Sommeliers dedicate years to studying the smallest nuances of terroir, wine law, winemaking, buying, and program management. While all are essential to the craft of being a sommelier, one of the most essential moments of a sommelier’s role is translating all of that accumulated knowledge to the single moment of a sale on the restaurant floor.
That more nuanced side of service “isn’t really taught or discussed enough,” says Linda Milagros Violago, whose three-decade career has taken her to prestigious positions across 13 countries—most recently to leading the wine program at Canlis in Seattle. From prioritizing service over sales to understanding the role of so-called “off” vintages, restaurant wine professionals share their advice on how to take floor sales to the next level.
Get the Guest’s Price Point Out in the Open
It is tempting to solely equate high-value wine sales with success. However, sommeliers who want to level up their floor sales understand the value of the guest experience, as well as the value of a returning guest—so it is often advantageous to establish and work within the guest’s price point. Establishing that price range, though, can be sensitive. “It’s often an uncomfortable thing to ask, but much [more] comfortable than having a potentially irate guest who feels taken advantage of later,” says Claire Coppi, a Los Angeles-based SOMM TV cast member who spent years working as a sommelier and beverage director.
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If a guest is reluctant to give any indication of budget, “giving them some choices with different price points is always a good idea,” says Troy Revell, the head sommelier at Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, North Carolina. Ideally, a sommelier can discuss the budget in a clear yet subtle way. “No numbers need to even be mentioned,” notes Milagros Violago. Try hovering a finger around price points on the list and learn from the guest’s body language what they might be looking for.
However, sometimes the price point needs to be addressed directly. This is where creating an environment rooted in hospitality before sales is crucial. “We should not feel uncomfortable asking,” says Milagros Violago. “And the guests should not feel uncomfortable demanding what they want.”
Focus on Guest Experience
Sommeliers provide a crucial and sometimes under-appreciated source of revenue for restaurants, and while it may seem initially counterintuitive, one of the easiest ways to increase floor sales is to not focus on selling. “This is the hospitality business, and you want to make the experience enjoyable for the guest,” says Coppi. “Wine can be foreign and scary for the guest.” Therefore, it is the responsibility of the sommelier to prioritize making the guest comfortable.
Bobby Stuckey, MS, the cofounder of Boulder, Colorado’s Frasca Hospitality Group, agrees that the guest’s experience should come first. “[Frasca is] not a group that tries to push sales, but rather open up experiences—and that involves hospitality,” he says. Prioritizing the guest experience as an essential part of service will help establish trust amongst guests, encourage repeat visits, and ultimately improve the bottom line.
“I don’t actually ever think about sales,” echoes Milagros Violago. “If the service is there, the sales will come.”
Give Guests a Preview
One of the benefits of being in a restaurant setting, rather than a retail one, is that often, guests can try before they buy. If a bottle is available by the glass, offering a taste of that wine takes away the pressure when purchasing something unfamiliar.
“[Guests are simply] looking for someone to vouch for something—to say, ‘I’ve had this before and you’ll like this one,’” says Revell. Even if a guest can’t sample the wine before committing, the act of physically showing the bottle of wine being discussed can make the sale more tactical. Seeing the actual bottle the guest will be committing to can ease them into the sale, and if they say yes, the bottle is already there to be serviced.
Put Hard-to-Move Bottles Front and Center
Though the specific styles or SKUs may vary by restaurant, inevitably, some wines are more challenging to sell through than others. “Dessert wine and Rieslings seem to have moved the slowest at all of the restaurants I’ve worked at,” says Coppi.
Highlighting these slow-moving selections on the menu—for instance, as a pairing on the dessert menu or cheese selection—can help. “Sometimes all it takes is making the idea a tangible, visible thing for the guest,” she adds.
Utilize Off-Vintages Strategically
If a guest is in the know, chances are they’ll try to avoid vintages that are marketed as “off” or “bad”—and some sommeliers may even be hesitant to sell them. However, these off-vintages can be a sommelier’s secret weapon—and potentially, a more affordable gateway into a region or producer that a guest may never otherwise have the opportunity to venture into. In fact, Stuckey tends to use the term “restaurant vintages” to describe vintages from quality producers that may otherwise be overlooked, but are, in fact, ready to drink now.
“Whatever [type of] vintage you want to call it, if it is a good producer, it’s going to be good wine,” says Milagros Violagro. For guests who have already forayed into the category, off-vintage wines can be sold as a fun side-by-side or to preserve the “better” vintages in the cellar that are outside of their drinking window. “More difficult vintages can actually offer incredible pleasure and satisfaction for the guest,” says Stuckey. “It’s just our job as sommeliers to know how to pick through those that may be considered off or tricky vintages.”
Listen More, Talk Less
In order to sell successfully, the sommelier needs to understand what a guest is really looking for in a short amount of time—and often, the best way to do that is to stop talking. “The job of the sommelier is not to ask so many questions, but to do so much listening,” says Stuckey.
This often counters the sommelier profession’s desire to amass a wealth of knowledge—and to share that knowledge. But that isn’t necessarily what the guest is looking for. “There’s this thing about ‘I’m educating’ the guest,” says Milagros Violago. “I don’t go to dinner to be educated.”
The sommelier’s role is not to teach the guest about wine but to use their accumulated knowledge to help the guest select a bottle that they will enjoy. “No matter how much you know, even if you have learned everything there is to learn about wine, that information is useless if you cannot translate that information to your guest in an approachable and digestible way,” stresses Coppi.
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Robert Leonard is a sommelier at The Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittsboro, NC and has previously worked at Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain in Walland, TN. Prior to entering fine dining, he earned a Master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Tennessee where he taught courses and published on political economy and culture.