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  • The Chopping Blog

How to Talk to a Sommelier

Mary Ross
Posted by Mary Ross on Aug 14, 2017

Congratulations Chicagolanders! In May, our town was named “Best Restaurant City” in America by Conde-Nast TravelerNow, hot off the presses, Chicago is ranked “Restaurant City of the Year” by Bon Appetit (August 8, 2017).  Your support of food and drink has transformed Chicago from a center of booze, beer, pizza and wieners into a dining capitol of the world.


Dining and Wine 

Dining, of course, goes hand-in-glove with wining. Sure, a craft beer or creative cocktail is a treat, but it’s hard to rival wine as the perfect enhancement to your dinner out, both in flavor and – let’s face it – your personal feeling of savoir faire.

With the wealth of wine pouring into our market, navigating a wine list can be tricky. But you’re not alone!

Savvy restaurateurs train servers to be confident wine salespeople. Others tap into Chicago’s swelling pool of trained (or in-training) sommeliers.


Your server/sommelier may be a Grand Wazeer of Wine, but is probably no mind-reader. A little information on your preferences will be sincerely welcomed.  Here are the basics:

Music to Your Sommelier's Ears 

Which grape? The grape provides 95% of the wine’s flavor. Be ready to mention your favorite (or least favorite) grapes.

White, red or pink? The “rule” about white wine with fish and red with meat can always be modified. If you enjoy white wine and you’ve ordered T-bone, it’s the sommelier’s mission to make it work. (Here’s a hint:  Chardonnay.)

Dry or sweet? Dry means the absence of sugar; sweet is the presence of sugar. “Dry-ish” means in-between. Dry wine is the current fashion, but sweetness by no means rules out wine quality.

Light or rich? These terms refer to flavor intensity and the weight of wine on your palate (generally from alcohol.) As an example, skim milk is light; whipping cream is rich.

Acid-y or not? Wine’s acid acts like a squeeze of lemon to refresh the palate, especially useful with fish dishes or creamy sauces.  But acid might also disturb a sensitive tummy.

What’s your favorite? If the information above escapes you, offer an example of wine that you enjoy. Be honest! A sommelier is trained to appreciate every wine style, regardless of their personal preference. Whether I shop the bottom shelf for cheapies or frequent the fine wine auction circuit, it’s the sommelier’s job to recommend wine to fit my taste and pocketbook.

How much? Many sommeliers are paid based on sales, but a true professional makes your enjoyment top-priority. Offer a range of prices in your comfort zone. When the situation calls for subtlety, point to a selection on the wine list and say “I’d like something in this range.” 

Putting it all together: 

“I generally like light, dry-ish whites with good acid. I enjoy Pinot Grgio and Austrian Riesling. I’d like to stay in the $25 range.” 

Or: “I don’t drink a lot of wine, but I had a Malbec at a barbeque that I really liked. This is a good range (pointing at a selection on the wine list)." 

And if everything above is just too complicated, snap a picture with your phone of wines that you’ve enjoyed.

I Tasted It; I Liked It 

Your peak wine and food experiences will really add flavor to your conversation with your sommelier/wine server.

For instance, “I had Roast Tenderloin with Chimichurri Sauce served with a rich Malbec-blend from Argentina at The Chopping Block. Then we tried the steak with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Both were great!”

To zero-in on your favorite taste sensations, please join our “How to Pair Food & Wine” seminar, Wednesday August 30th, 6:30pm to 8:30pm at Lincoln Square. In this wine and food pairing seminar, we’ll mix-and-match five dishes with five wines, to test the “rules” of wine and food, and decide on rules of your own. 

wine and food pairing class

With this information, your sommelier’s internal search engine will hum with activity. When complete, you’ll be offered two to three selections in your taste and price profile.

The Bottom Line 

To tip or not to tip? Compensation for sommeliers ranges widely. Well-managed properties offer the somm a base salary, with a percentage of sales and/or the tip pool. Other properties reap the benefit of wine sales without compensating for the extra effort the sommelier position requires.  

Always tip on the full cost of food and beverage. I include tax in my tip. If service is above-and-beyond, a few bills subtlety slipped in the sommelier’s hand is appreciated but not required. 

For the Love of the Game 

Everyone has expenses to pay, but many sommeliers see passion for our product as an invaluable perk. If you show a genuine interest in wine and food and tip fairly, you’ll be welcomed back again and again.

Join me for an upcoming wine class to get a better idea of what you like in a wine and be able to convey that to a sommelier. You'll learn the language and become confident ordering wine in here in Chicago, the Restaurant City of the Year!





Topics: Wine, sommelier, Wine & Spirits

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