What do I need to learn about wines to be a waitress at a nice restaurant?
May 22, 2008 7:34 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to learn about wines to be a waitress at a nice restaurant?

I have an interview with a Italian/European themed restaurant of the sort my family could never afford to even step into. This is the best job I could ever hope to get, but I need to do some homework on wines before my interview. I'm too young to have much expirience with alcohol (but I will be old enough to serve it in a restaurant.. very shorty) and I have almost no knowledge of wines other than the kind that comes in a box. I'm doing some Googling and browsing on Wikipedia, but is there anyone who has worked in the industry or knows a lot about wines that can point me in the right direction? Some names of wines I know have been served at this restaurant based on google searches: Vega Del Rio Crianza, Crios Torrontes, and Ornellaia. I don't have the money (and in any case, it's not legal) to do any tasting of these wines on my own.
posted by Niomi to Education (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The best place I think you can start now is to at least know the varieties of wine, and at least what colors they are.

Is Chianti red or white? What is a blush wine? What's the difference between a dry white wine and one that's not so dry? Does Cabernet Sauvignon go well with red meat? Why?

These are the types of questions you should be trying to know the answers to, for starters. No one probably expects you to be an expert right now, and you'll learn more and more on the job. After a couple of months, you'll probably be able to make recommendations.
posted by King Bee at 7:39 AM on May 22, 2008

Have a general understanding of which wine goes with what food. What kind of red wine goes with meat. What wine normally goes with alfredo pasta?
If a person likes their coffee like sludge, what wine would they most likely appreciate?
(Sorry, but I've forgot these answers long ago. However, these concepts were helpful in my waiter days).
Going along with what King Bee said, I agree that you probably only need to know the types right now (ie, Merlot, Cabernet, etc). The actual brands will come with time.

FWIW, people will ask for wine suggestions, and a large portion of your tips will come from alcohol sales. It literally pays to know what you're talking about.
posted by jmd82 at 7:52 AM on May 22, 2008

If you go to a liquor store (with a parent? who is not purchasing anything at the time), they should be happy to describe the various wines, what qualities different types have, which foods pair with which wines, etc.
posted by LolaGeek at 7:59 AM on May 22, 2008

Check out some related advice previously.
posted by desuetude at 8:07 AM on May 22, 2008

Also other waiters and (especially) the chef will be happy to help you learn which wines to pair with which foods.

Hint: don't immediately suggest the most expensive bottle/glass when a customer asks for a recommendation. it rankles.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:19 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't need to know the wines of the world, only those on the restaurant's wine list. You don't sell what you like to drink, you sell what the management want you to push. They will be happy to talk you through the important parts of the list. A handful of recommendations should be OK -- say, one expensive and one more reasonable wine for each of the most popular meals.
posted by Idcoytco at 8:24 AM on May 22, 2008

In my waitressing days, the restaurant sometimes had a "pairing sheet". If someone ordered X entree, you could suggest Y wine. If it comes up during the interview, tell them that you know the basics but you'll need to memorize the pairing the owner/chef suggests.
posted by 26.2 at 8:28 AM on May 22, 2008

1.) Get up on your wine basics:

-Grape varietals and their characteristics
-How to taste, how to smell, how to pour, position, how to open a bottle of wine properly as a waiter etc...

2.) Get up on your Italian wines:

-Sangiovese (Chianti, Rosso, Brunello), Prosecco, Barrolo/Barbaresco/Barberra, Cannouau, Dolectto etc...

3.) Taste a lot

-Buy Italian wines for your house (start with basic DOC/G Chiantis...shoot for 2004s) and taste so you can calibrate your pallate

At a fancy high-end restaurant, the waiter is expected to have personal knowledge of the winelist. With no wine knowledge, bullshitting will be extremely difficult and pretty much hopeless. Up your IQ STAT.
posted by stratastar at 8:49 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

26.2 has some good advice. I suggest further that you or someone go to the restaurant and take a peek at the dinner menu. It may have those pairing lists right on the menu.
posted by tcv at 8:53 AM on May 22, 2008

Thirding 26.2's advice. There's no way a good restaurant would expect even the world's bestest waitress to make wine recommendations rather than letting the chef do so. You'll memorize later.

(I'm surprised they expect 'wine knowledge' to start with, actually.)
posted by rokusan at 9:04 AM on May 22, 2008

Best answer: I would suggest learning about the different types of wine rather than too much about the specific brand the restaurant sells. Once you know the different types of wine and what it best pairs with, you can match that with the various brands -- so even if the brand changes, you still know your fundamentals.

Here's a really good site that gives a quick basic overview of the different types of red wine. Try to understand that and then see if you can match the specific brands to these types.

And, you can find the same for the different types of white wine.

You can also figure out some questions to ask a customer if s/he asks you for a recommendation; for example, do you like your red wine light, fruity, beefy? Do you like your white wine crisp, dry, etc.? There's lots of useful information online.

Another thing to consider; if this is a real classy restaurant they might have a sommelier who will help customers with their wine choice instead of you.

One final thought, in my experience some people use their knowledge of wine to show off to their date, whatever. Don't worry about it too much; wine is just something you're supposed to enjoy for what it is, not some mysterious and magical ritual.
posted by Lleyam at 9:17 AM on May 22, 2008 [8 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to say -- good luck with your interview. I believe that appetite and enthusiasm to learn, and the humility to admit when you don't know something, goes a long way when you don't have previous experience to fall back on.
posted by Lleyam at 9:19 AM on May 22, 2008

Joe Bastianich (Mario Batali's partner in a bunch of his Italian restaurants) wrote Vino Italiano, an engaging and comprehensive reference to the regions, grapes, and producers of Italian wine. Study that book.

In brief and in general (and off the top of my head), you should know the important grapes and their regions: corvina in the Venetian region (which you'll call "the Veneto"), nebbiolo and barbera in the Piedmonte, sangiovese (and its clone brunello) in Tuscany, sagrantino in Umbria, cannonau in Sicily, &c. Learn the wines made from each grape and the methods favored by different producers. Then you can work out the similarities and differences in the flavors and tannicity of the varieties, and how they relate to and resemble other wine grapes.

"Super Tuscan" wines are wines made in Tuscany with grapes other than those traditional to the region; Ornellaia is a famous super-Tuscan, as is Sassicaia; if these are on your list they probably cost > $250 / 750ml.

Prosecco is fizzy (say "frizzante") white wine from the hills north of Venice, nice before the meal.

Once you get the hang of Italian wine, you should at least know the basics of French wine: Bordeaux made mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon in the west, Burgandy made from Pinot Noir in the east, and lots of wines made from lots of grapes in Rhône and Provence.
posted by nicwolff at 9:31 AM on May 22, 2008

Uh, Burgundy, not "Burgandy". I always do that!
posted by nicwolff at 9:44 AM on May 22, 2008

I think that 26.2's advice is good practical advice which will get you through your first couple of weeks waitressing. To brush up on your wine skills though, try going to some wine tastings. Some cost money to attend, but there are quite a few in my area that are free at wine stores that are trying to encourage sales. In general, at a smaller independent wine/gourmet food shop, the sales staff will be very experienced, and quite willing to talk about the wine that you are trying. It was really helpful to me to try different wines side by side to start to understand the terms and descriptions that people apply to wine.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 10:03 AM on May 22, 2008

You don't need to know anything about wine. Red generally goes with meats and White with fish or vegetarian meals. But really, the restaurant will tell you what pairings to recommend. Other than that, you need to know how to OPEN a bottle of wine and POUR it! To open, screw corkscrew in until three rings are left, then set up and pull. Pour a taste of wine for the person that ordered it before filling their glasses. That's it - you're done.
posted by xammerboy at 10:03 AM on May 22, 2008

Vega Del Rio Crianza, Crios Torrontes, and Ornellaia

A lot of people here have suggested getting to know Italian wine but only the last wine that you mention is Italian. The first is Spanish and the second is Argentinian so getting to know Italian wine specifically is too specific. I agree with others who said that you need a basic knowledge of varietals and that you should ask about pairings specific to the restaurant. It's tough for you as you're underage so you can't drink the stuff (legally) but, the law being what it is, customers and your fellow potential co-workers will have to forgive you for that.
posted by ob at 10:37 AM on May 22, 2008

If there is no sommelier, you should also learn (as if you need more things to learn!) how to deftly and properly OPEN a bottle of wine at the table, using a "waiter's key".
(There are lots of do's and don'ts regarding the inspection of the cork, opening the bottle without placing it on the table, how to handle the bottles and glasses, etc...)
Presentation is all, especially at better places, so seek out the bartender for advice.
Practice, practice, practice opening bottles at the bar before you approach the customers.
posted by Dizzy at 10:39 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just realised that my answer focused on French wines (probably because they're my favourite!), but the same applies to Italian wines, too.
posted by Lleyam at 11:13 AM on May 22, 2008

Better yet
posted by Lleyam at 11:14 AM on May 22, 2008

In addition to the good advice above, lots of times the wine salesmen will give little educational tasting sessions for the staff, so you'll learn more over time that way.
posted by HotToddy at 11:42 AM on May 22, 2008

Of course tasting is the only way to get good at this, but note that the OP said:

I don't have the money (and in any case, it's not legal) to do any tasting of these wines on my own.

That puts the classes right out for now, and bar tastings may not be happening either unless the place is lax with their license or is specially licensed.
posted by Miko at 1:25 PM on May 22, 2008

You really just need to learn how to open a bottle of wine with one of those antiquated cork screws.

And you need to know which ones are red and which are white. People ask for the "XXXX red" instead of the "XXXX Cabernet" all the time (to distinguish it from "XXXX white" on the list too).
posted by jabberjaw at 1:30 PM on May 22, 2008

Best answer: I was a waitress for many years and I don't drink. I went to all the wine tastings my restuarants offered and took notes on what kind of comments everyone had on the wines that were tasted. I learned the differences between basic types of wine and generic foods that they would be paired with e.g. chianti, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet etc with fish, red meat, pasta or whatever.

The most valuable thing I did though was at the last restaurant I worked at, which was fine dining, did NOT have a sommalier and had an extensive wine list. I went around to a few different servers whose opinions I trusted and asked them what their three to five favorite wines on the menu were, why they liked them and how they would describe them. I wrote their answers down and memorized them. Usually servers have a handful of favorite wines they recommend over and over from a large list and by the time I had spoken to a few different people I had a nice list of the favorite selections of people who had tried most of what was on offer, along with the descriptions that they used (oak-y, fruity etc) to describe them. My selections included wines from all price ranges and all different types (it's helpful to learn regions too because people will often ask for a "good Australian wine" or some other such thing). If I had the misfortune of a customer asking about a specific wine that I didn't know anything about, I just had to sort of blag my way through it, which sometimes meant admitting I had never tried it but recognizing the price range they were looking at and steering them towards on of the wines I did know about in the same range - "I haven't personally tried Brand X Merlot, but I do know that Brand Y merlot is very good and [describe Brand Y]." Usually by the end of this, I had persuaded them to try this other brand and I regularly had customers compliment me on the wine that I had steered them to, I ended up being pretty good with wine, despite being a non-drinker. All from asking willing co-workers a few questions. Good luck.

Also, practice as much as you can on opening a bottle. Don't be like the young me, opening a bottle for one of the first times and the table having to offer to finish opening it, as I had botched it up so badly. Some basic tips on serving wine:

1. When you bring the bottle to the table, show the label to the person who ordered, this is to verify it is the correct wine.

2. Uncork and place the cork on the table with the brand name on the cork upright (readable) and facing the orderer. There is really no reason to sniff it, the cork is only important to see if the wine has spoiled, which you should be able to tell from looking at it. People often like to sniff the cork and you should let them.

3. Pour just a small amount for the person who ordered it. They taste it to check that it has not spoiled. Officially, this is not meant to be a chance for the person to taste it to see if they like it, though many people will treat it as such and decide they don't want it after all just b/c they don't like the taste. Your restaurant will have its own policy on what is done in instances such as this.

4. Once the orderer gives their approval, you pour wine clockwise to the right, ladies first. Some restaurants use decanters and they'll show you how to use these.

Anyway, good luck!
posted by triggerfinger at 3:23 PM on May 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

Believe it or not, soyouwanna.com has a pretty good 'so you wanna know about wine' section. Other than that, triggerfinger's advice is great. I've worked in some fine-dining restaurants, and in my experience, they tend to look at your resume more for information that may speak to whether you know food/wines than drill you with questions on wines. Depending on exactly *how* fancy this restaurant is, you can probably get through the interview just knowing the basics. I'd suggest knowing your basic varieties of wine as well as those that are specific to the cuisine of the restaurant, ie what Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are if it's Italian. That's probably all you'd be able to remember before an interview anyway.

Once you're in, just get the servers or the sommelier to go over the menu and the wine list with you.
posted by asparagrass at 10:15 AM on May 23, 2008

You know what you need to know? Don't dump my $50 bottle of wine into four glasses, and then smile and say 'can I get you another bottle?'
posted by fixedgear at 3:37 PM on May 30, 2008

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