The challenge of making the customer right

The waiter came quickly over to the bar with a combined look of stress and perplexity upon his face.

“That guy over there,” he said pointing back over his shoulder, “wants to see our wine connoisseur.”

Now I had the confused look.

“Our what?”

“Our connoisseur,” he repeated.

In a business where the mantra is “the customer is always right,” the biggest challenge sometimes can be making that customer right.

“I think he means sommelier.”

“Really?” said the waiter with more sarcasm than humor.

Sommelier is one of those terms that sound like it means something, but in reality, its meaning is subject to interpretation.

In France and Italy the term sommelier has a legal definition, is subject to enforcement and is supported by extensive training in state-certified organizations, much like a college degree. Here in the United States the definition has no legal standing. Anyone may call thimself a sommelier, and trust me, many an inexperienced wine manager, wine waiter or simply the guy or gal who buys the wine does. But typically in the bar/restaurant industry, the only people acknowledged as actual sommeliers are certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an independent examining body established in 1977. To give you an idea of how strenuous the education is, since its introduction nearly four decades ago only 214 people in the world have risen to the top ranking of Master Sommelier. The entry level, on the other hand, can be had for $525 following a two-day course and exam.

“You’re the wine expert,” he said, using a term I loathe. “Why don’t you go over?”

Wine expert is also one of those terms that has very meaning. The world of wine is vast. It is worldwide, multinational and multilingual just for starters. Even more disconcerting, the information is constantly in flux unlike spirits or beer, which seek to preserve the status quo, meaning that the same product should taste exactly the same year to year. Wine can change drastically, sometimes even within the same vintage year. Add to that dilemma, the fact that once in the bottle, the wine also undergoes change, meaning even the exact same wine from the exact same vintage can taste differently from year to year as it ages.

To illustrate, Trebbiano is one of the most planted and most utilized wine grapes in the world. However not all Trebbiano is Trebbiano. Trebbiano Abruzzo is a different grape altogether. In France Trebbiano is known as Saint-Émilion when used for wine and Ugni Blanc when used to make the brandies of Cognac and Armagnac. Trebbiano is also known as Clairette Ronde or Clairette Rose, but should not be confused with regular Clairette. which is also an entirely different grape. In Portugal it is known as Thalia and in the U.S. it goes by a multitude of names, not the least of which is known as Saint Emilion (minus the accent). This doesn’t even take into consideration the multitude of Trebbiano clones out there. And that is only one grape.

“What can I do for you?” I asked after I reluctantly wandered over.

“I just wanted to tell you about my wine,” said the customer in the corner.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Sometimes people just want to talk at you, not to you. As a server you eventually learn the difference.

• Wine enthusiast is the best term, unless of course you are one of those special 214.

• “I have lived temperately … I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend,” said Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, president, vice president, governor of Virginia, ambassador to France and well-known wine connoisseur.

• “Dined at the President’s … There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines; not very edifying,” wrote John Quincy Adams, secretary of state, about then-President Thomas Jefferson. Adams later serving as a member of the House of Representatives after being both the president and a senator. Clearly not impressed.

• Congratulations to all the minimum wage wait staff out there (certainly most of them in this county), as of July 1 you just got a dollar an hour raise. This might not seem like much, but if you work 40 hours a week that’s an extra $2,080 a year. Yay!