A James Beard Award–winning sommelier reveals the secrets to ordering wine.
You’re in a serious restaurant with a significant wine cellar, about to put down major green for a bottle. How do you make the most of it? Daniel Johnnes, James Beard Award–winning sommelier and longtime wine director for Daniel Boulud’s restaurants, has plenty of advice, starting with: Don’t order wine at the table.
What’s the first move?
Call the somm ahead of time or come in and have a meeting and look at the current wine list. Somms are starving for information. Tell them, “I love white Burgundy,” “I hate white Loire Valley,” “I’m ready to spend $300.” If you don’t know producers, say, “I like wine with no oak” or “a lot of oak,” or that you want a wine that goes with the chef’s game-bird course. Sometimes it’s difficult—you don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. But that’s why you want that conversation ahead of time.
And once the bottle is chosen?
If you want a bottle with age, we can stand it up a few days ahead, to let the sediment drop. We can also open the bottle ahead, but we’d do that only with approval.
Are there code words that tell you someone is serious about wine?
Like if they drop the fact they have a 40,000-bottle cellar? Woo—serious! No, if they mention producers that are less known—a small grower who’s very collectible and in great demand—that shows me they’re not looking just for blue-chip trophy wine, they’re looking for something artisanal and crafted. Everyone knows Romanée-Conti, but if they mention Armand Rousseau, that means something else entirely.
Do you keep wines off the list, making them available only to those you deem worthy?
Oh yeah. Every good somm has some treasures in the cellar, and you want to make sure they go to someone who’s really going to appreciate them.
Should you insist on dealing with the chief somm?
The head somm is the boss. They put the list together. And it’s fine to insist.
How about tipping?
If you’re going to leave a 20 percent tip, be prepared to leave it on the whole check, not just food. If you spent $1,000 on wine, $200 is right. But $10,000? A $2,000 tip is not necessary; $500 is very generous. That said, people who have that income are used to spending it and know what the results of their generosity can be.