In my opinion, the best dining-out experiences are those where either I have been given the chance to drink and enjoy a wine that I have never tried before, or where I have been given the chance to enjoy a new food-and-wine matching experience.
Too often, particularly in well-rated restaurants abroad, I have noticed sommeliers steering guests up the wine list for no good reason, or suggesting a wine that will generate a higher unit sale or better margin. This practice leaves diners feeling cheated and misunderstood, particularly when the wine bill is far in excess of their intended budget.
Ultimately, it spoils a great night out, detracts from the hard work of the kitchen and service teams, most probably results in the guest never coming back and, worse still, telling others about the experience.
Making your guest feel that you have their best interests at heart is one of the most important factors in recommending a wine. The key is to establish a parameter in which you can work so as not to cause any embarrassment or offence when you suggest your selected wine from the list.
I have adopted a simple approach: I always recommend three options. I do this even with regular clients who consistently spend well, on the basis that you should never presume they want to indulge themselves at every visit.
My recommendations always consist of a great-value wine that has the character to hold up to the food selection, and a mid-priced wine that is of superb quality and again complements the food. The last recommendation is always a wine suitable for indulgence or celebration, and it is always presented as such.
This way, the client is still wholly in control of the decision and can make a selection to suit their budget or mood.
If there’s a situation where a host is entertaining, I advise discreetly pointing to the suggested wines on the list so the host can make a selection without his guests knowing whether they have been judged worthy of a wine for “indulgence” or not.
The whole area of wine direction is fraught with difficulty and does need careful thought. Some years ago, we had a client who chose an Auslese as his main wine for a lunch he was hosting. He was extremely confident in his choice, even arrogant, which suggested he knew what he was doing. Even so, I thought I should just double-check that he definitely did want to serve this dessert wine. His reply was that of course he did.
Realising I might have tripped over my own rules and caused of-fence, we went ahead and prepared the wine for service. Once the client had settled down to lunch, the wine was presented. Needless to say, he tasted the wine and sent it back, complaining it was far too sweet.
I suppose this emphasises that, no matter how hard you try, some people just cannot be led, giving great value to the proverb: “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” Sometimes you just can’t do either.
Bancroft’s top 10 tips
1. Recommend a range of three wines, covering a price spectrum.
2. Establish where the client wants to pitch.
3. Take pride in recommending a wine that suits the guest’s requirements, even if it is a value selection.
4. Remember that a good recommendation will enhance a client’s experience.
5. A bad recommendation can undo everyone else’s hard work.
6. Never presume a client wants to pitch at a high level on every visit, even if they regularly do.
7. Ensure that, ultimately, the client makes the decision – and is allowed to do so.
8. Respect the client’s choice, even if it wasn’t your recommendation.
9. Understand that we can’t always win, no matter how hard we try.
10. Never cause offence, whatever the outcome.