Sommeliers, the Ambassadors of Hospitality

At casual and fine-dining concepts alike, they elevate the dining experience while contributing to the bottom line

I had the privilege to be the opening wine director of Marta, the pizza-oriented restaurant in New York City that’s part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. And today, as the master sommelier in charge of the wine programs at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, I’m able to see the impact sommeliers have on our locations in Houston and Dallas. There is no argument in my mind that sommeliers make sense for both casual and fine-dining restaurants these days.

Some of this comes down to finances: A properly trained beverage professional runs a tight ship and earns a restaurant money. But sommeliers also pay for themselves beyond those simple numbers, by providing a more refined level of service and—perhaps more importantly—adding a crucial layer of hospitality for guests.

When a restaurant chooses to have a sommelier on their team, it’s a deliberate choice to elevate the dining experience, to draw guests into an environment that can turn what was simply going to be another Tuesday night out into a memorable evening. In the case of Marta, I loved watching our guests’ pleasant surprise when they asked if we had a sommelier—and learned that we had several on any given night. That might have seemed counterintuitive for a “casual” pizza joint, but we made a deliberate choice, one that allowed us to create a deep wine culture that continues today at the restaurant. That approach has become a part of the Marta brand, especially since we built a substantial list of Champagnes in addition to the expected selection of Italian wines, a feature of the wine list that has become one of the biggest wins for the sommelier team—showing guests how well Champagne pairs with pizza. It became a way for Marta to offer more than just another fancy pizza in a city full of fancy pizzas.

On the other side of the spectrum are fine-dining establishments, where wine is built into guest expectations. At Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, we have strived to make this into an art form. Our team is composed of some of the country’s top wine professionals, people from diverse backgrounds with cumulative decades of experience. We have access to deep cellars of wine, and our owners want to offer the best steakhouse experience possible.

Of course, you can find steakhouses all over the country where someone can get a great piece of meat, although I biasedly believe the steaks at Pappas are some of the best in the country. So one major way we seek to differentiate ourselves is by not only offering great bottles of wine but having sommeliers who create a warm and welcoming environment to drink them in. That’s why Pappas Bros. has been repeatedly recognized as having one of the top wine programs not only in Texas but in the country. That has happened because our wine team understands the intangible value that a sommelier can offer: helping a guest home in on the style of wine she enjoys, finding a new region, rooting out a hidden gem on the list. These things translate into loyalty from our guests. And we never forget: That experience has to translate whether a guest is looking for a bottle at $60 or $6,000.

What that comes down to is hospitality, which is the undercurrent of what makes an establishment succeed. That hospitality—extra levels of guest service—is the ultimate benefit of having a wine professional on the floor. Sommeliers play a role unlike any other; they’re somewhere between the management team and the service staff, which means they see a guest’s needs through the lens of both. We keep the entire dining experience moving. We bus tables, fill water glasses, run food, reset tables, and so on. We fill in the hundred small things that can get overlooked during a busy service. It’s something many people don’t quite understand: A sommelier’s goal isn’t merely to share wine knowledge; it’s to help create the best dining experience possible—even if those elements are not always about wine.

That love of hospitality, the desire to make a guest’s experience great, is the main reason I ended up migrating to the front of the house after training in the kitchen, and decided to understand wine better. Being able to take care of people and to help along their experience firsthand, from when they arrive at the host stand through the end of their meal, makes my heart glad.

So I believe sommeliers make as much sense for restaurants as ever. They play a crucial role as ambassadors of hospitality. They nurture regular guests’ loyalty. People may return to a restaurant that delivers solid food. But if you can build on the kitchen’s success with proper hospitality, you can turn casual diners into a lifelong fans.

Jack Mason is a Master Sommelier at the Pappas Bros. Steakhouse Houston Downtown and Houston Galleria. He has been featured in Forbes’s annual “30 Under 30” list of outstanding young professionals nationwide, Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list in New York City and was named Wine & Spirits “Best New Sommelier 2015.”