Well-trained Sommeliers Add Value to the Restaurant Experience

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About twenty years ago I led a group of sommeliers from the USA on a tour of Rioja wineries and restaurants.  During our visit to one of the area’s top restaurants, to show these sommeliers how wine and food pairings are decided here, I asked the head waiter, who was also the sommelier, how diners chose which wines to order with their meal. He replied, “Older locals always choose their favorite Rioja before ordering the meal.  Younger locals and visitors from other parts of Spain and those from abroad choose the food first and then ask for recommendations about pairings. The older locals will always choose a Rioja but the others are willing to experiment, even with wines from other parts of Spain.”

Both are legitimate strategies, but obviously only the latter warrants the intervention of a sommelier or a qualified head waiter for guidance. This almost invariably leads to some pleasant surprises. With the growth in international tourism to our region, the increasing number of Michelin-starred restaurants in La Rioja, Alava and Vizcaya (16 restaurants with a total of 19 stars) and the inclusion of a dizzying number of wines from other Spanish regions and from abroad on our wine lists, the need for a well-versed maître d’ or a sommelier is a necessity, especially if a guest is from outside the region.

A good example is at Remenetxe in Gernika, near Bilbao. Sommelier Jon Andoni Rementería’s wine list has 1400 wines, of which 550 are from Rioja and of these, 290 from Rioja Alavesa alone. Unless you’re a Rioja wine expert, Jon Andoni is there to help.

 José Félix (Chefe) Paniego is the maître and head sommelier at the two Michelin-starred Echaurren in Ezcaray in La Rioja as well as the president of the Association of Sommeliers of La Rioja. He talks about his wine list in philsophical terms as “…more than a menu.  It is a book of sincere reflections that speak of wines through those who make them.  (Each winemaker) describes his way of understanding the vineyard, his way of working, his life, in short”.

Félix Jiménez, the owner of Kiro Sushi (1 Michelin star) in Logroño, makes choosing a wine easy because he only serves one.  To accompany his sushi menu he serves Akemi (‘bright, beauty' in Japanese), a white Rioja chosen specifically by Jiménez after tasting a huge number of samples to find the perfect taste.  

Carlos Echapresto, the co-owner with his brother Ignacio of the one Michelin starred Venta Moncalvillo in Daroca de Rioja doesn’t use “maître” or  “sommelier”, on his business card, but rather “host”.  In a 2017 interview on the Spanish Wine Lover website, he explains that before his guests are seated he offers them an aperitif and tries to discern their food and wine tastes to make the food/wine pairing experience more enjoyable.  He is a big fan of wine by the glass, offering more than 70, which is fantastic if you are ordering the tasting menu.

Some of his guests will tell him, “I have a budget of X, make some suggestions.” Echapresto says, “If there’s a good vibe in the restaurant and I have the opportunity to offer something really special, I’ll open it.“

The wine by the glass strategy is a must with a tasting menu, but it works best if the customer is given the chance to choose.  I discovered this the hard way recently when my wife and I went to a well-known restaurant with a Michelin star in Cantabria to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  We decided to try the tasting menu with the wine pairings recommended by the restaurant.  The pairings were not specified on the menu but we trusted the sommelier’s decision.

It turned out that three of the pairings on the nine-course menu were from the same winery – a ‘cava’, a white and a red, and two others were a wacky red and white from new appellations in Cantabria. A furmint from Tokay saved the day.   We concluded that most of the wines in question were good deals from a local distributor who in turn passed them on to the restaurant. A consequence of COVID-19 and a three-month forced closing? The meal was delicious but most of the pairings a little forced. We felt that it would have been more honest if the pairings had been written out on the tasting menu. After all, how much does it cost to print a page on a laser printer? Caveat emptor – Let the buyer beware!

Has the global pandemic changed the role of the sommelier?  Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, maître and sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, voted #1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015, is sure that it has. He recently told La Verdad that his dining room staff has gone from one day to the next from being purveyors of happiness to superfluous.  “COVID-19 has mandated social distancing, requiring us to reduce contact with customers to a minimum”.

Among the ideas that have occurred to him are “emphasizing movements more than words, using gestures like they do in the Far East, cultivating the poetry of rituals or the eloquence of silence.  In short, employing new ways of transmitting safety, good taste and happiness.”

Roca also suggests modifying wine lists, not by removing wines, something he considers a travesty, but rather by using graphic elements and simplifying choice for guests. Roca suggests printing out a shorter list on recyclable paper in accordance with guests’ choices of food items, a wise suggestion that our restaurant in Cantabria would be smart to consider.

My takeaway is that adventurous food and wine lovers can learn a lot from a sommelier if they're willing to experiment.  Wines by the glass are a great way to discover new things, especially with a tasting menu. Most top restaurants understand this but even more modest restaurants could increase their offer of wine by the glass, especially in today’s difficult economic climate.  Even though a restaurant can’t afford a sommelier, the maître or the chef can be a reliable guide.

Tom Perry/Inside Rioja

Photo: Venta Moncalvillo. Carlos Echapresto is a holder of Spain's National Gastronomic Award.  He was awarded the prize for the Best Sommelier in Spain.  Venta Moncalvillo holds 1 Michelin Star and a 'Best Of 'Wine Tourism Award for Best Restaurant.