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Sommeliers Are Here to Help

There's an old joke about how if you don't know which bottle of wine to order in a restaurant, just pick the second-cheapest one on the menu.

Yes, you could do that, but if you're in the kind of restaurant that does not feature a drive-thru window, chances are there's a highly qualified professional that can help you make a selection that will please everybody at your table.

"If you're a novice or not, it's all about having an outstanding experience with your senses, and I'm here to make beverages approachable," says Evans Nowlin, a sommelier for a high-end seafood restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The title of sommelier—pronounced small-e-yay—is often shortened to "somm." Somms will help guests evaluate the house's (restaurant's) wine list and select a bottle or three to go with dinner.

I'm here to make beverages approachable.Evans Nowlin,

"My job gets thought of as a wine steward only, but we also have to pair (wine with food), so I feel like it's my job to know all the consumables," says Nowlin, who will use simple words (like 'fruit' or 'sweet') to assess what flavors her table is looking for. She will not, for example, suggest a steak and a Cabernet Sauvignon—"even though that's a wonderful pairing"—if a guest has hinted that they do not care for tannins.

Nowlin is highly comfortable working with those who are brand new to the world of wine and may not be familiar with some of the traditions, such as asking the head of the table to assess the quality of the cork by smelling it.

All kidding aside, as with the cork example above, chances are a quality veteran somm like Nowlin will have already smelled the cork and sampled the wine.

At any point, if you do not know what to do in any of these scenarios, don't be embarrassed. Go ahead and ask what to do, and if a somm is worth his or her salt, they will help you avoid any awkwardness. "By all means, I'm that buffer to read the guests' answers, their body language and make them feel comfortable so that they enjoy the experience."

Somms are also prepared for those guests who are well-versed in the wine world. "They know what they like and what they want, and many times they want little business from me, and that's great, too."

It's a very romantic, fascinating subject, and I am the conduit between figuring out what they want and what we have to offer.

As the daughter of a chef, Nowlin grew up around the restaurant business. She originally had no interest in becoming a sommelier because of a stereotype of pretentiousness, but a good friend, Sarah Carpenter, demonstrated how a somm could be knowledgeable but not make wine newbies uncomfortable in the process. "It's a very romantic, fascinating subject, and I am the conduit between figuring out what they want and what we have to offer," she said.

Many restaurants that offer a sommelier service have fairly expansive wine lists, so it can be intimidating for diners to try to narrow down all the selections. Most wine lists are organized by variety—red or white wines, and then further by the kind of grape—in ascending order of price.

"There is no better way to do it other than to ask, 'do you have a price range in mind,'" says Nowlin. "It's not realistic to suggest the most expensive wine in the house, because that's not good for the guest if that's all I'm pushing." It's just one more way that a new breed of somms are helping all guests enjoy their exploration of wine. "I ask it all the time, and I've never had anyone be uncomfortable with it."

Nowlin, like most sommeliers, has developed one primary goal in her 16 years in the industry. "I always want to keep the moment happy for them."