Friday, April 3, 2009

Dueling Sommeliers

The old caricature of the sommelier as Basil Fawlty with a tastevin may have faded, but restaurant wine pros still suffer from an image problem. Reports in consumer and wine press that customers are fed up with the quality of service indicate a certain disconnect between them and guests.

Maybe “Dueling Sommeliers” can help.

Created by Jeff Groh of the Heathman Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Ore., the Dueling Sommeliers program has for the past few years challenged wine pros to compete for customer approval at a series of dinners designed to highlight wine and food pairing skills.

Looking for a more creative promotion than the winemaker dinner, Groh came up with the duels as a way to get customers excited about the new wines.

“This gives us the opportunity to present a wide array of wines that people have never tried and may never have wanted to try,” he says.

Since the wines are served “blind,” or concealed, customers pass judgment strictly on how well they go with each course without falling back on label or varietal preferences.

Broadening their wine horizon serves a selfish purpose, Groh says.

“The last thing a sommelier wants to do is sell the same wine over and over again,” he says. “That will just make us obsolete.”

There were five duel dinners in 2008, and competitors included Groh and Portland sommeliers Erica Landon of Ten 01, Andrew Fortgang of Le Pigeon and Scott Calvert of the now-closed Lucier. Heathman chef Philippe Boulot prepared four-course dinner menus. Each sommelier got a budget between $80 and $150 to pair one wine with each course, but they didn’t taste the wine and food together until the event. At dinner, customers sampled four wines with each course and voted for their favorite pairing. Scores were collected throughout the series and the top two sommeliers—in 2008 they were Groh and Landon—met in a finale dinner.

The net result, Groh says, is that customers develop a better appreciation for the sommelier’s craft and discover wines worth ordering again. Since the sommeliers discuss their choices at each meal, conversations with customers about food and wine are more wide-ranging than is possible during regular service.

“We were able to hear what they thought about wine pairings, and I learned I didn’t really understand how subjective it was,” says Landon, the winner in the 2008 duel.

Consumers may like a particular wine for reasons discounted by sommeliers, she says. For instance, customers tended to prefer those with slightly more residual sugar than the sommeliers.

Landon says she believes some of the strong reactions were to the wines themselves, not necessarily the pairings.

“We’d repeatedly see that the wines the sommeliers liked scored horribly with the crowd,” she says.

That changed the way she approaches customers at her restaurant.

“Instead of trying to make the perfect match, I try to find out what they like more in wine,” she says. “While a sommelier may see their job as making the perfect pairing, it’s important to think more about the customer’s palate rather than mine.”

Groh says the duel is an idea that can travel. In fact, early in 2008, he hosted a Seattle versus Portland version. The duels routinely sell out, with between 30 and 50 guests for each series. The main operational issue is glassware; each guest ends up with 16 glasses, with 1.5-ounce pours, before the event is over. With 50 guests, that’s 800 glasses.

Glassware issues resolved, the duels clearly offer an interesting way for sommeliers to make new friends, bond with regular customers and host a fun promotion. Also, as Landon points out, sommeliers may learn that their wine education and experience may have distanced them somewhat from the palates and preferences of their guests.

Closing that gap could go a long way toward shining up the modern sommelier’s image.

(Originally published in Nation's Restaurant News.)

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