The Essential Bartender’s Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert: Part 3

Other parts in the series: 

How to Recommend Wine & Serve it Like a Pro!

About a month into my wine education, I was working behind the bar on a slow Tuesday night and I got chatting with one of the guests that was staying in the hotel. As we were talking, we somehow made it onto the subject of wine and I immediately perked up when we did. That’s all I had been learning about for the past month so I wanted to talk about it!

He loved wine too and he was delighted to hear that I shared the same interest. So for the rest of the night, we ended up talking about wine. And it was awesome. Because it was the first time I’d been able to hold a conversation about wine without feeling completely lost.

But just as I was starting to feel confident, he asked me what wines I would recommend on our wine list… And I was stumped. I took a look at our wine list and quickly realized that I knew virtually nothing about the wines we sold behind the bar.

So rather than try and sell my new friend a wine I knew nothing about, I admitted to him that I knew very little about the wines on our wine list and I couldn’t be of too much help.

It was pretty pathetic. And although he didn’t mind, I was embarrassed. We’d just spent the good part of the night talking about wine and I couldn’t even give him a solid recommendation from our wine list.

That’s when I realized that wine knowledge is useless to a bartender unless you can put it to use when it counts.

Wine Knowledge that’s Useful

Now, I’m not saying that learning how to taste and describe wine isn’t useful. It is. But only to a certain extent. If you’re a bartender, you need to take it one step further. You need to use those skills and apply them to your bar’s wine list so that you can help customers out!

If you’re learning about wine to become a better bartender, there’s no point in learning about wines that your bar doesn’t stock. Stick to your wine list and learn everything you can about those wines first. So that when a customer is looking for a wine recommendation, you can swoop in, dazzle them with your expertise, and then serve that wine to them like a pro!

That’s the kind of wine knowledge that’s useful as a bartender. So pay attention and learn how to use these skills well!

How to Recommend Wine

Recommending wine is a great skill to have as a bartender. It’s one of those skills that will put you miles ahead of other bartenders because most people can’t be bothered to learn how to do it well. It’s also a skill that’s transferable to everything else you sell (cocktails, beers, spirits, etc) as a bartender. So not only will you get better at serving customers wine, but every other product you work with.

The first step to recommending anything is to recognize the moments when you should jump in and offer your help. It could be as simple as the customer asking “I’m looking for a wine recommendation. Any thoughts?

Or, they might be hovering around the bar checking out the wine list with a look of confusion on their face. This is the perfect opportunity to chime in and offer your help. You could say something simple like, “Can I help you with the wine list?” or “What are you looking at there?

However, if you’re going to jump in and offer your recommendations, you need to know how to recommend properly first! And there are 3 ingredients to successful recommendations:

  • Know your products
  • Figure out what the customer wants
  • Make your recommendation

Know your Products

The first step to recommending wine is learning about what wines you actually sell. Because you won’t be able to offer the customer anything if you don’t know what you can offer first.

Sure, you could wing it. And sometimes you’ll have to. But it’s a lot more impressive if you actually know what you’re talking about. So the better you know the wines that you sell behind the bar, the better your recommendations will be.

It’s as simple as that.

However, knowing every single wine you stock behind a bar can be difficult. Especially if you’re dealing with a wine list that’s over 100 wines strong. Tasting notes can be helpful in this instance, but it will still be difficult to learn to them all.

If that’s the case, at a bare minimum, you need to know about all of the wines you sell by the glass. And it would be even better if you knew about some of the more popular bottles that you sell. Learning about these wines is as simple as going through the tasting & describing process we went through in part 2.

Figure out what the Customer Wants

If you’re going to recommend a wine that you know the customer will enjoy, you also need to know what kinds of wine they like. Otherwise, you’re just guessing! So you’ll have to ask the customer a few questions to narrow down the types of wines you could recommend to them.

The first thing you’ll want to find out is whether or not they’ll be eating food with their wine. Some wines don’t go very well with certain types of food so you’ll want to avoid those wines if you can.

Then, it’s as simple as asking them what kinds of wines they normally enjoy drinking. That should give you a pretty good indication of where to go from there.

The specifics you’ll want to find out are: do they want a white, red, rose, or sparkling wine? What kinds of grape varieties do they like? Do they like sweet or dry wines? How about tannins in their red wines? What kind of flavors do they prefer? Do they like oaky or earthy wines?

You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to ask the customer a million questions. The last thing you want to do is badger them. But you need to ask them enough so that you can figure out the types of wines they enjoy.

Once you’ve narrowed down the selection, you can use what you know about your products and find the wines that will be the best fit. Then it’s as simple as making a decision and recommending the wine you think they’ll enjoy the most.

Make a Recommendation

Making your recommendation is as simple as describing what the wine is like (knowing your products) and then telling the customer why you think they’ll enjoy it based on what they’ve already told you (figure out what the customer wants).

Describing the wine to the customer is as simple as going through the ‘5 principle characteristics of wine we went through in part 2. To refresh your memory, those characteristics are: the wine’s ‘body’, how sweet it is, how acidic it is, the presence of any tannins, and then the wine’s most prominent flavors (fruit, oak, earth, other).

And of course, you’ll finish off, or start, your description by saying how good the wine is! “This wine is fantastic!” Because you wouldn’t be recommending a wine that wasn’t any good… Would you?

After you’ve described the wine, you should explain to them why you think they’ll enjoy it. For example, “This is a very similar wine to the Pinot Noir you loved last time you were here. Except this one’s better balanced, its aromas are more pronounced, and it’s going to go great with the roast chicken you’ve just ordered!”

That’s a very simple/standard (yet effective) way to recommend wine. And let’s be honest, this is a great way you could recommend anything you sell behind the bar.

But if you want to take your recommendations one step further, one of the best ways to sell anything to a customer is by telling them a story.

Note: You don’t always have to recommend wines that are similar. Pushing customers on to a wine they wouldn’t normally drink but would still enjoy is another great way to enhance their experience. But if you’re going to try that, you have to be confident with your products.

Tell a Story

Telling the customer a story makes the wine more memorable. It will give them something to relate to when they’re drinking it. And it will give them a story to tell their friends when they go away and talk about it.

Essentially, it makes the wine more interesting (and therefore better) and it’s going to give them a great reason to come back for more. So every time you recommend a bottle of wine, try and think of an entertaining story you could tell the customer.

Now, you don’t have to tell a story every time you sell a glass of wine. Describing what the wine is like is more important. And your stories don’t have to be complicated and long-winded. But if you’ve got a receptive customer and you think they’re up for a good story, tell them!

For example, “I came across this shiraz about 2 months ago when I found out that it was made by monks in the French alps. Did you know that monks make red wine!? I’ve taken it on picnics, I’ve gifted it to friends, and I even order it at restaurants. So trust me on this one… You’re going to love it!

Remember, this part is meant to be fun! So it’s ok to crack a few jokes and have a laugh. One of my more popular stories ended with, “yeah, none of that actually happened… But wouldn’t it have been awesome if it did?!”

How to Serve Wine

So you’ve recommended the perfect wine that you know the customer is going to absolutely love. Now what? Do you just shove the bottle in their face, throw them a few glasses, and demand them for their money?

Well, not if you want to keep your job, you don’t!

Just as tasting wine has become somewhat of a dance, so has serving it. And there are some basic etiquettes that you need to follow if you want to serve it like a pro.

Here’s what you need to know how to do:

  • Choose the Right Glass
  • Open the Wine
  • Serve Wine By the Glass
  • Serve Wine By the Bottle
  • Decant Wine

Choose the Right Glass

In the majority of bars, there are generally only two type of glasses that are used. One for red, white, & rosé wines, and another for sparkling wines. So it isn’t that difficult to choose the right glass. But if you work at a bar that’s more serious about their wine, it’s very likely that they’ll have a variety of glasses to choose from.

And there’s actually a good reason for this. Because believe it or not, the type of glass you use can actually change the taste and smell of the wine. There’s a lot of science that has gone into creating these different types of glasses, but we’re not going to go into that here.

For now, it’s sufficient enough to know that different types of wines work better in different types of glasses. And these glasses will bring out the best of those wines.

There are 5 styles of wine glasses that should be familiar with. Flute, Aromatic, Standard (what bars use for most styles of wine), Bordeaux, and Burgundy.

Flute wine glasses are used for sparkling wines. Aromatic wine glasses are used for rose and all light-bodied & aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Standard wine glasses are simply the type of glass your bar elects to use for most wines that you serve. Bordeaux wine glasses are used for bolder reds, like a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Shiraz. And Burgundy glasses are ideal for light-bodied reds like Pinot Noir, and full-bodied whites like Chardonnay.

When you’re handling wine glasses, you should always hold it by the stem. Never hold the bowl of the glass. It looks sloppy and unprofessional.

And if you’re in a pinch and you’re running out of glassware, use what you can. Don’t stress about not having the right type of glass… The most important thing is that the customer get’s their wine!

Open the Wine

The best way to learn how to open wine is by having someone you work with show you how to do. And then practicing it immediately after. That being said, there are a few pointers that you’ll be able to pick up here. Just remember, that you’ll need to practice whatever you read or watch.

Still Wine

Everyone knows how to open a screw top wine bottle. It’s the wines sealed with corks that are a little more difficult. The best tool you can use to open still wines sealed by corks, is a waiter’s friend (also known as a wine knife). And you should definitely invest in one of these.

The first step is to remove the foil from the wine. Your wine knife should come with a tiny knife at one of the ends, so use that knife to cut around the edges of the neck to remove the foil. Once the foil is removed, insert the ‘worm’ of the cork screw into the center of the cork and twist it down until it almost reaches the bottom.

You don’t want to push the worm all the way through because if you do, you’ll push some of the cork into the wine. And no-one wants to have cork in their wine. Then very slowly pull the cork out to reduce breakage. With a wine knife, there are points of leverage that make it very easy to do.

Here’s a great video instruction on how to pull it off:

Sparkling wine

A lot of people get nervous about opening sparkling wine. If you don’t do it properly, the cork can shoot off and the bottle will start spraying everywhere. So employing the right technique is important. 

First of all, by sparkling wine, I’m talking about wine that is carbonated, like champagne and prosecco. Sparkling wine bottles are sealed differently to still wine to prevent the cork from shooting off, so you need to employ a different technique.

To open sparkling wine, rip off the foil to reveal the cage and cork underneath. Then twist the ‘cage’ that is holding the cork down. However, when you’re untwisting the cage, it’s important that you hold the top of cork down with your thumb. That way, when the cage is completely undone, there is no chance that the cork will be sent flying.

With the cage successfully removed, it’s time to remove the cork. Without releasing the tension pushing down on the cork, hold the bottom of the bottle with your other hand and twist the bottle (not the cork). As your twisting the bottle (and holding the cork), the cork will slowly begin to rise. You want to control that rise every millimeter of the way up until it’s free from the bottle and there’s a very quite ‘pop’ sound.

Here’s a great video demonstration of the technique (this guy is hilarious!):

Serving Wine By the Glass

Serving wine by the glass is simple. In fact, it’s as simple as finding out what the customer wants, choosing the right glass, opening the bottle, and then pouring out the wine to the appropriate level.

Boom! That’s it.

Just remember to hold the glass by the stem when you hand them the wine.

Serving Wine By the Bottle

Serving wine by the bottle is a little more complicated. And it’s important that you know how to do it properly. Because once a customer orders a bottle of wine that you’ve served properly, they can’t return it. That is unless there are any faults with the wine. Like it being corked or oxidized.

But if you don’t serve the wine properly, there’s a chance that the customer might send it back. And if they do, it’s your fault. And they can get away with it. So you’ve got to be careful because if the bottle of wine you improperly serve is worth over $300, management isn’t going to be too happy…

In summary, to prevent confusion and hassles down the road, learn how to serve wines by the bottle properly.

Present the Wine

When a customer orders a bottle of wine, the first thing you need to do is ‘present’ them the bottle and talk them through the most important points. You want to show them the label, then point out and describe the following: the winery, the name of the wine (if it has one), the grape variety (or region), and the vintage (year the wine was made).

Here’s an example, “I’ve got the Scorpo (winery) Pinot Noir (grape variety) from 2015 (vintage).” Whilst pointing to each aspect as you say them.

There are two reasons that you must do this.

The first is to confirm that that’s the bottle they’ve ordered. Sometimes you’ll bring them the wrong wine. By presenting them the wine first, they’re able to pick you up on it before you make the mistake of opening it.

The second reason you must present them the wine is to prevent any hassles or confusion later on. Sometimes customers can be difficult and if they don’t like the wine, they’ll try and return it by saying that’s not what they ordered. However, if you’ve presented them the bottle properly and they’ve accepted it, they HAVE to pay for it.

For example, let’s say you just open the bottle of wine you think they ordered instead of showing them first. You thought they said the Scorpo Pinot Noir, but when you start pouring it they say, “umm, excuse me but I ordered the Scorpo Chardonnay.”

That’s your fault and they are allowed to return that wine and request the bottle they originally ordered.

On the other hand, if you present them the bottle and say “So I’ve got the bottle of Scorpo Chardonnay from 2015,” you show them the label, and they agree to you that that’s the wine they ordered, as soon as you open it, they have to pay for it.

If they turn around and say something, you’ve done your due diligence by confirming the bottle with them before opening it. Now, it’s their fault if they weren’t paying attention when they agreed.

Obviously, if a customer continues to complain, this a problem that you should refer to management so that they can handle it appropriately.

Pouring the Wine

Once you’ve presented the bottle and they’ve agreed to it, open up the bottle and pour whoever ordered it a tasting sample into their glass.

When you pour a tasting sample, you’re letting the customer taste the wine first to make sure that there isn’t anything wrong with it. Like it being oxidized or corked.

If the wine is fine, ask them if they would like you to pour it into the rest of the glasses at the bar, or if they would like to pour it themselves at their table. If there is something wrong with the wine, it’s simply a matter of getting another bottle and doing it all over again.

Decanting Wine

The chances are that unless you’re working at a venue that serves a lot of wine (and a lot of expensive wine) you won’t need to worry about decanting. But it’s still good to know how to do it, just in case you ever need to.

First of all, the reason you decant wine is to aerate it. Aerating wine can vastly improve how a wine tastes because introducing oxygen will soften certain acids and tannins, making it taste smoother. Decanting will also soften some of the less desirable aromas making them less obvious. So in short, decanting works like magic!

That’s why you’ll often hear people saying that you should let the wine breathe. By introducing oxygen, it opens up the wine and makes it taste better.

You only need to decant red wines and virtually all of them will benefit from being aerated. But, decanting can be time-consuming, your bar probably won’t have that many decanters, and to be honest, most wines will only benefit ‘slightly’ from it. So there are only a few types wines that you should decant.

And those wines are aged (5 years or older), full-bodied red wines (they’re usually pretty expensive!). These types of wines will benefit greatly from being decanted. So if you can, you should always try to.

How to Decant Wine

Before you decant the wine, present the bottle to the customer in the usual way, give them a taste to make sure the wine is alright, then after you’ve got the all clear, you can decant the wine. You can either do it in front of the customer or at a nearby table.

The aim of decanting wine is to aerate the wine as much as possible. So when you start pouring, pour slowly and aim for the neck of the decanter so that the wine wraps around hitting all the sides. This will expose the wine to as much oxygen as possible, which will aerate the wine better than simply pouring it directly at the base.

It takes practice to get it right and it’s best to get someone to show you exactly how to do it.

When you’re pouring the wine, you also need to be watching out for sediment entering the decanter. So as you get closer to the end of the bottle, watch the wine at the neck of the decanter to see if any sediment is being poured in. As soon as you see any sediment enter the decanter, STOP… No-one wants that stuff in their wine and the amount of wine left in the bottle should be negligible to discard.

After you’ve finished decanting, pour the wine into the customer’s glasses as you normally would. And that’s it!

Here is a great instructional video on how to decant wine properly:

Do Wine Regions Matter?

The short answer is yes, wine regions do matter and I’ll explain why. But first of all, I want to emphasize the fact that regions are less important to know about than grape varieties. That’s why you should learn about grape varieties first.

But that being said, having an understanding of why regions matter is important too. Because you’re going to get customers who order and talk about wines by their region.

There are 2 main reasons why wine regions matter:

  • The region where the grapes were grown affect how the wine tastes, and
  • Some wines are labeled by their region instead of grape variety.

Regions Affect How the Wine Tastes

I touched on this point in part 2 but it’s worth mentioning again. The earth/soil where the grapes are grown affect how the wine tastes. And since the earth/soil is different from region to region, wine will taste differently from region to region.

This is what the French commonly refer to as ‘terroir. And some wine regions have become famous because of the earthly characteristics their soils impart into the wine.

Another reason why wines will taste differently because of their region is the climate. Climates are different all around the world so of course, they’re going to be different from region to region. And since the climate affects how the wine tastes, wines will taste differently from region to region because of their climate.

Both of these factors combined have the potential to dramatically change the type of wine that’s produced in different wine regions. Even if it’s the same grape variety…

For example, a Pinot Noir produced in Burgundy, France, will taste vastly different from a Pinot Noir produced in Victoria, Australia. These regions have very different soils & climates, which is why they taste so different.

Over the years, some regions have developed fantastic reputations because of these factors. And because of that, some customers will order wines just because of the region. For example, a customer might ask, “Do you sell any bottles of Heathcote (region) Shiraz (grape variety)?”

That’s the most important reason why regions matter.

The Labelling

An example of wine bottles labeled by region.

The other reason why regions will matter to you is because wineries will sometimes label their wine by their region as opposed to their grape variety. When wine bottles are labeled like this, you need to have some understanding of the types of grapes grown in that region if you want to know anything about that wine. 

In France and Italy, wines are commonly labeled by their region as opposed to grape variety. So it’s useful to know what grape varieties those regions produce.

For example, Burgundy in France produces fantastic Pinot Noir wines, but they label the wine ‘Burgundy’ instead of Pinot Noir. So if you come across a red wine labeled ‘Burgundy’ and you know what grapes are produced there, you can deduce that the bottle of wine will be a Pinot Noir.

When you start learning about wine regions, the world of wine starts to get a lot more complicated. And that’s the last thing I want to do to you! So don’t concern yourself too much with regions at the moment. For now, it’s good enough to know that wine regions matter.

It’s much more important to have a solid understanding of grape varieties first. And once you’ve developed that base, learning about wine regions will become a lot easier. So in part 4, and the final part of this guide, that’s exactly what you’re going to learn about: Styles of Wine & the Most Important Grape Varieties.

Get excited… You’re almost there!

Click here to go to part 4: Styles of Wine & the Most Important Grape Varieties

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