Operations

Sommeliers’ Troubleshooting Tips for Challenging Wine Situations

How to approach difficult guests and work through tough restaurant scenarios

sommelier pouring wine
Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

What do we sommeliers do when someone is angry? What if a guest doesn’t like the wine you presented? What about a guest who’s generally being disagreeable? There are different reasons that a particular guest might be upset. If the restaurant is late on a reservation, or a somm or server spills something, screws up an order, or brings the wrong wine, there is a clear problem—and a path to fixing it. On the other hand, sometimes guests can be upset about things that seem very insignificant. These scenarios require a more nuanced approach. Checking in with such guests early and often is paramount.

Practice Good Communication

A lack of communication can lead to misunderstandings and even strife with guests. For example, sometimes guests say they want one thing when they really want another. The wine director Morgan Calcote at FIG in Charleston, South Carolina, has a few preferred strategies. “I’ll try to use comparable, more familiar examples of wines that they have experience with to better understand what they are looking for,” she says. “We also utilize our by-the-glass wine program to help identify what a guest does or doesn’t like. Having the guest taste a couple of different styles of wine that we [both] understand can help bridge the translation gap between our two wine vocabularies.”

Similarly, Raj Vaidya, the head sommelier at Daniel in New York City, refers to “the currency of vernacular.” Two people using the same words might be thinking totally different things. As we talk with guests we must figure out just what it is we’re talking about. One person’s “bold” is another person’s “lean.” It’s helpful to ask about the wines a guest typically drinks. Your average Rombauer drinker may not enjoy that Failla Chardonnay, even if it’s also from California. Listening and paying attention is the first step to handling these incidents.

At Spago in Beverly Hills, California, wine director Phillip Dunn uses role playing to train his servers and somms to be sensitive to guests’ needs. “It always helps to run them [staff] through scenarios,” says Dunn, “so they can see how I might handle it.” Role playing may feel ridiculous and corporate sometimes, but it can be a great way to prepare servers for tough situations. Training servers to know when to send a sommelier to a table is also helpful—the guest may just want the extra time and attention. Emotional sensitivity goes a long way. But sometimes a guest just isn’t ready to be mollified if he or she feels there’s a problem.

When Nothing Seems to Work

Vaidya recalls the story of a guest he once had who was inconsolable. “He was well off and knowledgeable about wine,” says Vaidya. “He talked about some of the big, impressive wines he enjoyed, like first-growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy. Then he ordered the pairings. Before I brought the pairings, I made sure to let him know these are not the same types of expensive trophy wines he was talking about but that the wines would complement the food nicely.”

Vaidya emphasizes that the selections weren’t cheap wines—there was a Premier Cru white Burgundy with age for one course. But the guest, he says, refused to enjoy the wines and grew angry. “We offered a free dinner, but he declined,” Vaidya says. “I tried my very best to manage his expectations, but he had in mind that he should be poured wines which are fiscally impossible to pour in a pairing setting.” Some tactics that Vaidya typically uses to ameliorate situations like this include offering a special pour from the wine team, bringing extra courses, or inviting the guest back to dine another night. In this situation, the guest wasn’t willing to extend a hand in return.

From left to right: Jack Mason, MS, Morgan Calcote, and Raj Vaidya.

Jack Mason, MS, the wine director of Pappas Bros. Steakhouses in Houston, says that if a guest has reached the point of being “rude and inconsolable,” his team’s strategy is to move the guest through the experience more quickly. “We look to offer the basic steps of service—with a smile—to get them through their dining experience at their desired pace with as little table time as possible.”

If a guest is frustrated and doesn’t want to reconcile in the moment but still wants to finish dinner, it’s important not to bother them. If the relationship needs mending, someone can reach out from the restaurant the next day. “In emotionally charged situations,” says Vaidya, “get them out, let them cool off, and reach out later to find a resolution.”

A Focus on Restoration and Reconciliation

The guests we lose are hard to forget, but some can be brought back. At Spago, Dunn once had as a guest a Hollywood producer whose reservation had been lost by the restaurant. “He was not happy,” says Dunn, “but I worked hard to win him back. We got him a table after a wait, and as he was sitting down, I ran to the cellar to get a bottle of Marquis d’Angerville. It meant a lot to him, and it worked out in the end, since he ended up ordering a bottle of Comte Georges de Vogüé later during dinner.”

To improve a negative dynamic at a table, sometimes it’s just a matter of changing personnel. “Some guests want a manager who approaches the table in a very formal way,” says Calcote, “while others are looking for a more casual, empathetic person to [help them] get what they want.” In my own experience at Canlis, we often use this strategy. It’s important to be able to get over yourself and be willing to let someone else step in. A guest who is having a difficult time with you might connect better with another server or sommelier, and the change will often help turn that person’s night around.

Many problems can arise on a restaurant floor, but few things can’t be solved by paying attention, being a great listener, and making sure the guest feels understood. Wine is a difficult subject that can leave some guests feeling alienated. A sommelier who is personable is better equipped to relate to guests than one who just knows lots of wine facts. When dealing with difficult guests, more wine knowledge doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but a listening ear and empathy go a long way. If we approach our guests and their concerns with an open, inquisitive mind, our restaurants will experience greater success—and so will our relationships with the people who dine in them.

Jackson Rohrbaugh, MS, is a Seattle native who has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. He currently works at Canlis in Seattle. When not spending nights on the floor, he loves hunting down bargains in wine shops, reading literary fiction, and cooking Korean BBQ.

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