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“Don’t be scared of the sommelier”

A nice article about how to take advantage of the sommelier, written by Nashville’s only sommelier (as far as I know, she’s the only one).

Statistically speaking, most restaurant guests will never interact with a sommelier. There can’t be more than 1% of all restaurants in America that employ the services of a sommelier, and I think that 1% is probably being generous. And most people won’t dine at a French Laundry or Aureole.  Nashville is lucky to have a pair of restaurants that are moderately priced and still have a sommelier (F. Scott’s and Table 3). This is only possible because Loehr is a co-owner of those restaurants and happens to be an über wine geek who has received her Advanced Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, which puts her one step away from getting her Master Sommelier Certificate (there are only 120 people in the US who have received that certification). 

I place so much emphasis on wine knowledge because, in most restaurants, waiters must take on the role of the sommelier. Even if you work at Applebee’s and only need a limited wine knowledge, you won’t always work at Applebee’s if you intend on staying in the business. So you should start learning as much about wine as you possibly can. You will never know everything about wine even if you’re waiting tables for 40 years. It’s a matter of constant attention and there’s always more to learn. Every vintage, every blend, every vineyard, every region is different. In fact, there are infinite variations in each individual region. There are new processes, new trends, new vintners. This requires staying as on top of the wine world as you can.

Waiters will never have the resources that true sommeliers have. Sommeliers taste every wine that they serve. They do comparative tastings with other like wines. They meet with wine representatives almost daily. They are fed huge amounts of information about currently produced wines. Waiters only get a sprinkling of this massive amounts of information. So it’s extremely important to take advantage of the information that trickles through the sommelier or person responsible for the wine program, whether it be tear sheets about specific wines, tastings or staff meetings with wine reps. And, there’s an additional burden on waiters to maintain an independent study program.

You can’t be a great waiter without this knowledge. You can’t be expected to know everything, but you should be able to advise  and educate your guests, without being a Wine Nazi, in choosing the perfect wine from your list with the food that they will be eating. I hope that you use this blog to help in this process. I have written about wine on occasion and, even though the amount of coverage that I can give wine is limited, I think that some of my thumbnail sketches can help distill knowledge from the wide world of wine. Just search for wine and you’ll find a dozen or more articles about commonly available wines. I hope to continue this series as I go forward. What I try to do is give practical information and be as complete as I can in this format. I can’t really cover the subject like a dedicated wine website or book, but I can try to give the information that helps when trying to guide a guest in their dining experience. I try not to clutter my articles with so much information that it becomes unwieldy. I try to simplify as much as possible while still imparting the essence of the subject.

Elise Loehr


It’s French., It’s sexy. It’s a rising star. It’s Viognier.

Pronounced “vee own yay”. it’s a white varietal that has long been famous in Europe, especially for it’s use in Condreau, one of the more exotic French whites. I say “exotic” because it’s flavor profile is different from the typical Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Grigio-based wines that Americans have become accustomed to. If there’s a white grape that most closely resembles it in terms of flavor notes, I’d say that it’s Riesling, although Riesling is sweeter than Viognier. Viognier is usually described as “perfumey”.

Viognier at its best produces a floral, rich-tasting wine. It’s not done as often in an oaky style because oak can deaden the wonderful floral, tropical fruit and spice notes, but there are Viogniers that feature oak flavors.

Due to the increasing US consumer’s expanding interest in wine and a desire to get away from the usual suspects, Viognier is on the upswing here in the States. This is a good thing since Viognier almost vanished from the wine world back in the 60s. Not only has it made a bit of a comeback in France, where only a relative handful of acres were devoted to Viognier plantings, it’s starting to make a foothold in California.

Like Pinot Noir, it’s a fussy and hard-to-grow grape. If proper care isn’t taken, it can produce a flat, somewhat flabby wine. But when it’s done correctly, it produces a full-bodied white with such floral notes as apple blossoms, violets, honey, honeysuckle, jasmine and roses, spicy notes such as mint, tobacco (!), anise and vanilla, and unctuous fruits like guava, earthy fruits like pears and apricots and tropical fruits such as pineapple and mango. As you can see, it shares some of the flavor characteristics of Riesling, but without the sweetness. There are two other things that it shares with Riesling and those are it’s luscious, oily mouthfeel and nose. When oak is employed, it’s often of the more “buttery” kind.  These characteristics can move a guest who likes the “fruitiness” of Riesling to the drier and more food-friendly Viognier.

So, what do you pair with Viognier?

They go well with salad-based dishes.  They are one of the few wines that pairs well with Oriental food, especially spicy Thai dishes, and they pair well with coconut spicy curries (I don’t find it as good of a match with Indian-style curries, but that’s a personal choice). They go well with fatty white fish like sea bass and halibut. And they are marvelous with fruits and fruit sauces.

We’re starting to see dessert wines made from Viognier. Since Viognier isn’t particularly susceptible to boytritis, growers usually rely on late-harvesting and manipulation in order to produce a sweet product.

Viognier doesn’t produce a wine conducive to aging. It should usually be drunk within 3 to 5 years because it tends to lose it’s “perfumey” character.

We’re increasingly seeing Viognier used in blending with Chardonnay because it brings a lot of freshness to the sometimes overbearing qualities of Chardonnay. It’s also used in exotic blends like Conundrum (I only suspect this since they don’t really list their varietals).

I’m not going to recommend any particular wines since it’s likely that if you’re even lucky enough to have Viognier on your wine list, you’ll only have one or two to choose from. The best thing to do is to buy a couple of them from your local wine store and get familiar with the flavor profiles. Or perhaps you could convince management to do a tasting.

It’s time for you to add Vigonier to your wine palette.

Image courtesy of

Book of the day – The Essential Wine Book by Oz Clarke

Oz Clarke’s New Essential Wine Book: An Indispensable Guide to Wines of the World

by Oz Clarke

  • Publisher: Fireside; 3 Rev Upd edition (December 20, 2005)
  • ISBN 10: 0743286685
  • ISBN 13: 978-0743286688
  • Note: all comments forthwith are based on the 1996 edition of this book.

    Robert Parker says it best on the cover of the edition that I own – The Essential Wine Book…is the best introductory text to wine and the most enjoyable to read.

    My edition is over 15 years old, having been published in 1996. Clarke, a wry Brit who’s not Australian despite his nickname, has found a format that really makes it easy for the wine neophyte to get a handle on the oft confusing world of wine. The book is small enough to be easily handled and large enough to offer space for nice color photographs and numberous sidebars.

    The book is quickly outdated as he gives specific vintage recommendations and specific wine choices. That’s part and parcel of a book that tries to be a consumer guide in addition to a reference work. Even some of the editorial commentary is outdated, but that’s the nature of a rapidly evolving wine trade.

    But what makes this a standout purchase, especially for people who need some brushing up on their wine knowledge, is the ease in which he throws open the curtains to an often complex and arcane wine world.  The book is logically designed and his observations are clearly personal and somewhat idiosyncratic. He doesn’t just plug in the generic tasting notes for the various varietals and regions that some volumes do. It’s clear that he’s describing the various products from his own tasting perspective and when he hasn’t tasted something, he’ll tell you, as in the case of Château Le Pin, the Pomerol winemaker who has surpassed Château Petrus as the world’s most expensive wine due to its tiny output (the output has tripled to ~600 cases a year from the ~200 cases per year at the time of my edition’s publication).

    Clarke has the ability to describe the characteristics of the land and environment that make each wine-growing region unique without sounding too abstract or scientific.

    This would be the perfect book for a waiter to keep in his or her locker or backpack at all times. You can pick it up, open it at any point, and learn something new about wine. His conversational style is refreshingly honest and colorful. It’s a delightful read and there are enough color photographs to give you a sense of the parts of the world that he’s discussing.

    All in all, for beginners, if there were one book that I would recommend, it would be the latest edition of this book, although, if you come across a copy of an earlier edition for $1.50 as I recently did, you should snap it up.

    You won’t be sorry.

    Clarke also has an informative and entertaining web site here:

    Object lessons and the value of arcana

    You know how I’m always throwing weird stuff your way? Information that you may never need as a waiter?

    Well, you never know when that little bit of weird info might be useful sometime.

    But, sometimes it doesn’t even help if you’re not nimble on your feet and you just can’t add 2 plus 2 and come up with 4 after multiplying by 2 and dividing by two. That’s what happened to me tonight and it should be an object lesson to everyone to try and stay mentally quick and try to always think outside the box and put information that you have gleaned in your career to good use, even if you have to do a few mental gymnastics.

    No, it’s not nearly as earth shattering as I’ve made it out to be. But it’s a good teaching tool.

    The host of the 10 top I was was waiting on had ordered several bottles of wine when he got to the Cabernets. He started to mention Meritages and excluded a certain one as a Meritage, even though he didn’t know the bottle and it was in our “Cabernet and Blends” section, which only calls a Meritage a Meritage when it’s labeled a Meritage.

    Perhaps I should digress at this point for those of you who haven’t delved really deeply into wines yet. 

    Meritage (pronounced MER – i- tijz, not mer-i – TAJZ, as some people pronounce it) is basically a marketing term for a California Bordeaux blend. As in Bordeaux, it can actually be a blend of varying percentages of the following big five Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec (there are a couple of other minor blending grapes that can be used as well). There are certain percentage guidelines that have to be met and, most importantly, to call your wine a Meritage, you must pay a licensing fee to The Meritage Alliance to use the term, as it’s a proprietary term bound by certain quality guidelines (and of course, the payment of the fee).

    Hence, there are plenty of wines that are actually Meritage-esque blends but don’t call themeselves Meritage because they either don’t want to comply with the strict guidelines or they don’t want to pay the fee.

    So, when he started talking about Meritage, I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to avoid it or get it; he had already ordered 4 different wines at that point and this was right after they sat down, so I hadn’t really had a chance to read him yet. At this point, he pointed to one of the wines on the list and said, “I guess this isn’t a Meritage here”.

    Well, I didn’t know the wine, but, of course I knew that it might very well be a Meritage-style wine for all I knew. And, I know a bit about wines but I couldn’t give him a definitive answer because I just didn’t know for sure about this particular one (I knew that we had 3 Meritage-designated wines in the category, but I also knew that we had a couple of wines that would be comparable to a Meritage). He pointed again to it and said, “Well, see, it can’t be a Meritage”.

    Once again, knowing lots about wine, I shrugged again and said, “Well sir, I just don’t know for sure since there are some wines that are the same as a Meritage blend but can’t call themselves Meritage…blah, blah, blah”.

    Once again, he pointed to it and said, “But I really can’t be one, can it”? He then said, “I’ll get it” before I could respond.

    As I’m walking to the register, it finally dawned on me as I looked down for the VIN number so I could punch it in.

    He wasn’t pointing at the Vintner name, he was pointing at the SINGLE VINEYARD NAME.

    Ahhhh, so THAT’S the point that he was making. He must have thought I was a real blockhead.  And I was.

    Don’t get me wrong – believe it or not, there are some single vineyard Meritages. But they are few and far between because that single vineyard has to be planted with some of the Meritage varietals. Technically, if I had followed his train of thought, I could have shown myself to be the big expert that I’m not, but that would have meant that I would have had to be able to follow his chain of logic.

    I didn’t even make the connection that my guest made, although he was a little confused about the regs. When I brought the wine to the table for presentation, I said, “I get what you were saying”. He said, “Yes, 85% of the wine has to be Cabernet because of the single vineyard designation”, although when I just checked, it seems that it’s actually 95%.  And then there’s the complication that there are different ways to designate single vineyards. The concept of a Meritage and a single vineyard designation would seem to be at odds as a Meritage can’t have more than 90% of a single varietal. Since there is the rare wine that is both “Meritage-approved” and single vineyard, there is obviously some wiggle room. So, had he been correct about the percentage needed to be labels with a single vineyard name, a Meritage could have conceivably been made because the percentage wouldn’t have exceeded 90%.

    But I’m sort of getting away from my main points.

    First (and in no particular order of importance) – there is always someone who knows more about wine than you do. And, if that person seems to be your customer, take your cues from them. Don’t try to one-up them with your knowledge.

    Second – prepare with as much wine knowledge as you can muster, but you must be prepared to connect the dots, even when the connection is hard to make. It’s not always obvious. I certainly found this out myself.

    Third – when you are the lucky recipient of an object lesson, take it to heart and learn from it.

    Fourth – wine regulations and labeling aren’t always cut and dried. Sometimes there are mazes to negotiate. but the more knowledge you have, the better. For instance, the novice usually thinks of Bordeaux as Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab blends. However, “right bank” Bordeaux wines emphasize Merlot to a great extent, to the point where the famed Petrus, generally the most expensive Bordeaux  available, is almost 100% Merlot and has no Cabernet Sauvignon at all. If you only get the “wine talking points” from an occasional wine training session, you probably wouldn’t know this and you can embarrass yourself in front of a wine geek guest if you’re not careful. This is why it’s so important to assemble as many facts about food and wine as you can – you want to be able to educate the guest if necessary, but you also want to avoid embarrassment whenever possible. Here’s the rub though – it’s helpful to actually be able to think beyond the linear. sometimes you have to get from A to C by going to D and then backtracking to B before you finally get to C. I failed at that sort of thinking. Hopefully, my failure will help you think outside the box.

    Here’s an example of a single vineyard wine.

    Wine topic of the day – Petite Sirah

    Neither petite (in terms of body and color) nor syrah (often confused with Petite Syrah which is a small-berried syrah found in the Rhone), this grape was long thought to be a relative or variant of Durif, an almost extinct minor French varietal. According to Jancis Robinson, this has been disproved by modern DNA analysis, although this isn’t held universally. See this site for additional information about the parentage:

    And also see the comment section for a comment by Jo Diaz, founder of P.S. I Love You, an advocacy group for Petite Sirah, where she definitively states that Durif, the original cross between Syrah  and Peloursin done by Dr. Durif to try to eliminate powdery mildew in Syrah, is indeed Petite Sirah.

    Petite Sirah has been an important blending grape for years, and recently has come to the forefront as a varietal worth bottling on its own, much as Cabernet Franc has become fashionable. For instance, Petite Sirah is useful for adding color and spine to weaker Cabernet Sauvignon vintages and it’s been used to add body and color to washed out Pinot Noirs. In fact, Petite Sirah has been planted in California since the late 1800s. If you’ve drunk Ridge’s Zinfandels, you have likely experienced Petite Sirah as part of the blend. They use Petite Sirah extensively to augment their excellent Zinfandel program. And, they bottle it independently as well.

    However, it’s a very nice grape on its own. At its best, it produces an inky, almost black color and offers a reasonable alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, offering a slightly lighter body and tannic structure. For someone who finds Cabernet Sauvignon too big,  Zinfandel too “earthy” and Pinot Noir too light, Petite Sirah can be a good offering. when I serve a Petite Sirah, I always mention that the color doesn’t betray the body, that its darkness and opacity isn’t a true indicator of its body. Sure, it’s full-bodied, but it’s generally more “drinkable” than a big, sandpapery Cabernet, at least for people who find them just too big. This means that you can pair it with large-flavored dishes, and, an additional advantage is that it’s somewhat obscure to the average wine drinker and it offers a different flavor profile.

    The problem? Most wine lists don’t even have a Petite Sirah. And if they do, you’re usually stuck with just one or two choices. If you are interested in this wine, you might lobby your wine buyer to add one or two to the menu. Of course, if you do that, you’ll need to personally try to sell it because it’s not going to sell itself.

    What are the general characteristics of Petite Sirah?

    As I’ve mentioned, it has an extremely dark, black color. You won’t be seeing through it as you examine it in the glass. Some fairly frequent notes are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon –  pepper, cedar, coffee, plum, blackberries, dark cherry, i.e. “dark fruits”.

    Some wine experts find it lacking in distinction, a little lacking in character. But that’s what makes it good as a bridge for the uninitiated. What it lacks in “character” it makes up in “drinkability”.

    Bogle and Concannon are probably the best known of the California vintners. They offer low cost versions that are fairly reliable. Ridge, as I have mentioned, is a higher-end brand. Stag’s Leap has another bottling that will set you back some coin (I believe that they spell it with a “y”).

    So what would you pair with Petite Sirah? Pretty much anything you’d pair with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Syrah. Big, meaty, fatty meats. Rich stews. Roasted meats. Game. In my opinion, it would be a better match with tuna and salmon than any of the aformentioned varietals.

    If you google the name, you’ll find some interesting information that can not only help you navigate the “controversies” swirling around the grape, but you might also get a bit confused, but don’t let that stop you from exporing this nice alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage and, yes, Syrah.

    Photo by Jo Diaz, taken at Foppiano Vineyards

    Wine topic of the day – corks and screwtops

    Steve at Waiter Extraordinaire was musing about corks vs. screwtops. Seems his cherry was popped when he got his first “corked” bottle from a screwtop.

    Screwtops, a.k.a. Stelvin closures, are said to be the thing that will eliminate most cases of wine spoilage. TCA, or 2,4,6-trichloranisole, a compound that has caused a few California wineries to have to toss out large portions of some of their bottlings and is primarily responsible for the “wet cardboard” smell of corked wine, can be almost eliminated by going to the Stelvin closure.

    However, this isn’t entirely true. Obviously, wine can be contaminated at various stages of manufacture. Cork taint isn’t the only problem that can occur in wine. wine can be “maderized”, or basically oxidized in the bottle. You can tell this as an unnatural cloyingly sweet flavor in wines that shouldn’t be that way. It might remind you of port, a flavor that’s great if you’re drinking port, but not if you’re drinking a big cab.

    Wine can have an overly sulphuric aroma and flavor. Wines can be “skunky”, which is the result of thiols.

    There are many so-called ‘wine taints” not directly associated with corks. Wikipedia has a good article on them that can be useful for every waiter to at least skim:

    Here’s an interesting article that briefly covers some of the problems that can occur in the physical plant itself:

    Obviously, most of us waiters prefer the cork. It’s part and parcel of the ceremony of wine. It invests wine with an additional value due to the skill that’s required to remove the cork (a skill easily and quickly learned, I might add). There’s history behind the cork, and the cork adds a tactile element as the guest can pick it up, examine it, squeeze it to test it and handle it occasionally through the meal if he or she desires. There’s also a marketing angle on the cork as most are marked with the name of the vintner. It also allows the guest to become part of the QC process if they know a lot about wine because the cork can tell you some things about the wine that you’re getting ready to experience. and there’s just something primal and somewhat sensual about a cork from a red wine that has been aged a bit – the cork itself is starting to be pliant, and there might be a dark burgundy tip with some earthy-looking deposits formed on the end. It brings home the living and evolving nature of the wine, something you just don’t get with a screwtop.

    And, let’s face it, there’s already a portion of the dining public, and some “tip advisors” that say that it’s ok not to tip on expensive bottles of wine (which is, of course, total bullshit).  Screwtops give them even more reason to discount tipping on wine. They say, “How hard is it to open a screwtop bottle and pour it”, forgetting of course that you might very well ask, “How hard is it to carry a plate and put it on the table”? Or, “How hard is it to open a beer bottle and pour it”? (I’m going to deal with this whole “tipping on wine” think in a future rant).

    Screwtops are bloodless and lack flair. It’s no different opening a bottle of wine than opening a bottle of Perrier. And what do you do with the cap? The guest has been conditioned to take a cork – sometimes there’s a bit of uncomfortableness between guest and waiter. It can be just a touch awkward in these early days of screwtops. I recommend that the waiter simply puts the top on the table in case the guest needs to take some of the bottle home. This of course is awkward from a table busing standpoint. The waiter and the server assistant have to be careful not to bus it. I’m not sure that there is a standard established regarding the handling of the top. This would be my suggestion – bring out a B&B (bread and butter plate) to set the top on. If it’s clear that the whole bottle is going to be poured, simply pocket the cap and remove the B&B. If it’s unclear, then leave it on the B&B until it’s clear that it won’t be used. As always, house policy trumps any advice that I give here.

    My opinion about the screwtop? If it means that less wine gets destroyed because of cork taint, I’m all for it. It’s not clear how much advantage a cork makes in aging over a screwtop (research has shown that it’s not much). For the bulk of wines that are served in restaurants, cork will make absolutely no difference because most restaurant wines are served within a handful of years anyway.

    What is lost is a little of the ceremony, the mystery, the…shall I say it?…soul of the wine experience. It cheapens it a little, but let’s remember that, in the end, what we’re looking for is the quality of the wine.

    If i sound wishy-washy, perhaps I am. I love the opening of the cork. I enjoy it in and of itself and it just feels strange to crack a screwtop. but that’s because it’s a new thing, I suppose. I don’t mind having to take the time to cut the capsule just right, line up my corkscrew just so in order to keep from tearing the cork on the sides (and I’m not always successful), present the cork, etc. Sure it’s time away from doing other things, but as wine is usually a good portion of my sales, it’s time well-spent and time where I get to show a little expertise, although I don’t make a huge production of it.

    Out of the box idea for waiters with extensive wine lists

    If you work in a restaurant that has an extensive wine list, you might consider starting an in-house “wine club”. Waiters can chip in X-amount each “meeting” to purchase several wines off of the list for comparison tasting. You might be able to buy the bottles directly from your own stock at cost, but this could also be against local regulations, so this is something that you’ll have to check out with your management.

    It doesn’t have to be a formal thing. But if you get a few waiters together who have the interest in trying as many wines off of the list as you can, you work your way through a lot of the list at little cost to each person. Remember, this is going to be a tasting thing, so even a $100 bottle (a $200 – 250 wine list price in most restaurants) split between 10 people is still just $10. A third/fourth of a glass of something in that price range is a bargain. And how often are you going to get the chance to taste something like that? And think about doing three or four $30 bottles ($75 – $90 wine list price). That would be a nice, informative tasting for a few bucks, especially if you stay in a certain category or flight.

    The problem with doing this is just doing it. It’s hard to get people together with the schedules that we all work, and we waiters can be notoriously flighty as well. You have to be careful doing it on a day where people will be working afterward. You have to make sure that on days like this, it doesn’t degenerate into a drink fest. If you can convince your management that you will treat it as their normal tastings done during pre-shift, you’ll have a better chance of getting management’s blessing and you might even get management to help out with an occasional bottle that they were planning on using for tasting anyway.

    You don’t want to get too structured with this. Stay flexible. Just figure out which wines you want to taste, make sure that you can get them either from the restaurant or from a retailer (yes, you’ll pay more but the cost is still spread out over multiple people).  Then you simply find out how many people can commit to coming, divide the cost by that number and get the money. The closer you do this to each session, the better chance you’ll have to avoid people who pre-pay but then don’t show and want their money back. In fact, this should be part of the “agreement” – once you’ve paid, it’s your responsibility to show.

    You don’t have to have a set number of people. In fact, any waiter of legal age should be able to “opt-in” anytime they want. The more people who get involved each time, the lower the costs and the more different wines you can taste. You might even do a really high-end wine every once in a while. I know I would gladly pay $20 to taste a recent vintage Latour or Shafer Hillside select. Those are wines that few waiters ever get to taste and tasting wines of that caliber give another frame of reference.

    Heck, if it’s successful, you might even get your liquor reps to occasionally throw in wines of their own portfolio.

    It’s worth thinking about doing, especially if you’re serious about selling wine. Even if you only make it happen a few times a year, that’s that many more bottles that you’ll get to taste.