I, Guy

If pressed, Erik Liedholm will admit he is a sommelier, but he doesn't care to have everybody know it. He's not ashamed, you understand; but "what good is having a title if no one can pronounce it? If you have to call me something, how about 'wine guy'?" You can sympathize with Liedholm's position; American lips are ill-conditioned to pronounce the word sommelier, and even fluent Francophones would be hard put to explain how a 13th-century term for "mule driver" came to refer to someone in charge of the care and presentation of vinous and spirituous beverages in a restaurant. But his title is only the first of Liedholm's problems in putting drinks on the table at Bellevue's Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar. Many diners clench up at his very approach. Some grow apprehensive (Is this a test of good taste? Will I measure up?), others defensive (What, he doesn't think I can pick out a lousy glass of wine on my own?), still others downright competitive (I'll show him he can't intimidate me). So before he can get down to selling you your $8 glass of chardonnay, Liedholm and his ilk first have to put you at your ease, a task that calls for subtle observation. Does the party seem comfortable being here? If not, making them so is Task No. 1. Do they seem gregariously inclined or turned inward? If the latter, approach with caution. When the first words have been exchanged, what do they signal? Is your party inclined to chat or to cut to the chase? Is this table a democracy, or is someone clearly in charge? Is there, god forbid, competition for your attentions? Only after the social dynamic of the table becomes clear are you ready to get down to business: finding wine your customers will like at a price they'll be comfortable paying. For Liedholm and any other real professional, that latter condition is a sine qua non. Any good salesperson can maneuver a customer into spending more than they originally planned. But in the restaurant trade—unless in an all-tourist-all-the-time city like Vegas—you're cutting your own throat. A customer who feels stung, even for a few bucks, is not coming back—and tells friends not to come in the first place. Sure, there are sommeliers who look on patrons as sheep to be fleeced. But for every one like that, there are a dozen or more who really, truly aren't in it for the money; who love wine so much, they can't drink enough of it to sate their appetite; who experience vicarious joy at the look of surprise and sigh of pleasure a well-chosen glass of wine can elicit. You don't have to be afraid of the big bad sommelier; your happiness is what keeps them smiling. GET THIS The 2000 sauvignon blanc from Spokane's Arbor Crest contains just enough (20 percent) semillon to give it a real white-bordeaux character: You might even want to decant yours; not something you'd do for every $11 bottle of Washington wine. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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