THERE are “very few sommeliers who are interested in enhancing my experience in a restaurant,” said Observer food critic Jay Rayner.
“Too many are set on dominating their patch and make me feel like an idiot,” he told EatNorth.co.uk, at the Northern Restaurant and Bar Show.
Rayner, a MasterChef judge and host on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, was the headline speaker at the trade show, now in its 16th year, held in Manchester.
He told delegates that he found it difficult to navigate a wine list to find the cheapest or second cheapest wine. The lists “are constructed as though you have to have knowledge of wines and are based on budgets that most people cannot afford,” he said.
Wine lists in plastic sheets also came under fire. “It looks cheap. Printing them out is easy,” he said.
Another bug bear appeared to be the constant re-filling of wine glasses: “When I go to dinner with my wife, we split the wine bottle in the middle. I drink faster than her, which means she will get less if my glass is continuously filled.
“My dinner will not end as I would have wanted,” he said. Adding: “If I ask to pour my own glass the pourer acts as though I am taking away their very existence.”
Ants Rixon, director of regional on-trade at Bibendum, said: “Restaurants are all about experience and whilst it may have been true in the past that wine was left out, sommeliers are becoming more aware of this.
“Go to a modern premium restaurant these days and you’ll find a really relaxed approach to wine, very much integrated with cocktails and craft beers.
“The modern sommelier cannot afford to be aloof and we know this because we train thousands a year. Our training is all about helping sommeliers and wine waiters to enhance the customers’ experience of wine and talk in a really simple language about flavour.
As for how to navigate a wine list, Rixon said “Wine lists can be tricky. Design is really important in helping customers to navigate a wine list. We work with hundreds of sommeliers and wine waiters every year to challenge the traditional list layout which can seriously impact sales.”
Mark Perlaki, former head sommelier for Hotel du Vin, Harrogate, and now account manager for New Generation Wines, added: “The second cheapest on the wine list is a standing trade joke.
“The restaurant industry is not stagnated. As a wine buyer we always try to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes. Readability of the list is important but we would never highlight the second cheapest wine on the list, but it can be found on the wines by the glass page.
“Lots of sommeliers are working hard to keep ahead of the curve and source quality and imaginative wines. Operating via cash margins rather than a flat gross profit also helps the restaurant keep costs down.”
More than 7,000 people, most of whom work in the hospitality industry based in the north of England and Scotland attended the two-day show that included 250 food and drink exhibitors and 50 live demonstrations across four theatres including the grape and grains theatre, craft beer quarter and the spirit room.