There can be great inconsistencies in the quality of wine service provided by restaurants. There are no regulations regarding the quality or reliability of the information provided to patrons wanting to purchase wine to complement their meal.
In some establishments the wait staff is responsible for answering wine related questions and offering suggestions. Others will have a wine steward who may or may not be knowledgeable about wine and the selections they offer. In restaurants only offering a house red or house white, it probably doesn’t matter if staff doesn’t have a good understanding about wine. However, where there is a reasonably sized wine list, a knowledgeable wine server can be of great benefit.
A good restaurant wine server will not automatically try to upsell you on purchasing a more expensive wine. They should respect your desired price point. Your server should also not lecture you on what you should select. A good server will leave you feeling knowledgeable and provide you with options.
Generally speaking, your server should be able to assist you with 3 preferences: colour (red, white, rosé or sparkling), weight (richness), and price.
Some higher end restaurants will have a sommelier on staff. She or he is a trained and knowledgeable designated wine professional specializing in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. The role in fine dining today is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter.
A sommelier may be responsible for the development of wine lists, as well as the delivery of wine service and training for the other restaurant staff. Working along with the culinary team, they pair and suggest wines that will best complement each particular food menu item. This entails the need for knowledge of how food and wine, beer, spirits and other beverages work in harmony. A professional sommelier also works on the floor of the restaurant and is in direct contact with restaurant patrons.
If you get the opportunity to consult with a sommelier it can be a very rewarding and educational experience.
I have had both wonderful and terrible experiences with restaurant wine servers. However, it is the bad ones I tend to remember. Oncein a restaurant in Toronto I had selected a wine only to be told by my server that the varietal I selected was unreliable and very inconsistent from one bottle to the next. Instead, he suggested a wine considerably more expensive. Realizing that what I was being told was a complete fabrication and that he was only interested in upselling me, I was not swayed from my original decision which I did not regret in the least.
A good wine server or sommelier can be a valuable resource in helping you get the most out of your dining experience. The challenge is being able to identify the bad ones and dismiss them before they convince you to purchase a wine you don’t really want.