Experts discuss how to create a stellar wine list at The Caterer's Wine Service Summit

15 April 2022 by
Experts discuss how to create a stellar wine list at The Caterer's Wine Service Summit

The Caterer's Wine Service Summit brought together an expert panel to discuss how to create a wine list, the importance of having a service style and classics versus contemporary

For many restaurant customers, choosing a wine can be a daunting experience. Navigating unfamiliar grape varieties, thinking about the food you'll be eating alongside it and taking a punt on something unknown can often make them panic and default to something simple. That's why sommeliers and waiting staff are crucial when it comes to making sure your wine list is working hard for you.

Of course, the past two years have seen some changes to how front of house and wine service staff have had to operate, and it is there that speakers at the summit began to discuss what modern wine service looks like in 2022, post a global pandemic and with different consumer demands.

"What the pandemic brought was this question of re-establishing a very safe space as well as re-establishing trust," explained Melania Battiston, head sommelier and wine buyer at Medlar restaurant in Chelsea. It also brought with it a new type of customer, one that – having been starved of stimulation at home for the best part of two years – has come out the other side with perhaps a bit more knowledge of what they like, an openness to spending more money on something interesting and a yearning for a fuller experience outside of their homes.

So, what should sommeliers and their teams be doing to deliver the goods?

Personal touch when pouring wine

For all of the panellists, the human aspect of wine service was of huge importance. Nicolas Clerc, president of the UK Sommelier Academy, said he has seen the role of a sommelier change over the years, from being more formal to now having a relaxed and more personable approach.

You need to make them feel like the only table in the restaurant

Battiston agreed: "The human component in a restaurant I think has become almost the same level [of importance] as the food and the wine programme." She said that her team provide this in a number of ways, starting with a more relaxed style of service, while also ensuring that guests are given regular and thoughtful attention. "You need to make them feel like the only table in the restaurant."

For Emma Underwood, general manager of the Pem, which opened in July 2021, a personal approach to service was introduced on day one. The team takes advantage of operating inside a hotel, namely the Conrad London St James. "Being in a hotel we already have a wealth of guest notes, which is amazing, so we just keep that personalisation of conversation throughout," she said. "Engagement is absolutely everything. We make sure any notes from conversations are passed to the sommelier and head waiter."

Train your staff to know their wines

When Covid hit, the team at Berkshire's Vineyard built a new 80-cover pavilion to continue operating between lockdowns. For Romain Bourger, director of wine and beverage and reigning Champagne Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year, having won it in 2019 – the last time it was held – this meant a change in service style too. "We've definitely taken a more relaxed approach and had great feedback," he said. "It just makes it more personal for the guest and more enjoyable for staff as well."

With that approach, however, must be the basis of knowledge, and Kevin McKee, UK director for Taittinger Champagne, was keen to point out the importance of training. "We've been asked to do a lot of training for teams that have been furloughed or haven't worked in service before, and the one thing we will always tell staff is to tell the guests that you have tried the wine. The consumers want that little bit of reassurance."

The customer knows their wines

As well as new styles of service, new customer expectation and experience plays its part in dictating how sommeliers interact and serve their guests. With two years mostly at home, people have been spending their money on more expensive and adventurous wines and exploring them in the comfort and security of their homes.

Underwood has noticed this shift at the Pem. "People were a little bit starved for stimulation at home, but they still wanted to be learning and trying new wines, and there were so many places that did the most fantastic at -home experiences. I think that did so much to build guests' knowledge and engagement with wine. Now we have people coming in willing to spend a bit more money, to have something with more interest or that is more exciting – it's been really great for that."

Although guests are excited by more interesting and exotic wines, they are still after the classics. Battiston must balance the curiosity of Medlar's guests with the restaurant's more classic clientele, so listing orange wines that lean less on the funky side and that are more restrained means both sets of guests are satisfied. Underwood has also seen this shift. While the opening wine list for the Pem was made up of mostly natural wines, the team recently added more classic styles to its list.

McKee is also keen to see more lists that mean the guest doesn't need to rely on the sommelier to make an educated wine choice. "I think wine lists and recommendations should always be balanced. A lot of the time people want to pick a wine without engaging with the sommelier." He suggested listing wines based on what people already like and offering a perhaps less well-known but similar alternative.

And what if you don't have a sommelier and you need to rely on waiting staff to assist guests with their choices? This is something Underwood has had experience with before and suggested that managers start with a broad and comprehensive wine list and call on their suppliers to assist with guiding a team through each of the wines. At the Pem, the head sommelier starts each service briefing with a run-through of a wine from the menu.

For Bourger, getting the basics right is also key. "Go through the basic knowledge – how wine is made, the main grape varieties and learning how to assess wine. Get a bit of understanding on that, then the basics are there and they can carry on developing them."

What the experts want to see more

Throughout the summit, our panellists dropped in what they'd like to see more of when it comes to wine service. Here are three of our favourites:

More by-the-glass options

Offering wines by the glass often allows guests to be more adventurous with their choices. The Pem offers a generous amount of wine by the glass, including different styles of the same Champagne and sparkling wine brands, meaning guests have the chance to explore more of the range.

Clearer and more accessible lists

For Kevin McKee, wine lists that are too esoteric or eclectic can often mean intimidated guests revert to choosing the house wine. Including more recognisable brands can make guests feel more comfortable and perhaps more likely to choose something a little bit different.

More inclusive training

While team training is always high on the agenda, bringing the whole service team together to learn about the wines on the list is something that can benefit everyone, something that Romain Bourger is keen to develop with his own team.

Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year 2022

The Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year award recognises the very finest talent in wine service.

Organised by The Caterer, and recognised by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, the competition is open to professional sommeliers and waiting staff working in the UK.

Candidates are judged on their wine and drink expertise as well as their ability to deal efficiently and knowledgeably with customers by demonstrating exemplary front of house skills. Regional finals for this year's event take place on 25 April before the national final on 18 July at the Savoy hotel in London.

Image: olgakimphoto/Shutterstock

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