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The Ten Commandments of Wine Service

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By Zoltan Szabo

So speaks the Almighty Wikipedia: "The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are a list of religious and moral imperatives that according to Judeo-Christian tradition, were written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of two stone tablets... The commandments passage in Exodus contains more than ten imperative statements, totalling fourteen or fifteen in all. However, the Bible itself assigns the count of "Ten", using the Hebrew phrase aseret had'varim." Various religions divide these statements among the Commandments in different ways, and may also translate the Commandments differently. Followers of Bacchus, and particularly sommelier-priests, may interpret them thus?

God = the patron (God created man in the true image of Himself...);
Moses = the wine steward;
Stone tablets = wine list.

The 21st century image of the wine steward is no longer one of a stiff, tastevin-toating, hocus-pocus-packed, intimidating authority. Instead, today’s sommelier should strive to bring a fresh, appealing, wholly inclusive approach to sharing his or her love and enthusiasm for wine, including the importance of drinking in moderation and the enjoyment of wine culture. The modern sommelier: shalt be fun, confident, highly knowledgeable and down to earth. The Ten Plus Three Commandments below shalt be at all times respected and obeyed by the wine steward for sake of purification of the soul.

1. Thou shalt not be or speak like a snob about The Holy Wine

"Snobbery is the child of pride", wrote the evangelical A. W. Tozer. Snobbery in wine belongs to the days before Revelation. Let us remember that wine is a fact of life. It should be available and easily accessible to everyone. Its presence and consumption in moderation can help mind, body and soul.

2. Thou shalt be proud and passionate about being a wine steward

Nowadays, being a Sommelier is a privileged and glamorous job. It's a profession, as the French say un metier. It’s more than just knowing as much as you can about wine (and always wanting to learn more), it's about respecting yourself AND your patrons. Sharing information and enthusiasm about grapes, places and people in the wine biz (your customers) is just one of the many rewards this job offers, but it’s one of the best when you can make a difference.

3. Thou shalt have the appropriate attitude when transmitting the sacred words of the wine list

Leave your problems at home. Smile, make eye contact, and maintain confidence and composure at all times. Attitude is key!

4. Thou shalt be possessing superior listening skills

Listening carefully to your patrons' needs almost always guarantees success. If you take the time to listen, the sale of a bottle of wine comes faster and easier. Do not follow your own agenda, but listen to the story the patron tells you or the information the patron wants to share. "Hey, I sold one of my companies for $3 billion today!"...Well, bring out your best vintage Champagne and blockbuster wines! "My husband and I just want to share an appetizer tonight"...For sure they won't be ordering several bottles of wines, so just offer a glass or not even...let them ask for it first! .."My favourite dog just died"...Have your purest Vodka handy...Sympathise and empathise with the patron, be there for them, be happy or melancholic along with them, create some sort of relationship, and be their ally and friend.

5. Thou shalt not argue with the patrons

Period. Never under any circumstances. Even when the customer is dead wrong. Nothing will alienate a customer and ruin the experience of the entire party more than a sommelier who aggressively questions the customer. And you don’t know necessarily who the customer is and how many friends they have and how big their mouth is. This applies to corked or otherwise defective bottles, or perfectly good bottles. Most customers won’t return a wine because they simply don’t like it, although they secretly would like to. They are more likely to say that it is corky or defective to get themselves out of a jam. Don’t argue. Take it back, try it discreetly, out of sight of all customers. If it is correct, then return to the table and suggest an alternative wine. You can always sell the opened wine by the glass.

6. Thou shalt not be biased

The best wine is what God likes, not Moses. The choice belongs to the patron, it’s only what she likes that’s important. The Sommelier should be able to gently direct the patron towards finding the right wine, but always in a manner that the patron understands and feels that she is in charge. You have done a good job if they can brag in front of their friends: "I chose that wine! Isn't it awesome?" Never, ever show disdain for a wine choice. If that’s what the patron wants give it to them and smile.

7. Thou shalt not speak ill of any wine on your list

No one is immune to personal preference. We all have ours. But it never reflects well on the wine program, nor on the restaurant as a whole, if you start criticising any of the wine selections. I have actually heard, "this wine is not very good." You don’t need to lie if you truly dislike a wine. Choose your language and try something like, "all our wines are carefully handpicked for certain qualities and different clientele, but if you want my opinion I prefer..." But only if asked.

8. Thou shalt maintain patience at all time, patience is the way to heaven

I found this quote on a bible study website: "Patience is enduring or waiting, as a determination of will. It's not merely enduring trials as a matter of necessity. Patience is a strong determination of will, to victoriously overcome the negative things we confront." The resto biz is a tough one. As much as there are many rewards, sooner or later there will be trouble. If and when the patron is pissed, frustrated and angry, adopting a very cautious, polite, understanding and patient attitude will help the wine steward manoeuvre away from disaster. After all, the patron is always right. If the wine steward does not get this most fundamental rule, he or she is in the wrong biz.

9. Thou shalt be utmost proud of the home soil

Local food goes very well with local wine and vice versa. Amen. It's even in Genesis (27:25, 28, 37 - not the prog rock band): "And he said, Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's venison, that my soul may bless thee. And he brought it near to him, and he did eat: and he brought him wine, and he drank". Logical! And highly economically feasible! Supporting local producers and such will bring you business, I promise. Of all the culinary principles, going back hundreds of years, the pairing of local food and dishes to a region’s wine id perhaps the most fundamental. Plus it just feels good to drink the efforts of your neighbours.

10. Thou shalt not taste the customer’s wine

Though it may be traditional in the Old World for the sommelier to taste a wine before serving it, that is not how it works in North America (and now increasingly in Europe). Imagine you, the expert sommelier, taste a wine and declare it to be in perfect condition. Then you give a taste to the customer with a glowing smile. The customer tastes the wine, and doesn’t like it. Now, how are they to extricate themselves from this problem? They can’t really tell the sommelier that the wine is bad and all but the most confident will be reluctant to send the bottle back. The better solution is to empower the customer to make their own decision. Once they have declared that the wine is fine, they will enjoy it. They have to, after all they just finished saying it was good. Everybody wins. Of course, if a customer asks you to taste for your opinion, you oblige.

Some additional Commandments that were lost throughout the time and the labyrinth of history...

11. Thou shalt not assume that the man will be ordering the wine

Politely ask who would like to see the wine list or simply place the list in a neutral place on the table and let the customers decide who will do the ordering. Remember, women actually buy more wine than men. In the UK, where wine is available in supermarkets, the percentage is up around 75%. Don’t assume therefore that the man in the couple/group will do the ordering, or knows more than his female companion. Those days are finished; just ask Jancis Robinson or Andrea Immer. Another elegant idea is to offer to bring wine lists to everyone at the table if they appear to be particularly interested in wine. (Just don’t get involved in any arguments!)

12 Thou shalt not recommend the most expensive wine on the list

Come on! Be sensitive and have some common sense! It’s a cheap, tacky and cowardly approach that the customer will see through right away. For the more shallow pocket patron, the wine steward should be able to recommend a lower cost wine that is as good as a lot more pricey one, or at least make the patron feel that way.

13 Thou shalt treat everyone equally and work hard to prvide a great wine experience no matter who you serve or how much they know about wine

Average Joe and Mary should be treated the same way as the King of Judea or Queen Latifah! There is absolutely no reason not to serve a $20 bottle of wine with the same care as a $200 one! Basta!


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