The question is not particularly whether sommeliers still make sense in restaurants. The answer to that is yes. The more important questions are: What’s their title, and what’s their role? Can you only be called a sommelier if you have completed a certified program? If you haven’t, are you just a wine professional? Are chefs only called chef when they complete culinary school?
Our restaurants are set up so that most people in management wear multiple hats. Nopa and Liholiho Yacht Club each have their own wine directors, whose primary role is to drive our wine program. Seventy-five percent of their job is related to that, but the other 25 percent is anything that is required to allow the restaurant to run seamlessly. Given today’s restaurant economics, we cannot afford to just have a sommelier on the floor if their only focus is to support the wine program.
One reason is that we’re dedicated to offering multiple ways that our guests can experience our restaurants. At Nopa, which has always had a strong wine program, a diner can come in and just have a cocktail or glass of wine, or they can delve further into our wine list. It’s more likely, although not assured, that we’ll have a sommelier on hand to help them at least some of the time. On the other hand, at Nopalito, our Mexican restaurant, there’s a more casual experience, primarily focused on margaritas and beer and a very small by-the-glass selection, which is overseen by one person. Nopalito does not require the same sort of staffing.
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But even at Nopa, we don’t have a full-time wine professional—a sommelier, essentially—on the floor each service. Perhaps that seems a bit contradictory, at least at a place so well known for its wine program, especially when I start to tally up the relative costs associated with a wine program, including inventory, cellaring, and training. And we obviously want to sell as much wine as possible. But our goal is to provide all of our service staff with the tools necessary to sell wine. And that ends up being more powerful than just having one sommelier on the floor. Not everyone is coming for a full multicourse meal, and not everyone wants elaborate wine service. So it’s important to educate all of our staff, and it’s important that they be able to do the job a sommelier might otherwise do.
I relate this to chefs’ responsibilities. We don’t send the chef to the table each time a guest has a question concerning his or her menu. Their role is to create the vision of the food and then pass that knowledge on, to train the cooks and all our front-of-house staff so they can provide a seamless experience for our guests.
So what, then, is the role of our wine directors? It’s about much more than simply selling wine. We are dedicated to creating wine lists that complement the level and creativity of our food. This commitment requires a skilled professional who knows how to taste, how to curate a list that’s cohesive with our menus, and how to train our staff so that they can guide guests in the proper direction. This is true at Nopa and Liholiho Yacht Club.
At the same time, we also insist on offering well-curated cocktail and spirits programs. These complement our wine offerings, although they’re in direct competition. A large majority of our guests go the cocktail route. From a business standpoint, cocktail programs offer higher profit margins, and from an inventory standpoint, they’re less expensive propositions. But we don’t view them as competition. Our goal from day one in all our restaurants has been to create cocktail and wine programs that complement each other. We are restaurants that have bars, not the opposite. Wine and food, specifically, go hand in hand, and in no way would we veer away from that just because it might be more financially profitable to sell cocktails.
For that reason, sommeliers will always be necessary for restaurants who value serious, well-curated wine programs. We support our restaurant managers and staff who want to extend their education and pursue certification, but that’s not what we value as the most important. And we would never allow our wine directors to just focus on wine, without understanding the other elements of our restaurants’ service. These days, we need people who want to be involved in every facet of our restaurants. That’s the only way it all works.
Jeff Hanak is a San Francisco restaurateur and the co-owner of the restaurants Nopa, Nopalito, and Liholiho Yacht Club.