evening?
The goal is to create a custom drinking experience. It’s designed to demystify sommeliers to the average drinker and strengthen their relationship, achieved by exceeding a diner’s needs.
“I think people coming to wine country are more savvy about wine, just as the public as a whole is,” Gorsuch says. “Wine used to be intimidating to many, but I think it is less so now. That said, Sonoma Wine Country is vast and overwhelming. I think people visiting look to locals to help them navigate, so I think it is less looking to a sommelier than it is looking to a local (for advice).”
Indeed, increasingly, people want to know the person behind that wine recommendation, and they’re not afraid to ask.
“[The program] allows for people to have exactly what they wish they could be drinking at the moment they would like to be drinking it,” says Gorsuch. “Something refreshing after a bike ride, something red and bold by the fire.”
Gorsuch is one of many smart sommeliers approaching wine service with savvy, skipping the super serious talk and getting down to business.
“We have no more business approaching the table with talk of pyrazines and thiols than a medic should open their bedside dialog suggesting the risk of cerebral infraction,” Geoff Kruth, MS, who advises to his fellow sommeliers in a Guild of Sommeliers blog post.
“What the patient wants to know is, ‘Am I going to live?’ and what the customer wants to know is, “Will I like it?”
Kruth worked as wine director at Farmhouse Inn for many years. Like Gorsuch, he saw the need to simplify and personalize sommelier service, seeing the role as not of a tastemaker, but a matchmaker.
And he’s not alone.
“You start by identifying the customer’s needs,” says David Glancy, MS, founder of the San Francisco Wine School. “The best sommeliers know that you can’t sell the same thing to every customer. I’ve always taught that you need to understand wine-and-food pairing principals, but taste is very personal. Reading the customer and listening to them are critical skills.”
As more sommeliers adopt this approach, their connection with costumers deepens.
“I’m seeing a huge increase in consumer interest in talking to sommeliers, getting a glimpse into our world, learning what we like and trying new things,” Glancy says. “Hopefully, the many customers who are still afraid to ask questions will engage sommeliers and retailers more. Savvy consumers are learning what they like and how to ask for it.”
And these magnificent matchmakers are coming to a supermarket near you. In Northern California,Raley’s will introduce “wine stewards” in some 20 wine shops to help with selections, provide tasting tips and even offer pairing recipes. They will all have Wine & Spirit Education Trustcertifications.
Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, has already distributed 450 wine stewards in stores around the U.S.
As a wine writer and taster, I especially respect and appreciate the industry's newfound approach to personalization. I can't think of a better way to make wine more enjoyable than to eliminate intimidation, increase conversation and customize each and every experience.
Editor Speak is WineMag.com's weekly sounding board on the world of wine and beyond. Follow #EditorSpeak on Twitter for the latest columns from @WineEnthusiast and our editors >>>
Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews and reports on the wines of Napa and Sonoma for the magazine. Sonoma-based Boone began her writing career in 1997 with Lonely Planet travel guidebooks, contributing to titles on South America, Northern California, France and America's Deep South. Travel assignments led her to California-focused wine coverage, including regular features for the New York Times regional newspaper Santa Rosa Press Democrat, for which Boone has been a contributing wine writer for several years. She is also the author of Napa Valley and Sonoma: Heart of California Wine Country, and a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Follow Virginie and read her latest columns and wine reviews via Twitter >>>
Stay tuned for next week's edition of Editor Speak (live on April, 16) when California Contributing Editor Matt Kettmman reveals the truth about California's oldest vineyards.