Wine Odyssey

David Turner

Diners are looking for epic experiences from highly educated, entertaining sommeliers.

Diners are looking for epic experiences from highly educated, entertaining sommeliers.

When the economy took a nosedive in late 2008, Arthur Hon, wine director at Sepia in Chicago, knew the career he’d come to embrace over the preceding 15 years was about to change. Bookings for holiday parties were far and few, and those that did lock in dates were met with “restrained interest,” says Hon. “It was the quietest holiday season I’d ever seen.” In the restaurant, customers also weren’t springing for the reserve list, instead choosing lower-priced wines or by-the-glass options, or ordering just one bottle for the table.

Yet even during those stormy times Hon saw hope: Cautious about spending money, customers were putting more faith into restaurant staff when it came to wine, expecting epic experiences.

“They’re looking for exciting things, things they’ve never heard of. They are looking for an experience they cannot create at home,” says Hon. “I try to list wines that [customers] probably will not find in a wine shop.”

Regardless of title—sommelier, wine director, or food and beverage director—the job has changed vastly within the last five years, and even in the five years before that. No longer is it simply about ordering wines and cobbling together a wine list. There’s an unspoken demand to be engaging and insightful when approaching each table. Customers want to go deeper than the plates and glasses in front of them.

“Talking with a real person makes it more enticing,” says Hon. This desire for transparency—knowing the person who procures the wine list—is no different than meeting fruit and vegetable growers at farmers markets. Although, in this case, diners also want to hear stories about a winery to more intimately connect with what they are drinking.

Wine professionals who have done their homework—and effortlessly describe the region’s terroir, the winery’s tasting rooms, and the winemaker’s background—can more effectively sell the wine, especially if the professional has already fallen in love with the wine himself.

Ascertaining the reason for the occasion, the variety of palates represented at the table, and what foods will be ordered is only part of the game.

“The sommelier or wine director really has to connect with the person at the table,” says Victor Rollo, Jr., owner of two New Jersey restaurants, Basil T’s Brewery and Italian Grill and Undici Taverna Rustica, as well as the Rallo Wines website that sells all-Italian wines.


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