wine Features 
StarChefs Sommelier Survey
By Jim Clarke and Ha-Kyung Choi


Who You Are

Where You Learned

Your Work and the Winelist

Practical Matter

Wines that Move


The Sommelier Survey was conducted between May and September of 2003.

Last year we decided to take a snapshot of wine service around the country by surveying the people on the frontline: sommeliers, beverage directors, and managers; here are the results. Wine sales seem to be in a state of flux; the heady indulgence of the 90s has faded, but professionalism in wine service seems to have reached a new level. Training and knowledge are high, and guests are responding by being more open - as well as being more interested in value. Here are the numbers:

Who You Are:

Our respondents worked all across the country, with California dominating at 25%. 70% of you carried the title of Sommelier or Wine Director, occasionally – 12% of the time – in conjunction with a broader management title. Other respondents identified themselves primarily as either the General Manager or Owner of the restaurant.

If you’re looking to join the wine service industry, get out there and schmooze: 60% of our respondents indicated they got their job through “Connections.” The other way to get in is to move up; 20% of you were promoted internally. Internal promotions were especially common in the South, where 56% moved up from other work on the floor. The Internet has apparently not caught on for wine service hiring yet, with only 1% of you having found a job this way. It seems the wine service industry remains small and close-knit enough for personal relationships to dominate hiring decisions.

Wine service positions seem relatively stable: almost a third of respondents have been in their current position for over 6 years, with another third there for three to six years. Similarly, 63% have been in the beverage industry for over ten years. The Northeast seems to be the place for newer faces; twice as many New Englanders than the national average indicated they had been in beverage service for just two to five years. 42% of you have spent an average of 3 to 6 years at a single establishment before moving on; about one quarter have been more restless and spent an average of only one to three years at each establishment.

The idea of the tipped sommelier working the floor seems to have all but disappeared; less than 10% of you work hourly in conjunction with tips. Excluding General Managers and Owners, the average reported salary was $52,700, with responses ranging widely from $25K up to $100K.

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Where You Learned:

A full two-thirds of you indicated you had received some sort of formal wine training; this was highest in New York City (85%) and California (73%) but lowest in the Northeast, where only one-third had done so. The Court of Master Sommeliers looms large, having trained 40% of you to one degree or another; wine training as part of an undergraduate degree also shows prominently. Many of the other programs reflect where their classes are available; the American Sommelier Association, for example, is based in New York, and almost all of you who indicated that you had taken an ASA class worked in New York City or the Northeast.

Of the third nationwide who had not received formal training, more than half indicated they considered themselves self-taught. The rest are split primarily between on-the-job training and the influence of a mentor, with a small number indicating that a study group played an important part of their wine education.

Whatever your educational background in wine, many of you – 40.5% - felt no need to pursue formal training in the future. Of those that did wish to do so, the initials “MS” loom large and are more than four times more popular than its nearest competitor, the MW program.

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Your Work and the Winelist:

On the whole, you spend a third of your time talking to guests. Selecting wines and talking with salespeople also weigh significantly on your schedule. Most of you – 69% - are apparently too busy for outside work, but some teach, often for one of the various programs mentioned previously, and 13% of you consult for your guests on stocking their private cellars.

42% have building the winelist to yourself, while 28.5% have other wine colleagues to collaborate with. Restauranteurs put their finger in the pie one-fifth of the time, but chefs do not seem terribly interested – only 7.5% of you said the chef played an active part in selecting wines.

Price, Menu Compatibility, and Quality – especially quality – are the main factors for you in selecting a wine for your lists. Finding something unusual is a factor 11% of the time, but those who indicated this was important often did so quite emphatically.

Once a wine gets on the list, it’s likely to be placed in a fairly traditional format by region or varietal; only 39% of you felt that your winelist was organized less than conventionally. Generally the “less conventional” aspect was some form of “Featured” or “Sommelier’s” picks, sometimes with a focus on value wines. This question actually evoked some strong feelings; one wine director responded “Tradition is often user-friendly if your customers aren’t rubes. This is a question for journalist’s amusement: “Top Picks” is insulting and pretentious in a WTC restaurant!” But sometimes this conservatism was on the guests’ part: a sommelier in the Northeast was itching to reorganize their list according to flavor components, but felt, “our clientele may get a little freaked out.” How would they feel about the restaurant in California that invites guests in to the cellar to select a bottle directly off the shelf?

About 10% offer an unusually large number of wines by the glass; contrariwise, about 3% offered just a few, sometimes because you promote half-bottles as an alternative. A similarly small group (2%) felt that finding exclusive wines for your by-the-glass list was a priority. Generally choosing wines to serve by-the-glass seems to be a balance of price and quality – a quest for value.

Getting a wine to move appears to be largely a matter of staff training and tasting; two-thirds of our respondents felt this was to best way to promote a wine – some even recommend creating staff incentives to move certain wines. Focusing on a wine’s pairing potential – especially as part of a tasting menu – and placing the wine in a prominent part of the winelist also seem to be priorities when trying to move an individual wine.

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Practical Matters:

A surprising third of you have what are apparently easy jobs, reporting no problems or challenges in your work. The rest of you probably look forward to robots becoming part of the restaurant work force: 60% of your reported challenges center on staffing in one way or another – mostly on training. 4% mentioned scheduling difficulties as a particularly vexing aspect of training, and turnover, at 14%, remains a typical problem. One of you pooh-poohed this difficulty, saying, “Train your staff; even if they leave, you’ll attract people who want to learn and grow, and pass on the information to the public.”

While on the whole you reported only spending 11% of your work time training staff, 35% of our respondents reported that they conducted daily training sessions, and even more (39%) conduct weekly sessions. About one-fifth use some combination of daily and less frequent training sessions. Staff tastings, quizzes, and even field trips to wineries are all tools being used out there.

When it comes to keeping track of your cellar, approximately one-fifth of you haven’t settled on a single program and use a combination of POS systems together with spreadsheets like Excel or Lotus. Among those that specified, Micros dominates the POS field at 20.5%, while Excel remains the standard spreadsheet program at 34%. 8% of you continue to do things the old-fashioned way, but 3.5% have found computer inventory tracking useful enough to invest in some sort of customized system.

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Wines that Move:

Both the average price of bottles sold and the typical markup your responses showed classic bell curves; markups centered around the 250% point and bottle price in the $50-$70 range. While many of you reported that guests were becoming more knowledgeable and/or adventurous, domestic – mostly Californian – Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay top the list for popularity for bottle sales at 26% and 20%, respectively. The only other category to crack the double-digit barrier was domestic Merlot at 12%. All told, more than three-quarters of the most popular bottles were home-grown. Despite talk in the press about the rising popularity of wines from Down Under, not a single respondent indicated that an Aussie wine was their most popular bottle; however, food-friendly New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc made a blip on the screen at 2.5%.

Domestic Chardonnay really rules the roost when it comes to By-the-Glass sales, clocking in at 44%. Again, domestic Merlot is the only other wine in the double digits (13.5%). Australian reds do make a showing in the By-the-Glass category at 3.5%, and Champagne apparently exploits its suitability as an aperitif to account for its mark at 6.5%. There’s a red-white dichotomy between the bottle and by-the-glass categories. While two-thirds of the most popular bottles were red, the same proportion of whites dominated the by-the-glass poll. In both categories, top picks that were country-specific – Italy, Spain – generally only came up in restaurant’s featuring cuisine with the same origins, which in some ways makes guests’ choices seem even less adventurous.

We asked about consumer trends, and it seems you all see things differently; there were very few trends on which a significant portion of you agreed. The most telling was that 37% of our respondents felt that consumers were spending less on wine and/or becoming more concerned with value when choosing their wine; nonetheless, 5% of you indicated the opposite. Several respondents in New York and elsewhere mentioned September 11th as the turning point away from premium wines.

You also felt that value and price were your guests’ most important factors in choosing a wine in general, followed by varietal – another reason domestic wines still have an advantage over many Old World producers. Food pairing considerations and familiarity with the producer also figured prominently at 18% each. The latter, taken together with prestige at 10%, shows how important branding is for today’s producers; well-known names continue to have impressive inertia in the market. A perhaps depressing statistic for those of you who work the floor a lot: only 6% felt that a description of the wine was an important factor in a guest’s decision. But those that disagree with the statistic are passionate about it; one respondent writes “Story. You can sell anything if you have a great story!” And another felt that his guests want to know “ Does the wine give you that tingly feeling all over?;” it’s hard put that – “the X factor,” as he calls it – into a chart.

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Related Links:
  • Ask the Sommelier
  • Wine Collectors and Restaurants
  • Notes From The Floor
  • Bar Chefs
  • ...Published: January 2005