Feb 23, 2015

    How the experts pair diners with the right wine

    THE chief executive who oversees one of the world's most sought-after Tuscan wines was in New York this month, trying to persuade people to buy one of his less expensive brands, something that would seem counter to his interests.

    Giovanni Geddes de la Filicaja of the Marchesi de' Frescobaldi Group was drawing attention to La Serre Nuove, which is known as a second-growth or second-label wine. The first growth, in this case, is Ornellaia, which is considered among the best Italian wines - and costs three times as much.

    "We don't want to call it the second growth any more," he said. "It's not what's left over. It's a great wine in its own category."

    Tasting Ornellaia and La Serre Nuove is a little like driving an Audi and a Volkswagen. Both are owned by the same company and stand for a certain quality for the price. The Audi is the nicer car, but if you cannot afford it, you would probably be happy and safe in a Volkswagen.

    But unlike cars, which may have separate dealerships, Mr Geddes de la Filicaja and his fellow producers rely on the same people to sell their wines, regardless of the price or quality. Chief among them is the sommelier - a well-trained wine steward at a high-class restaurant - who probably does not know you and has only a few minutes to sell you some wine.


    How does a good sommelier find the right wine out of hundreds or thousands of bottles? What should you tell him so you get what you want, and not just the same wine you drink at home (albeit at the higher restaurant price)? Should you trust his opinion?

    Is he on the make to sell you something the restaurant needs to offload, like a purple Audi A8, or is a producer giving him some kind of financial incentive to sell as many equivalents of Volkswagen Passats as he can that month?

    I put these questions to some sommeliers at New York City restaurants known for their wine. It all starts with the wine list, of course, but in many fine-dining restaurants, the list is an absurdly long tome for a decision that needs to be made in a few minutes. At the Regency Bar & Grill, the list has 650 choices. That is heavy reading before dinner, but nothing compared with Per Se's 2,300 bottles.

    "I used to work in a restaurant called Cru, where we had 4,500 selections," said Michel Couvreux, the head sommelier at Per Se. "This is just half of it." In one concession to time, Mr Couvreux said Per Se's wine list was on an iPad, so he can select a list of just a few bottles to avoid overwhelming a guest.

    But a dinner out is supposed to be fun, not a tortured trip through global vineyards. So the person selling the wine had best be sharp - especially if the person ordering it is not.

    "Maybe at most you have five minutes with the guest, if you're not busy," said Jeff Porter, director of beverage operations at the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, which owns Del Posto, Babbo, Esca and Lupa in New York. "I teach my sommeliers that you have 90 seconds to get as much information from the guest and decipher it in your brain and come out with a minimum of three suggestions."

    If, for example, the guest likes a type of wine, say an Italian Brunello, the sommelier could offer three Brunellos at three prices or styles, Mr Porter said.

    But even that approach can be nerve-racking for some people who are about to spend several hundred dollars on wine.

    "When a guest is sitting down, for the most part you're presenting wine to a stranger," said Andre Compeyre, wine and beverage director of the Regency Bar & Grill, who spent a decade working alongside the great French chef Alain Ducasse. "You don't know their budget, their taste, if this is a first date or a business meeting. What I'll try to do is find some keywords."


    Here are several questions sommeliers will most likely ask to get those words and give themselves an idea of what you might want.

    Price should be among the first. "You don't need to be shy about that," said Olivier Flosse, wine director at A Voce. "That's nothing negative. You don't want to impose something or have a misunderstanding."

    He said a great compliment to him was when guests say they had a great meal, a great bottle of wine from a region they had not tried before and did not feel as if they had spent a fortune.

    Even Per Se, a four-star restaurant where the prix fixe menu costs US$295 (S$400) a person, features bottles of wine as inexpensive as US$60, Mr Couvreux said. That option is for people who have saved up for a meal there, and for people who would not appreciate the difference between a US$100 bottle of wine and a US$400 bottle.

    Then there are the questions a sommelier will ask to see if the guests like certain grapes or regions. Do they like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or syrah? Do they like a particular style, like oaky chardonnay? Or the most basic: sparkling, white or red?

    This approach can sometimes backfire when people think they know more than they do.

    "The worst situation is when people confuse dry and sweet," Mr Flosse said. "It happens quite often. They say, 'I'd like to have a sweet wine.' They don't mean a dessert wine. So you have to describe exactly what you think they're thinking, then you bring a wine, and they say, 'I don't like that.' "

    His solution is to bring a sauvignon blanc, a chardonnay and a viognier, and let them try. Their choice? "It's almost always the chardonnay," he said. "It's not sweet. It's a dry grape."

    But the sommelier is still a salesman. Can he be trusted?

    Mr Porter said all his sommeliers were paid an hourly wage and a portion of the tips. "They're incentivised to make the guest happy," he said. "Once you're incentivised by brand, people will push that brand and you'll see it all over the room, and that is not what people want."

    But someone like Mr Geddes de la Filicaja has a leg up. He may not like having La Serre Nuove known as a second label, but sommeliers said that connection has worked to the advantage of the many great and expensive wines that have less expensive second labels.

    Customers recognise it.

    Mr Porter said that, at Del Posto, the least expensive Ornellaia is a 2006 that costs US$600; the oldest is a 1986 for US$1,225. A 2012 La Serre Nuove costs US$185.

    "We show guests that and explain to them the difference - younger vines, different blend, and it's a wine that is more approachable now," he said.

    Selecting a wine is not unlike cooking a steak: They don't all turn out perfectly. And any good sommelier should let you try as many wines by the glass as you would like, or take back a bottle not to your liking.

    "If they say, 'I'm so sorry. I thought I'd enjoy the wine, but it's not what I was looking for,' we'll definitely change the wines," said Mr Couvreux. "If you've been rude and you're being a nasty person, which we don't have a lot, I'm going to be offended."

    At the end of a dinner, a good sommelier might just save you from yourself. Mr Flosse recalled a man who came in around the holidays with eight people, bragging about his great wine cellar.

    "He said, 'Can I have a Riesling from Burgundy?' and I said, 'Sir, I'll do my best,' " Mr Flosse said, without telling him there was no such thing. "At the end of the night, he told me, 'I want to thank you for two things - you were under budget, and I don't know anything about wine, and I don't have a wine cellar.' "

    But the guest was happy, and that was what mattered.