David Flaherty“Ma'am, I noticed you’ll be having the penne with meatballs, of course an excellent choice. If I may be so bold as to recommend a glass of Chinon with that? I’ll trust you’ll find the pyrazines add an alluring note of bell pepper and the slight hint of Brett adds desirable aromas of rotten meat and horse’s hoof to round out the dish,” says the waiter.

“Um, yeah, I don’t think so. You keep your horse’s hoof far away from my pasta,” replies the guest.

Wine people often lead dual lives. On one hand, they surround themselves with compatriots who have spent years developing a complex language to describe not only technical processes, but also subjective experiences. And that’s necessary: We need to have a lexicon for wine so we can learn what’s behind the bottle and fine tune our sensory abilities.

But on the other hand, if they speak that language to the inexperienced, they’ll find themselves on the express train to Snobville. The days of the sommelier adorned with a tastevin around his neck, lording his esteemed knowledge over his guests like a baton of intimidation, are (mostly) over.

Today’s top wine directors and sommeliers can translate the complexities of the wine world in a way that’s easily digestible and exciting for their guests and staff.

Being able to quickly read guests, adapt to their needs and enhance their experience by making wine approachable takes years to master, but it’s essential in creating repeat guests and ensuring robust sales.

“The culture among some wine professionals is intimidating and arrogant, but that’s common among any professionals that have devoted their lives to what they do,” said Michelle Richards, assistant general manager and certified sommelier at St. John’s Restaurant & Meeting Place in Chattanooga, Tenn. “However, that should never translate to the guest, because that’s not how a true sommelier behaves. You need to be a great listener and understand body language.”

Making a quick and accurate assessment of a table before approaching it is paramount to setting the stage for a guest’s experience.

“Body language is big,” said Tanner Walle, beverage director for Riddling Widow, a small wine bar in New York City. “For instance, noting the amount of time they look at the list: A brief glance can often mean they’re unfamiliar with what’s in front of them, and are more comfortable asking me for recommendations. If the guest is more thoroughly studying the list, I’ll often approach them with expectations for a broader conversation.”

The ensuing dialogue will reveal more clues, especially with some well-placed questions right at the start, he said.

“When they have that ‘please help me’ look in their eyes, I break it down to the basics,”  Richards said. “I’ll ask ‘What do you typically like to drink?’ or ‘When you go to the wine shop, what section do you go to?’ Also, ‘What is your budget?’ The best sommeliers can recommend wine in all price ranges.”

When a waiter or sommelier takes the lead with a novice guest, it creates a sense of ease at the table and excitement about the experience to come.

Conversely, in identifying those who have more knowledge, an opposite tack might be better.

“Advanced consumers usually like to be in the driver’s seat,” said Jose Aguirre, sommelier at Dirty Habit, a restaurant and bar in San Francisco. “So, I may just simply ask, ‘What are you in the mood for today?’ or ‘If you have any questions regarding producer or vintage, just let me know.’ And they will more often than not tell me exactly what they want.”