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Know Your Sommeliers: Wayne Belding

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09/10/2023 From Geologist to Master Sommelier: Wayne Belding's Four-Decade Journey in Wine, Education, and Innovation

Wayne Belding, MS, is a distinguished figure in the world of wine, boasting a unique journey from geologist to oenophile. With over four decades of experience, he has contributed his expertise to local and national publications. In 1990, he achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the 13th American to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier Diploma examination. Since then, he has been actively involved in both teaching and examining at various levels within the Master Sommelier program. Wayne's passion for wine education has impacted countless sommeliers and industry professionals, having taught thousands over the years. Transitioning from a successful retail owner, he now dedicates his time to wine reviewing, judging competitions, and serving as a speaker at prominent wine events. Wayne is also a partner at Preferabli, a leading AI-driven personalization software for the wine and spirits industry. Additionally, he is the author of "Diving Into Wine," a comprehensive guide catering to wine enthusiasts and consumers alike.

Your current place of work

(mostly retired) winereviewonline.com

Tell us about yourself

I grew up in the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York in the town of Hyde Park - now the site of the Culinary Institute of America campus. Ironically, the Hudson Valley is a noted wine-growing area, although it was not when I was living there. I went to college in Binghamton, New York, and studied Geology. In the process of pursuing my academic requirements, I traveled across the U.S. to attend a geology field camp in Southern Oregon - now an AVA. I was enamored with the West and, after graduation, decided to move to Colorado. I took a job as a geologist and, for the first time, had enough income to go to better restaurants where I was handed a wine list that was a source of bewilderment. In self-defense, I decided to learn something about wine, so I would be able to make an informed choice when presented with a list. I began to attend wine tastings and became absorbed in all the aspects that influence the aroma and flavor of wine.

My geology job fell prey to the boom and bust cycle of the oil exploration business and, since I was becoming more and more interested in wine, decided to change careers. I began as a wine store employee and after a few years took a job as a sommelier for a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant in Denver. I became involved in the Master Sommelier program and passed the exam in 1990. In the interim, I had purchased the wine store where I formerly worked and was an owner for nearly 25 years.

Why did you want to become a sommelier?

As my wine knowledge increased, I was enthusiastic about the new wine discoveries I made and was eager to share these good wines with others. As a sommelier, I could transmit my enthusiasm for wine and guide customers to wines that would please their palates.

Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?

I would ask if they remember a particular wine they have liked and try to determine whether they prefer more savory or sweet tastes.

What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?

First of all, a sommelier must have a strong knowledge of wine, including the prominent aspects that define classic winemaking regions. Remember you are there to serve the customer. Use your knowledge to recommend wines that will satisfy a customer's taste and budget preferences.

Listen to your customer. With experience, empathy, and interpretative ability, you will be able to determine what characteristics of their wine selection are most important to them.

What methods do you use to grow wine sales - top line? Please explain with examples.

Staff training is essential. A single sommelier can not do it all. Give your wait staff the tools they need to sell. That can be staff tastings, demonstrating how to convey the attractive characteristics of specific wines, and which wines are particularly good matches for popular menu items.

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Buy strategically, know how you will sell a wine before you buy it for the restaurant. Make sure it fits a category that your customers will readily purchase.

Be flexible when creating and maintaining your wine list. There are always promotional opportunities offered by suppliers that can enhance your program. If you lock yourself into a pre-printed, fixed list, you cannot take advantage of those.

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

Communication is important. Let suppliers know what types of wines work best for your restaurant. They should inform you about upcoming promotions for key wine styles so you can plan to incorporate them into your wine program. Offer extra training for your staff to give them the stories behind the wines as well as tastings.

Can you share with us an example of a solid wine program?

One program I have admired for years is at Rustico Ristorante in Telluride, Colorado. It's nearly all Italian wines, but is very well selected and covers a broad range of styles and prices.

Image source: Wayne BeldingThe Rustico Ristorante in Telluride, Colorado

How do you self-learn and improve your skills?

Keep reading and tasting.

How do you elevate the guest experience?

Be hospitable. Let the guests know that you appreciate them and want to provide the best experience you can. Listen. Wine can be an intimidating subject for many guests so ask them about what they like before telling them what you like.

If local laws allow, give the guest a taste of a recommended wine. That reduces any anxiety they may have about making a wine selection. If you cannot offer a taste, bring the bottle to the table so it is less abstract than just a line on a list.

Be a storyteller. Every wine has a story and people are intrigued by the various aspects that make a given wine special.

Your favorite TV show right now?

Sports

An unforgettable wine experience for you - tell us the whole story!

The 1955 Carvalho, Ribeiro & Ferreira Vinho Tinto Garrafeira was an exotic discovery for a new wine aficionado decades ago. I was unfamiliar with Iberian wines and probably completely ignorant of Portuguese wines at that time. This wine was intriguing, however, because it had 2+ decades of age and an affordable price (around $25 equivalent today). Trying it was an education in tasting maturing red wine. The fruit was ripe, round, and spicy. The texture was plush and palate-filling. I was enchanted with the seamless complexity and sensuous style of the wine. There was little information on the label. It was likely a blend of varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barocca, and Touriga Franca among others, but it kindled a lifelong interest in sampling and enjoying the depth, complexity, and affordability of Portuguese wines.

What are the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?

Handling stemware by the bowl. This is admittedly mostly a personal pet peeve since a large majority of wine drinkers routinely handle glasses by the bowl.

Any favorite food and wine pairing suggestions for drinks enthusiasts?

Aged Madeira and sushi - surprisingly good

Your favorite book?

My favorite wine book is "The World Atlas of Wine", originally by Hugh Johnson and now by Johnson and Jancis Robinson. I have the original edition and many of the revised editions. Good maps enhance my understanding of wine regions.

Give us one good story that you remember of a customer and you.

There was a gentleman who stated that he did not like Italian wine. This is puzzling since Italian wine covers the entire spectrum of wine grapes and styles. However, it did indicate that his experience with Italian wines was not pleasant. I did present him with a proposal that he sample the wine I was recommending with no risk - I would take the wine back with no question if he did not like it. It turned out he did like it and would return and ask if I had any wine like that first revelatory bottle.

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