Wine Time: What To Do When Fine Wine Service Is Really Bad?

Categories: Wine Time

tastevin.jpg
Photos via La Fondation des Amis de l'Art Culinaire.
A tastevin or "wine taster" is the traditional vessel used by sommeliers to taste wine. Made out of silver or other precious metal, it is intended to offer the purest expression of its contents, although today it is generally used only ceremonially.
Historically, a sommelier was a cellar master who managed a wine collection. He -- and I say he because in the pre-sexual-revolution era, the sommelier was always male -- tracked and tallied the sums of wine (originally stored in cask and later in bottle).

Today, the word is used loosely to denote nearly anyone who serves wine in a restaurant, although the Court of Master Sommeliers submits applicants to a rigorous program of written, performance, and tasting exams before admitting would-be "Master Sommeliers" to the prestigious guild (currently, to my knowledge, there are five Master Sommeliers working in Texas).

So what do you do when you a sommelier hasn't done an effective job of counting the wines in her or his cellar?

tastevin 2.jpg
I faced this dilemma the other night at Ristorante Cavour (called Houston's "best Italian restaurant" by the Houston Press in 2010) at the Hotel Granduca off of Post Oak, where I dined with a colleague.

I had tried to order three bottles of white wine from the wine list, only to be told that none were available. My insalata mista, made from store-bought mesclun, was only getting warmer, and our amuse-bouche was a distant memory when our first course arrived. But there was still no white wine in our glasses. Forty-five minutes would pass before my dining companion and I had a glass of white wine on the table.

Wine director and Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winner Jeremie Heng had already been to our table twice. But after bottle number two did not appear, he had seemed to disappear.

Finally, with the fourth bottle we attempted to order, we hit a winner -- a 2010 Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray -- and the bright acidity and steely minerality of the Chenin Blanc were delicious with my corzetti (a classic disc-shaped pasta of Liguria) topped with pesto and a grilled langoustine. We also enjoyed a fantastic bottle of COS amphora-aged Nero d'Avola from Sicily with our main courses -- a bottle that we snagged on the first go-around.

Oddly, we didn't see the sommelier again until the end of the evening, when he presented me with the check for the wine bill (my companion paid for the meal; I paid for the wine). I couldn't help but tell him that I was surprised that he charged me for the bottle of white wine. Especially in a fine dining venue like this one, I would have imagined that any self-respecting sommelier would be embarrassed by the oversight. I imagined he would offer us a digestif or a glass of Champagne. An aged Armagnac, perhaps? He just grimaced and walked away. I made sure to leave a generous tip because I didn't want the servers to be punished for his slipshod, spotty (literally!) list.

And when I was leaving, he called me over and said, "Sir, please have a look at the wine list." He pointed to the fine print on the bottom of the first page. It read: "All wines subject to availability."

Why write a wine list, I thought to myself, if you don't plan to update it? Why not just tell the patrons which wines are available a voce?

In my opinion (and in my experience), he should have done the following:

1. When it became apparent that the first bottle was not available, he should have offered to sell us a higher-quality bottle for the same price.

2. When the second bottle didn't arrive, he should have sent over a complimentary glass of white or sparkling wine so that we at least had some wine to pair with the food we had already been served.

3. When the third bottle didn't arrive, he should have comped the fourth bottle I ordered.

Is this the beginning of a wine lover/restaurant goer bill of rights?

Next week, I'll follow up by asking top Texas sommeliers how they would have handled the situation.



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David
David

Not a wine expert by any stretch, but always have wine with dinner (and occasionally with lunches) out.  Biggest gripe -  a restaurant showing the wine as vintage xxxx on the wine list, and presenting vintage xxxy for consumption.  Happens very often, even at well respected, locally owned establishments that use in-house printed lists or highlight two or three wines complementing that night's specials.  Most of the time I could not tell you which is expected to be the better vintage, but it smacks of bait and switch, or at the least, unconcern for what is being offered. 

Foodandwine247
Foodandwine247

Curious to know what you think about having wine lists on IPads, where in theory, the lists can be updated with the click of a mouse... no need to re-print entire lists.

John C
John C

Re iPad lists, I find the one at Brasserie 19 hard to use.  I find that I can't "see" as many wines at the same time as on most printed lists (of course, a really long printed list with 4 pages of each type of wine has a similar experience to an iPad).   In other words, you can't "cast your eye" over a whole section or between sections, or really get a "feel" for the range of prices at a glance, etc.

There is some neat sorting that you can do on an iPad, bringing up all sauvignon blancs from different countries, while a printed list might be organized by country, stuff like that.Maybe I just need more practice.Also, I have often seen other people's finger prints on the iPads I get at Brasserie 19 and that is kind of gross.  I prefer to not see the germs on a printed menu!

Satterfi
Satterfi

I can attest from first hand experience that the wine list at this establishment was designed to earn a wine spectator acknowledgement and was never going to be supplied to patrons. Furthermore, the "sommelier" is not a trained Somme and is not accredited from any program.

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Mad Doc
Mad Doc

Heading to Houston next month, with a dinner party of 6.  I will go back to Tony Vallone.  He has never disappointed since I lived there 92-95.  I wanted to try this new joint, but thanks for the warning.

Frischeluft
Frischeluft

92-95? not sure how those vintages would rate for Tony's; was Bruce McMilian the chef then? Or maybe Mark Cox? Anyway, I know that Robb Walsh reviewed Tony's after that and his recounting of the wine service in the review was one thing that kept us in stitches about the vaunted Tony's. There are equally good choices nowadays here: Da Marco, L'Oliver, Mark's....these three come to mind and each is helmed by former worker bees of Mr. Vallone.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Great post, Jeremy! I met Jeremie at a recent dinner at Ristorante Cavour, and found him knowledgeable and gracious. We looked briefly at the wine list and left the selection up to him, however, so he was the one who ultimately chose the wine for us, not the other way around.

It seems so strange to me, having met him, that he would disappear completely after the second bottle, only to reappear at the end, and then later point out the "subject to availability" factor. I am not a sommelier, but logically this is what I would have done:

1) If I went down to the cellar and found the bottle unavailable, I would have chosen a couple of similar bottles from the cellar, brought them back to the table (instead of coming back empty handed), and offered them as alternate choices. If that did not suit, I would have brought back the wine list and suggested other bottles that I knew to be in stock, rather than risk the possibility of you choosing another out-of-stock bottle.

2) If you didn't choose the selections I brought back, opting for something from the wine list instead, before going to get the second bottle, I would have sent over complimentary glasses to make sure you all had something to drink.

3) If I was out of stock a Second time, I would have brought back a higher priced alternate, and offered to serve it at the same price as the the one selected. 

4) If that was declined, and I had to go back to the cellar AGAIN, and had to come back without the selection you chose AGAIN, then at this point, I would have brought back a bottle that I knew you would enjoy based on your selection, and offer to pour it comped.

Can't wait to read your next post on how other somms would have handled this.

James A. Watkins
James A. Watkins

Mai and Vanessa are completely correct, I think that the misconception of us as Sommeliers is that we are stuffy, and arrogant.  This happens when we forget the first rule that the Court (or any other educational entity you follow) teaches us . . .service.  A sommellier is a function of service, just like a bus boy or the dishwasher.  If there are no dishes to plate your courses, does the chef send you a spoonful of something to get you started!?  Absolutely.  The unfortunate situation you ran into is something I try to teach my staffs commonly, in our business, perception is reality, and turning a poor experience around is crucial.  There is no bottle of wine on a list that is worth losing a guest for life, and in your case, they may have lost several thousand.  I will say that in Jeremie's defense, we have no idea the financial status of the restaurant, printing can be extremely expensive, but "subject to availability" is akin to the "I said it with all due respect" line in Talladega Nights.

Vanessa Trevino Boyd
Vanessa Trevino Boyd

Rule #1: 86s happen throughout the course of an evening, especially at places with very limited storage space, but even at places with lots of storage space.  However, Rule #2:  Wine should always be down before the food arrives.  There is nothing more disappointing than your oysters arriving before your Champagne does. 

Chris
Chris

In the age of Yelp where everyone "loves!!!" or "hates!!!" a restaurant, its refreshing to read an intelligent and reasonable critique from an experienced diner.  I had a similarly annoying experience while in Scottsdale once at  Michael Mina. Despite being part of an acclaimed restaurant group and the manager having worked at their flagship in San Francisco, they were completely off-base in service and positively obtuse in the face of an informed critique of their dysfunction.  As someone who eats well and travels a lot, its my experience that service is almost always good at these kinds of places...but on the rare occasion that its not, its best to make an articulate complaint to management/floor captain and then happily take your business elsewhere if the experience isn't resolved satisfactorily.  There are too many good meals to be eaten out there...even in Houston, lol.

Londinium
Londinium

We dined at a fine restaurant in London, (Harvey Nichol's Prism) late one night and the first three labels our group ordered were not in stock.  When we settled on a label, all of the bottles served (3 I think) were comped by a profusely apologetic sommelier.  All of this was done and wine poured before we ordered.  That's how it's done and why we always return when we can.

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Andrew Howells
Andrew Howells

As a sommelier myself, it upsets me when those who are 'well regarded' in the business forget some of the first lessons we are all supposed to learn - those about proper service and being prepared.

I recently had a similar experience, though not nearly as bad, at a very well known fine dining restaurant in DC. After not writing down or repeating back the name of the wine I ordered - a very nice Gruner - which I specifically said I wanted to pair with our first course - the server came back once to clarify which wine I wanted, once to tell me they were out of it, and then a third time to tell me the next bottle I ordered wasn't cold. Frustrated, I asked it to be chilled rather than be forced to look for yet a third bottle, something I can do in five minutes if needed. But, ten minutes later we were almost done with our first course when the lukewarm wine was served. It had obviously just gone into ice, but not a water bath. I asked why the server had fired our first course when there was so much confusion with the wine and she said something like, 'we just send the order right away and the food comes out when it's ready.'

The the whole 'warm' bottle experience was repeated when I ordered a bottle of dessert wine. Truly frustrating, considering I spent more on wine than on food that evening. They may have a nice list, but the preparation, training and wine service was amature at best. I never got so much as an apology. It was more like I was being punished for ordering the 'wrong' wines.How can you call yourself a sommelier if you can't so much as make certain your wines are at correct serving temperature before dinner service on a Friday night?

Ribalding
Ribalding

 You, sir, are the 57th reason waiters flip out and start throwing lemon wedges. 

Ass.

"Amature".  Fuck yourself.

Ocassiuso
Ocassiuso

I agree with #2 and possibly #3, but never #1.  A restaurant is not a used car lot, and haggling is not encouraged.  That said, while wines will run out, the server or sommelier should know what's available before approaching the table.  And making guests wait drinkless until after the first course has arrived is inexcusable.  

Kennedye2
Kennedye2

Like this post, kudos kiddo.

I see a lot of places decorating their walls or marketing materials with the Wine Spectator's 'Award of Excellence' or some such bj. I wonder if the pursuit of such awards doesn't drive some aspirational somms to compile a wine 'on paper' as a PR exercise, or just wishful thinking, and then doing what Heng did/didn't do for you. 

If so, it's just a cynical bait and switch.

Kennedye2
Kennedye2

*wine list* on paper, I mean

John
John

I am curious as to how much tip you leave on a wine-only bill? Can you share what "generous" was and also what "normal" is. Some friends tell me not to tip 20% on wine, but just at $10 or $15 for the wine service. Thanks in advance.

John
John

"add" should have been the word, not "at"

Ribalding
Ribalding

 If you are kind and don't treat the somm like a slave, no right-minded "wine dude" would ever be angry with a 10% gratuity for legitimately quality wine service.

Alas, I am not named Emily Post.  I don't know the "rule" on such things.

Stusnow1
Stusnow1

I am of the opinion that there are several "fine dining" establishments that publish wine lists with some sort of recognition in mind, like a mention in the phoney baloney "Wine Spectator" or some other "pay to play" rag.

Annie
Annie

Restaurants should stock what the chef & wine steward likes to go with his or her food. Huge wine lists are so yesterday. If you can't maintain your wine inventory or sell what's on your list....why bother with a printed wine list at all? Why bother with a staff who can't sell what's on your list in the first place? Arrogant & annoying. 

Tara Burkholder
Tara Burkholder

Most really good restaurants these days, it seems, print menus in house and are able to update food & wine menus daily.  I question any menu that doesn't change daily, in regards to the food's freshness & the quality of the wine & food.  But that's just me.

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

Nice post, Jeremy.  I am having trouble believing that it even happened at that restaurant. While you were only writing about the wine, the incident(s) says something about the entire operation.

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

I would think a wine menu would be just as relevant as the food menu in terms of availability. It would save a lot of embarrassment on the part of both owner and employees of the establishment. Why should customers suffer the frustration of having to guess what is available when they visit.

Concerning how the MIA bottles were handled. I don't think it is at all out of the question to expect a complimentary glass or two while you waited as long as you did. While I do agree the somm should have been hasty to admit his issue instead of having you wait, I don't know if it is right to expect a free bottle after being told your selection/selections was/were unavailable.

And stopping you afterwards to read the caveat to the wine list, I think that may well have been the straw that threw me all medieval on his ass.TA

Vik
Vik

Completely agree with your suggestions for what should have happened. Great post!

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

I know that ridiculously large wine lists like they have at Pappas steakhouse, no way they have every one of those wines, or even most.  But they will always suggest something else.  Usually more expensive.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm equally curious to hear what your somm friends would say about the "corked" Pinot Noir incident I told you about the other day...

Samantha Dugan
Samantha Dugan

I think even calling you over, as you were leaving, to show you the policy on the menu was beyond petty and actually pretty arrogant for someone that doesn't have their stuff together enough to keep their list updated. Wow. 

Eric Henao
Eric Henao

Don't forget to get the opinion of Antonio Gianola… "@AntonioGianola" he's not with any place right now, but he FULLY understands what should have been done in your situation.

Matthew
Matthew

there's a big difference between one selection being out, and three. what's the point of the menu if they don't have what's printed on it?

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