It can be intimidating talking to a sommelier. I AM a sommelier and sometimes even I find myself intimidated by the size of a list or the sharpness of a sommelier’s suit, or the amount of pins on their lapel (pins are earned through certification). So, I am not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be, but I am going to tell you that you don’t need to be. Somms exist not just to know things but to share that knowledge with joy and guide people to amazing experiences, sort of like a tour guide. First, and most importantly, know that you are welcome in the place you are. Second, and equally as important, know that whatever you understand about wine is enough. Next, let’s demystify this sparkly unicorn of a human. Just who are these people? Sommeliers are professionals in their field, which just happens to be wine and other beverages. They started in this line of work because of a deep love for wine and all that surrounds it. Not just for how amazing it is to enjoy and share but because of the science, history, lore and the pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge around it.

"The best way to approach a wine list with a sommelier or server is with an open mind and willingness to express what you're looking for on any particular occasion... The service team is here to provide caring hospitality, and we love sharing our passions when guests come to the table with trust and kindness."

Elaine Heide, Wine Director
JORY Restaurant - The Allison Inn & Spa

Wine Director Elaine Heide and her team at JORY restaurant in Newberg, OR.

Now, let’s break it down:

The Uniform. Sometimes the well-pressed shirt and tailored suit of a sommelier can make a person feel intimidated, but let me tell you, those who wear jackets (and many don’t) do so for two main reasons.

1st:  As an attempt to present to you, out of respect, the best version of themselves.

2nd: Pockets. It seems silly, but a sommelier needs pockets, and the more “fine dining” the establishment, the more pockets you need. The tool belt of a sommelier ranges from a wine opener, a couple of pens, an osso (a tool used for older corks), a small notepad, a lighter for complex decanting, a crumber for tablecloth service, and any number of other things needed to take the best possible care of you.

The Talk. It is the job of your sommelier to understand what you are looking for. To accomplish this, they might ask questions. It isn’t to judge or figure out how much you may or may not know. It is, and should always be, questions in your best interest to guide you to the best possible experience. Sommeliers spend countless hours thinking about their wine and beverage lists, and they are bursting at the seams to share it with you. To do that, they need to know more about you. So don’t be put off by their curiosity, be encouraged.

With all that said, you are also empowered to ask questions and start the conversation.

P.S. sommeliers love this.


A few things I like to ask are:

  1. “How is your list organized?” This is crucial because somms have a variety of ways of organizing a list. Some do it by varietal, some by style, some by weight of the wine. Understanding the key to the list is like being able to read a map if you feel like navigating it on your own.

  2. If you know what you want to eat, you can always ask “What wines do you recommend with my selections?” I guarantee any somm worth their pins will have thought this through and be ready to answer with gusto.

  3. If you have been to their establishment before, feel free to ask, “What is new and exciting?” Just be ready for them to share, because somms LOVE this question. If you are open to trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone, tell them. They will take you as deep as you want to go but are also happy to keep you where you are most comfortable.

  4. Don’t be afraid to share your budget. Wine lists have a range of prices. It can be awkward to talk money at a table if you are say, on a date or at a business meeting (or really any reason at all), so here is a little trick I like to use. I will say something like “I am thinking something like this...” and point to a price on the menu while the sommelier looks at the list with me. This serves as a clear cue about a price range you would like to stay near. This is an important piece of the puzzle for somms to recommend a great wine for you. By communicating that and discreetly pointing at a price, you have taken some of the stress out of the situation and no one needs to be the wiser.

"As Sommeliers, we understand that we will get everyone from wine geeks and connoisseurs to novice wine drinkers, but that is our job: to tailor our approach to give you the best recommendation based on your likes, dislikes and price range. You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine to feel like talking to a Sommelier is warranted. We are here to assist all guests in all ranges of knowledge."

Levi Seed, Director of Hospitality
The Joel Palmer House
Dayton, OR

Levi Seed is the Director of Hospitality at The Joel Palmer House

The Presentation. When the sommelier comes out with your wine, the ritual of presentation begins. This is important but not just for the pomp and circumstance; there is actually a reason for all of this. It is to make sure you get the wine you ordered, and it presents the way it should. If you ordered a bottle, the sommelier will open the wine, presenting you with the label first. This is to confirm it is, in fact, the wine and the vintage you ordered. If they bring something over that is not what you ordered, tell them. No one is going to get their feelings hurt. Next, they will present the cork to you. The biggest reason for this is to look for the saturation of wine on the cork. It should mostly be at or near the top especially for young wines. If it looks like it seeped further down or the entire cork is saturated, it is not a reason to panic, but a reason to pay more attention when the first pour comes.

Next, the first taste is poured. This should be quick and painless; the splash is there for you to smell and confirm the wine is not flawed. That taste is not there for you to determine if you like a wine or not (unless you are tasting for a by-the-glass selection). If the wine smells sound a quick “that will be great” will do. However, if the wine is flawed, and this is where some people get nervous, mention to your sommelier that something seems off. If it is badly corked, cooked or oxidized, do not bother putting it in your mouth. But if you are not sure, now is a great time to taste to confirm. After that, if you still are not sure, invite the sommelier to help you assess what might be the cause. If you are confident that there is something wrong, tell the sommelier and they will promptly bring you a new bottle.


In the End

Sommeliers put their heart into their work, so don’t be afraid to thank them on your way out if you had a great experience. It’s like fuel for their gas tank. They care more than you know about how your visit went, so if it was excellent, tell them. In the end think of your sommelier as your as your trusted tour guide. Their job is to make your time in their care extraordinary. And it starts days, months and even years before you sit down by way of planning wines for their lists and learning more so they can better serve you. Hospitality is at their core, and you and your guests are the opportunity for them to express this. Let them. It is truly their pleasure.