… I let the customer sample and tell me what he thinks about the wine instead of my sampling and telling him what he should taste…


It was not till being nearly twenty years in the restaurant business that I realized how little I know. At this point I started to listen to my guests telling me what they think about a certain wine, instead of my telling them what I see in the same.

During my apprenticeship as waiter in Hamburg I learned much about wine making in school. The teachers and we pupils alike looked forward to every wine tasting in class. I was fifteen then. We never got outright drunk at school, but close to it a few times. We sampled a wide variety of wines, mainly average quality and then a few not so good ones too. However, the world’s better labels and all the good and expensive vintages never showed up in school, at least they did not on the days I went to class. 1949 or older Bordeaux wines were not in the school’s budget, neither were the world’s finest sparkling wines. A side by side tasting of the finest wines with bubbles was never done in school. These I got to taste at my workplace. And yes! There is a big difference between Krimsekt (sparkling wine from Russia), Sekt (sparkling wine from Germany), Champagne (sparkling wine from Epernay and surrounding region, in France), American sparkling wine, as well as the Italian and Spanish sparkling wines.

To get a well-rounded beverage education was highly recommended for any apprentice in the food and beverage field. For a waiter learning the basics of beverage making was essential, he had to taste the various vinos available. The teachers highly recommended to try some of the better wine varieties. However, such was left up to each apprentice individually and the size of his pocketbook. Considering my twenty Deutsche Mark, as monthly pocket money, I could not afford to buy great name wines.
No matter my monetary limitations, I got to sample many little leftover sips from the customer’s bottles. The waiters knew that I was curious. Therefor they allowed me to try the few drips left in bottles returned from the tables. I also got to taste the sediments of wines which they had decanted. The older waiters often kept a little wine for me, to try, so I could get an idea of how a certain grape, a preferred vintage looked, smelled and tasted. By the end of my waiter’s apprenticeship I had no problem blindfolded to distinguish between Frankenwine, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rhinegau, -hessen or -pfalz, Ahr and Nahe wines.

At work I got to try vintages and wines far beyond the reach of my income. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Sauternes wines were much in demand. It did not take too long that I found a taste for only the better ones. The “snob within” took over, and soon I did not bother trying anything but the best vintages available.
In the later years while working in Spain, in South Africa and in California I tried the little sip left in the bottle after pouring the wine for my guest. With little out-of-pocket expense did I get to sample the wine-lists of some great restaurants. The more I learned the more arrogant I got.

It was not till being nearly twenty years in the restaurant business that I realized how little I know. At this point I started to listen to my guests telling me what they think about a certain wine, instead of my telling them what I see in the same. Two men can talk about one and the same woman and describe her totally different, to the point of a drawn out lengthy discussion. It is the same with wine. Two women can talk about one and the same man and disagree, but just for the sake of being born diplomats they might not argue in public. Again it is the same with wine.

Sparkling wine is the only wine product where I have seldom had people disagree with each other.
At the Old House in Monterey I suggested to my customers the wines which I had never tried before on a regular basis. I even told them so. “I have heard a lot of good about the 1982 Far Niente Cabernet. I have never tried it myself. 1982 was a good year. May I bring you a bottle?” or “Have you ever tried the Opus One, the French-California joint venture? I myself have heard mixed comments about it. Would you care to try a bottle?” Treating the knowledgeable guest the way he deserves it, with respect and asking for his opinion and expertise usually paid off. My saying, “I am not sure about the 1961 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. However, 1961 was a great year for Bordeaux wines.” was a truthful statement. The guest most likely knew that not all Chateau Mouton Rothschild wines are equal. In general they are very good, compared to anything else produced in the same area of the same vintage. I was sure to open a bottle of the 1961 would be a pleasant experience for the guest. Many times the customers were as curios as I to find out how a certain wine had aged and matured in the bottle over the years. By listening to the guest’s comments trying a wine new to him, I got his opinion. I learned much by listening and I still do. The knowledge gained this way has been very helpful and I find that my acquired overall wine-knowledge as a waiter surprises many guests.

Today I read a lot to keep up with the varieties of offered wines and I listen more than ever to my guests’ opinions about any wine served. If I get nine customers who tell me that the quality of a certain wine disappoints them, compared to the list price, and only one who loves it, I certainly will be cautious in recommending such wine in the future.

by helmut schonwalder