I was recently having a conversation with a group of co-workers including one who I had trained the week before. The topic of Mezcal came up. I gave up drinking years ago and well before the current Mezcal craze hit the Midwest. The new server, with an impressive bartending resume, began to describe it to me. He discussed the “minerality” of it. He noted the hints of leather and iodine it contained. As a former Scotch fan I knew what he meant, but was not the least bit tempted to try some.
As servers we are tasked with not only being able to describe food and wine, but also describe it in a way that is appetizing. Too often servers will fall in to the trap of letting their knowledge and jargon get in the way of describing wine in a way that guests can relate too. As a server, you should never let your expertise overwhelm your ability to describe wine in a way the guest can understand. While you should never be condescending to your guests, you should start with a very basic description and give more details as requested. If you start with the technical, you run a huge risk of turning off the guest or sounding condescending when following up with a more simplistic description.
One key thing to remember when describing wine is the fear factor. Anyone who truly enjoys wine has taken a risk on a bottle only to be disappointed. Guests scour the wine list for wines in hopes of not being disappointed. There are thousands of vineyards producing the same varietals and not all are created equally. I have tasted Pinot Grigios that are so tart they would make a lime jealous. There are Rieslings that could be used for high fructose corn syrup. Once you know the flaws within the varietals, you can help a guest avoid the bottles that contain them.
Here are some basic descriptions that I use within common varietals:
Riesling- “Too often with Rieslings can be more of s sugary type of sweet. I prefer more of a fruity sweet. This is why I would recommend the…”
Pinot Grigio/Gris- “Many of the less expensive Pinot Grigios I have tried tend to be very tart and heavy on lime and lemon flavors. A good Pinot should not make you pucker. I am really glad we offer our … because it is nicely balanced and avoids this problem.”
Pinot Noir- “Most Pinot Noirs I have tried seem to be very heavy in tart flavors. Lots of black cherry, currant, and plum. I prefer a more balanced taste that is not dominated by these tart flavors and I found it in our …”
Merlot/Chianti- “The reason I enjoy a good Chianti with dinner is because it will provide me with great flavor but dissipate off my palette quickly and not overwhelm the next bite of food. This allows it to go well with dishes that normally would be paired with red wine as well as white. This is why I really like our …”
Cabernet- “I enjoy a big bodied red wine. With a great steak you want a great Cabernet. The tannins from the grape skins in a Cabernet will actually break up the fat from the steak and allow you to be just as pleased with the last bite as you were with the first. This is why I think our steaks are so nicely complimented by the …”
These descriptions are basic and assure the guest you know what they are trying to avoid. From there you have established a framework to move forward from if they have not already ordered you recommendation. This is far easier than working in reverse. Always keep in mind that any knowledge you convey is to help the guest, not prove how smart you are. If you are not smart enough to use terms they can relate to, then you may need to re-evaluate how smart you really are.
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