The Ins and Outs of Being a Restaurant Sommelier
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Sommelier Job Description
Being a restaurant sommelier is a rewarding position, but one that requires a bit more than just opening up bottles for people and making the occasional wine pairing suggestion. The essence of the position lies in what goes on behind the scenes and how the sommelier runs a business within a business. A sommelier is not a fancy pants position where a well-informed wine snob gets to showcase his or her prowess and their all-encompassing knowledge of wine regions and wine laws. The bottom line is that a restaurant sommelier must make money for the restaurant and procure a wine list that matches with the cuisine and that sells to the demographic that frequents the establishment.
There is no room for placing 75 bone dry Rieslings on the list at a steakhouse just because the sommelier thinks that they are amazing wines. Buying wine that doesn’t sell is a sure fire way for a sommelier to join the unemployment line. Now this doesn’t mean there is no room for expression and exposing clientele to new and exciting eclectic wines, but if you take the steakhouse example, the most probable route to success is building a wine list full of rich and hearty red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The following is a list of responsibilities and duties that summarize the entirety of what a restaurant sommelier does.
Educate the staff
This was intentionally placed at the top of the list because of its importance. As mentioned before, the bottom line for a sommelier is to make profit for his or her restaurant and the only way to make profit is by selling the product. That being said, the sommelier needs to have an educated staff that has the desire and knowledge to help their guests purchase wine.
While it would be ideal for the sommelier to make it to every single table to offer wine suggestions and sell great bottles, the reality is that the majority of suggestions will come from the servers. They are the one’s that must have the tools to make proper suggestions when the sommelier is opening bottles and doing the handy work. Holding a weekly educational wine class is a vital component of any successful restaurant wine program. In these classes the sommelier must teach the staff the basics of wine, but also must insure that each front of the house staff member knows exactly what is on the current wine list and how to go about selling the wines to match with the cuisine available.
Procure the list
Building a great wine list is one of the best parts of a sommelier’s job. A successful list will be one that has great diversity, but also one that matches the price category of the attending demographic and matches the style of food being served.
A great example of this can be seen at a well-known Thai restaurant located in Las Vegas called Lotus of Siam. They have an award winning wine list that has great diversity, amazing prices, and is highly focused around wines such as German Riesling that tend to pair amazingly with foods that contain heavy spice and flavor. This does not mean that Lotus doesn’t have California Cabernet of their list, but they just didn’t make it the top priority or the focus of their list.
Every restaurant regardless of the style of cuisine should carry some fancy bottles of Cabernet and a big buttery Chardonnay for those people that just want what they want. Ignoring this type of thing is leaving money on the table, and that is something a successful restaurant cannot afford to do.
Maintain an accurate list
A good sommelier needs to have a wine list that is accurate and not littered with vintage errors and out of stocks. A quick way to piss off a patron dining at your establishment is to have him or her scour the wine list for 15-20 minutes and finally come to a conclusion, only to find out that the wine is out of stock or is not the vintage that was printed. Frequently reprinting the wine list can be costly and time consuming, but it is a necessity.
Many restaurants have software that helps inventory wines and a schedule for doing a manual count of what is actually present in the cellar. The sommelier is most of the time in charge of conducting this practice and should always be aware of the level of inventory and dollars that are tied up in the cellar. Being up to date with what is present in the cellar helps to accomplish the previous task of maintaining and accurate list, and it also helps the sommelier to understand the sales flow and what needs to be purchased week in and week out.
Reduce losses and shrink
This is a huge part of running a successful wine program. Any sommelier that doesn’t understand this concept will not make their restaurant any sustainable profit. Reducing loss in a wine program can be accomplished by keeping a close eye on inventory to safe guard from possible theft. Reducing loss means being very tighty with a wine by
the glass program and ensuring that servers and bar tenders are not over-pouring glass pours. Getting credits and replacements from vendors for corked bottles is another way to reduce losses and up the profit. Creating a wine by the glass program that is not too large is vital to reduce the shrink involved with having wines that go bad after not being poured for a few days. These are just a few of the examples of how to reduce losses and keep the profits strong and steady.
Work with management on restaurant budget and sales
A sommelier will have a close relationship with the management team who will communicate budget information and help the sommelier to understand what margins must be made. Management will communicate about what the sommelier has available to spend on wine and what the percentage of profit must be on those wines to meet budgetary goals. Working with management to accomplish sales targets and to meet the expectations of ownership is a vital component of the job.
Keep up to date on trends and newest releases
A sommelier must be actively tasting the newest releases and understanding what wines are hot on the market and coveted by their clientele. It’s not enough to simply build a wine list full of standard products. I successful wine program has the solid basics that always sell well, but it also contains wines that have recently scored well in the press or have buzz around them. It in important for the sommelier to be cued in to what’s trending and what is the latest hot spot in the industry. This is especially important in the “smart phone” era where people love to break out their phones to search for the high scoring wines and to research particular selections on the list.
Work with vendors to ensure profitability
As mentioned previously vendors need to help reduce loss and pick up damaged bottles and replace them or credit them back to the restaurant. Vendors also serve a huge role in keeping the sommelier informed about the latest releases and vintages. They can also serve a huge role in educating staff members and conducting educational tastings.
Vendors also help the sommelier to know what deals are available and how to make extra profit through savvy purchasing. For example, a wine salesman might say “we have a buy four cases and get one free deal” or they may have a special promotional price point on a certain brand. Working closely with vendors can also help the sommelier to know what has been successful at other restaurants and what the competition is doing. Keeping a tight relationship with the people who sell you the wine is a huge tool for success.
Work with the chef
The sommelier must work closely with the chef and understand the food. The sommelier will need to taste everything on the menu and be aware of any and all changes to the food menu. In order to build a list that matches the food or give spur of the moment suggestions to the guests at the table, the sommelier needs to be able to know what wines will perfectly match each dish and be able to explain to the guest why it works well. The sommelier must help the servers to understand the right pairings as well and this can be accomplished in every wine class by not only teaching the staff about wine regions and wine laws, but by talking about how wines match up with certain foods and specifically the foods on the menu of your restaurant.
Know the patrons
A sommelier needs to remember the regular guests and memorize their preferences. Understanding the palates of the frequent clientele will ensure that you have the right wines available for them on the list and also the direction to take them if they want to try something new. Forming a bond and a trust with key patrons will result in better sales and great word of mouth for the restaurant. A savvy sommelier listens very carefully to the “regulars” and stocks the cellar with things that they want.
There are obviously many more facets that encompass the position of a restaurant sommelier, but these are a few of the things that one should know about the position and how it works behind the scenes. A sommelier is more than just a nose and a palate. A sommelier is intrinsically involved with the budgetary designs of the restaurant and has the end goal of not only providing excellent customer service and wine recommendations, but ultimately to conduct a sound business and sell a ton of wine at a great profit.
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