In the wake of last week's post here at Wine Time ("What To Do When Fine Wine Service Is Really Bad?"), I wrote to some of the top sommeliers in Texas asking them how they would have handled the situation. (Background: I ordered three bottles of white wine from a list at one of Houston's top restaurants only to be told that all three had been "86'd"; by the time wine arrived at my table, food had already been served; when I expressed my disappointment to the sommelier at the end of the meal, he responded by pointing out the fine print on his list, "all wines subject to availability.")
Here's what they had to say:
The situation is such an easy fix! For starters, if the somm is the wine buyer and therefore the one who orders the wine, it's inexcusable to have three wines ordered that were O[ut] O[f] S[ervice]. All he needed to do was recommend two or three alternatives for you to choose from. If you didn't like those options, then he should be able to recommend 25 more that might work -- it's his list right?!
1. I would have recommended several options I knew were in stock. 2. I would have comped a glass of bubbles or white, which I had in my BTG program for you to drink while you waited for the fourth bottle. 3. If it had gotten to the point where the only available white was your 4th bottle, I would have comped the meal!
Never, ever, would I consider pulling you aside to show the note at the bottom of the wine list that says "subject to availability." That is such a rub-it-in-your face move and I am truly astounded he pulled it!
A second sommelier added:
Proactivity is key in the restaurant business. Proactivity on the part of the restaurant in creating a well-defined position with clear goals, then creating an environment to accomplish those goals. Proactivity on the part of managers in hiring a candidate that has all of the qualifications of this well-defined position. Proactivity on the part of the sommelier in crafting systems that allow a well-functioning program. Proactivity on the part of the server and sommelier when a breakdown in these systems occur. No matter how much one prepares, the "perfect storm" scenario will happen. And, this is exacerbated if any of the points mentioned above is not accomplished. How one handles the breakdown is key. In such a case, I would advise the sommelier to be proactive in returning to the table after the first bottle of 86'd wine and offering a selection of wines in a similar style and price point that the sommelier knows are in stock. This would prevent the guest's frustration both of repeatedly selecting 86'd wines and of not having wine for their appetizer. In addition, this allows the sommelier to demonstrate virtuosity in the use of their list.
There were also some great comments on the post, including one by one of Houston's leading sommeliers Vanessa Treviño Boyd (Philippe) who noted: "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."
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And on a separate note, one of the sommeliers who answered my query pointed out that there are now seven Master Sommeliers working in Texas (and not five as I reported). Devon Broglie (a wine buyer for Whole Food Market), Craig Collins (a sales manager for Dalla Terra Imports), Barbara Werley (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Dallas), and Melissa Monosoff (Director of Wine for Pioneer Beverage Company) are all recent inductees in the Court of Master Sommeliers and all are currently working in the state.
I'm currently traveling in Italy where I just attended Vinitaly, the country's annual wine trade fair. I'll be taking next week off from my duties here at Wine Time but I'll be back the week after Easter.