Monday, August 18, 2008

Sommelier and Masseuse - Specialists for Some

There is a very interesting article in the August 31, 2008 edition of Wine Spectator concerning people's expectations and use of sommeliers, wine service and wine with food generally.

I think there is a lot to be learned by the luxury cruise lines not only as to what is expected, but what is perceived as acceptable. I also have some thoughts about wine service on premium and mass market lines. Bottom Line: The Cruise Lines Have It Wrong...but not as you might think.

My starting point is that as to "most restaurants" 52% of the Wine Spectator respondents feel wine service is only Fair and a mere 1% believe same to be Excellent. I pause and wonder if we all have been the victims of marketing...the customers by being encouraged to have false expectations and restaurants by being unable to reasonably and economically provide excellent wine service.

With that underwhelming start, I then noted that 84% do not want the sommelier to taste their wine and 57% said a sommelier or wine steward's presence isn't even needed. That left me wondering if they should simply be omitted until they really know their craft or are used only in restaurants that have a true wine following. What stumps me a bit is that 81% of the people (including many of the 57% who don't need them) believe the advice they have been given by their wine steward is Good or Excellent. Maybe it is just that we can live with or without them, but they are nice to have around.

As my final initial observation, I note that on land 71% spend $75 or less on average for a bottle of wine (26% less then $50) and a whopping 73% dine at restaurants with a serious wine list only once a month. As to the wine's value, more are concerned with having an interesting variety (63%), than good value (10%) or, necessarily, good compatibility with food (24%).

Relating this to the luxury cruise experience, it leaves me believing that most passengers are not going to be spending a fortune on wine, but want a wine waiter (not a sommelier or wine steward) to give them good advice and much prefer a variety of wines either poured by the glass (and 91% do purchase premium wines by the glass on land) or in the wine list. What most passengers do not need, and will not miss, is "The Show".

There are some, however, that do want The Show and do want premium wines...with a sommelier that knows what he is talking about. They are willing to pay extra for this service (as 43% say they tip 20% on the wine and 42% say they tip 15%)...and remembering that only 10% felt price was important.

This leaves me believing that for the luxury cruise lines a true sommelier should be treated as a speciality; like a masseuse. It is a service that a passenger can avail him/herself of if they are willing to pay for it, but as with a spa in general, there are many aspects that can be utilized as no or less additional charge.

Let's put this into play: Mr. and Mrs. Jones are on a 14 day cruise which includes their anniversary. Each evening wine waiters offer the selected wines (chosen to compliment the food being served) and are knowledgeable enough to briefly explain the wines, offer a tasting and, if necessary, offer the pre-selected alternatives again with brief explanations. (Remember this actually satisfies 57% of wine involved passengers and also appeases quite a large portion of the 43% that do want some assistance.) This will undoubtedly satisfy the Jones for most evenings. But for that special evening they want to spurge, so the sommelier - with the attendant value incorporated into the wine's price - provides a full service.

To be sure, the Jones may want to upscale their wine experiences after having the sommelier and wonderful wines, but just like with the spa, they have the choice of spending extra on another massage or wine experience. This is, of course, the name of the game for the cruise lines: Onboard Revenue.

My point is rather than having a bunch of faux wine stewards who really know nothing about wine putting off 84% of the people who do not want them to taste the wine or the 57% who think the whole thing is unimportant, have wine waiters with decent wines and the vast majority will be happy. Further, by taking pressure off of the true sommeliers from having to explain the supposed nuances of that "wonderful" White Zinfandel , they can provide a much higher quality service to those willing to pay for it...and generate greater onboard revenue to those willing to spend $100+ bottle rather than those spending less the $50.

As for the premium and mass market lines, I would strongly urge that the efforts in the dining room be made to improving the wine list - with quality wines and readable, understandable, explanation of the wines - to go along with the elimination of wine stewards and sommeliers (as some have already done). I am tired of the faux sommelier being overworked and having to wait 30 minutes for an ordinary bottle of wine. Serve it and let me enjoy my selection!

That said, I would have a true sommelier available in the upscale speciality restaurants...with it being an option...unless the cost of the sommelier is included in the additional cost of the dinner. Having a faux sommelier undercuts that premium experience which those willing to pay the premium probably are going to expect when they see the guy in the fancy jacket and vest. Remember: As shown, most are quite happy - even content - with a solid wine list and their own knowledge.

As a final thought: For those who insist on The Show for a $35 bottle of wine, please remember that when you go to the spa, you don't get a massage for free; and the other passengers really should have to have their massage or wine experience compromised because of your false expectation. However, if you want The Show, for a mere $50 extra you can have it. (Hint, Hint.)

That, however, is not an insult to those wanting The Show, but rather a warning to the cruise lines and restaurants: Please reeducate yourselves and your customers. You are doing a disservice to your passengers, to your actually trained sommelier and to your bottom line.