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How can I put this delicately?
I get treated like shit by sommeliers more often than I'd like to admit.
I guess I just have a face that screams wine idiot. It's hard to believe, but sadly, it's true.
As much as I hate to write this (and thankfully, there are many wonderful exceptions to this generalization), we are living in a nascent era of heightened wine awareness in this country when wine connoisseurship often trumps a spirit of hospitality.
I've had sommeliers refuse to serve me a bottle of wine because they "didn't think it was ready to drink" (why is it on their list then?).
I've had sommeliers refuse to take back a clearly defective bottle of wine (how could they know that I'm a wine professional myself and know how to sniff out a corked or cooked bottle?).
I've had misinformed sommeliers lecture me on the finer points of single-vineyard designations in Piedmont (how could they know that I've written extensively on the subject?).
To some extent, I can understand where they're coming from. They are bombarded every day by know-it-alls and would-be wine experts. They are "schooled" by people who spent a junior year abroad in Europe and think they know everything about wine (check out Dallas-based wine blogger Alfonso Cevola's recent post on People You'll Meet at a Winemaker Dinner). And they are assailed by guests who step into their restaurants convinced that the sommelier is going to try to rip them off.
The good news is that none of the episodes described above took place in Houston (although I have had one egregiously awful wine experience here thanks to a snotty sommelier). There are so many fantastic wine directors working in Houston today, and I can assure you that good wine at fair prices and great wine service are easy to find in our city.
The following rules of thumb by no means unlock the mystery of great wine service. But they do offer some guidelines that -- I hope -- will give you confidence in ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant.
This story continues on the next page.
Have reasonable expectations.
Don't expect fine-wine service at Applebee's. You won't get it. It's for the "Chard-Cab-Merlot-Malbec" crowd. Look for superior wine service in restaurants that offer it, and be tolerant when your server at your favorite Tex-Mex pours you a corked "Napa Cab" (just politely inform her/him and request a new bottle).
Do your homework.
Look at the wine list online if it's available. This is the best way to prepare for any fine-wine experience (I do this all the time). And when you're heading to a high-profile restaurant, look around online for a profile of the wine director. It's a great way to learn about the sommelier's interests and her/his list's focus.
Reflect beforehand on what you want to drink.
One of the biggest issues for diners and sommeliers alike is that many guests don't know what they want to drink. Don't be afraid to tell the sommelier what kind of wine you like (oaky, buttery Chardonnay? low-alcohol, traditional-style Nebbiolo?), and if you don't see any familiar wines on the list, ask the sommelier to pour you a taste of something she/he thinks you might like. That's part of what by-the-glass programs are for: Most sommeliers will be happy to "taste you on" a wine before serving it.
Set your price ceiling before you arrive at the restaurant.
Never be embarrassed to tell a sommelier how much you'd like to spend (I do this all the time as well). And don't forget that tax and gratuity need to be figured into the total bill.
Don't be afraid to question the fitness of a wine.
This is one of the stickiest subjects in fine-wine service (and it will be the subject of the next post in this series). Any sommelier who reacts rudely to a question of fitness shouldn't be in the business. Even when the guest is wrong about the "correctness" of a given wine, there's no excuse for rudeness.
Remember that sommeliers are people, too.
This is probably the most important element in a great restaurant experience. Think of your sommelier not as your servant, but as your dance partner. When you walk into a restaurant for the first time, the sommelier knows nothing about you (while you may know something about him). She/he has to gauge her/his approach to your table on your appearance and attitude. Just like a dance partner, your demeanor gives her clues as to what wine will work at your table.
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Remember that fine dining is always a wager and not a science.
I go out to eat a lot. And I eat in high-concept restaurants all over the country and in Europe. Fine dining is part of my livelihood, and is accounted for in my yearly budget. And I'll be the first to tell you that any given restaurant can have a bad night. And the same holds for wine to an even greater extent: Wine can be fragile and unpredictable, and as it evolves in the bottle, it can change radically. Sometimes things just don't work out the way you or your sommelier planned.
But when they do work out just right, it can be one of the most magical experiences of a lifetime. That's the fun of it all.
On deck for next week: How to evaluate the fitness of a wine, and how to send it back when it's not right.