Proper etiquette for tipping your wine sommelier may differ depending on where you are, but the general rule is to tip them privately and not assume they will receive a portion of the waiting staff’s tips. A 20% tip is a good baseline, but in the end, quality service is still the determining factor.
They say that etiquette is simple: if you’re unsure, do what you want and act like it’s right. Unfortunately, that does not work with wine etiquette, which is steeped in centuries of tradition. Your etiquette reveals a lot about you; how you tip the serving staff and sommeliers can win you friends or ruin your reputation. So, how should you tip your wine sommelier?
How Sommeliers Get Paid and Tipped
It’s never good to assume things, yet it’s easy for us to think we know how tipping works. In the USA, it’s pretty standard that a sommelier will receive a tip along with the serving staff, and tipping on the total bill will ensure that the sommelier gets a cut.
The fact that it’s common doesn’t mean it happens everywhere. In most European countries and the more upscale establishments in the US, the sommelier is not regarded as part of the serving staff, and the common practice is what’s known as the “green handshake.”
Restaurants, at least the ones that need a full-time sommelier, will pay professional sommeliers a salary. Certified Level 2 sommeliers can get paid around $80,000 per year. This is a mark above most of the serving staff, who are paid much less, if at all.
For that reason, many restaurants do not count the sommeliers as part of the serving staff, and thus, they do not share the tip with them.
Other restaurants share a percentage of the evening’s wine sales with the sommelier. Though it makes sense, it’s not always in the customer’s best interests as some of the less honest sommeliers may take advantage and recommend a more expensive wine that doesn’t necessarily fit your tastes as perfectly as a cheaper bottle would have. That’s why tipping is still vital in this case.
The point is that you should never assume that your overall tip will be enough to cover the sommelier as well. So, how do you know for sure?
Ask them. It’s perfectly acceptable etiquette to ask the sommelier or, preferably, management if the sommelier will receive a cut of the tip with the serving staff.
Common Sommelier Tipping Practice
Once you’ve determined that you must tip your sommelier separately, there are a few basic guidelines to follow:
The accepted baseline for a sommelier’s tip is 20%, and remember that this is on the price of the wine itself, not the total bill. Many prefer to keep it to a round number at approximately the correct percentage. Nothing says you’re stingy or unsophisticated as much as counting out coins to ensure you don’t tip one cent more than 20%, especially after paying $1,000 for fine wine.
Tipping is Still About Service
You have every right to tip less than 20% if you received sub-standard service. A sommelier should discuss your tastes with you before recommending a wine. A sommelier who grabs the first bottle that comes to mind did not do their job well, and this deserves a lower tip.
The same goes for exceptional service, though. If your sommelier went the extra mile to ensure you got the perfect wine, tipping more than 20% is also good practice.
Tip Them Privately
There’s a reason why it’s called the “green handshake.” Making a scene of tipping the sommelier is also regarded as bad etiquette. Even though most people will know what you do when you give the sommelier an awkward stuffy handshake at the end of the evening, it is still good taste.
Plan Ahead and Tip in Cash
Prepare for your tip by having more than enough cash in hand. Don’t add the sommelier’s tip to the bill when you’re paying with a credit card. If you are on a bit of a budget, remember to tell the sommelier how much you’re willing to spend on your wine before they make their recommendation. This lets you budget for the tip as well.
Tip With More Than Just Money
Note that this doesn’t mean “don’t tip with money.” The sommelier still deserves some cash in their pocket. But it’s also good practice to give them something more. For example, a widespread practice in Europe is leaving some wine in the bottle and telling the sommelier it’s for them, or perhaps (if the setting allows it) offering them a taste at the table.
Sommeliers are wine experts but often cannot afford to taste the oldest and best wines for themselves. Offering them the opportunity to sample the fruits of their suggestions will not only make you a new friend but will also help them make even better suggestions in the future, this time from personal experience.
Do You Tip a Sommelier at a Wine Tasting?
Most wine farms don’t expect you to tip the sommeliers, and some even outright forbid it. It’s a good idea to confirm these rules with the establishment’s management if there isn’t a clear sign indicating their policy regarding gratuities.
Many still prefer to slip the staff something, which shows good character. But remember that the management might have a good reason for not allowing it.
Should You Leave Some Wine For The Sommelier or Invite Them to Join You For a Glass?
This depends on the circumstances. Some establishments may not allow the sommelier to drink while working or socialize with the customers too much. The restaurant may also be busy, requiring the sommelier’s attention. Or you may be in a large group, making it complicated. In these cases, leave the sommelier some wine in the bottle.
However, if you are in a small, intimate setting, and the restaurant is quiet (and allows it), feel free to ask the sommelier if they would like to join you for a glass. Most will appreciate the gesture.
People who have worked in the service industry will know that sommeliers must endure eccentricities and strange requests with professionalism and flair. Showing them your appreciation with a decent tip and a friendly demeanor could improve their day. If you can afford a $1,000 bottle of wine, the least you can do is take good care of the one who recommended it.
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