Went to a wine bar in Pasadena, Calif., last night with some friends. Something annoying happened. Some might find it amusing, but I think it’s not cool. And it gives sommeliers a bad name. Moreover, I would have thought more of the service at Vertical, which is a wine bar and restaurant located one story above street level. It’s had some good reviews and has a good wine list with plenty of interesting bottles for the money.
Anyway, we didn’t want to blow a bundle on bottle, and everyone wanted to drink Italian, so I decided on a 2001 Carmignano from Pratesi. It was about $30 a bottle on the list. The vintage was excellent in the region, and the producer makes excellent wines. So bingo. I couldn’t remember what I scored it. (I just looked in my database on the computer and it got 90 points!) So it was a good choice.
The bored girl behind the bar looked sort of annoyed that we ordered the wine. I guess she wanted to go home because there were only a handful of people in the bar and it was around 11 pm. She brought the wine and glasses (which smelled of some sort of cleaning fluid), opened the wine and served it.
It smelled of slightly cooked fruit with a light musty character. It wasn’t corked, but it seemed off. The palate was worse. It was disjointed, acidic and flat. It definitely was a bad bottle.
I was polite and said to her that we thought it was a bad bottle and would like to try another one.
‘I will have to talk to the sommelier about this,” as if we were naughty school children who had spoken out of turn. She walked down to the other end of the bar and telephoned the “on duty” sommelier. She had a short conversation with him.
She returned and proclaimed, ‘The sommelier says that that is the character of the wine, so you might want to make a different choice. If you order another bottle of the same wine, you will have to pay for it.”
I sort took a double take. Then I had a smile and thought it was sort of amusing. That’s the character of the wine? I thought to myself. I told her that we would be happy to take our chances and try another bottle of the Carmignano.
The second bottle was beautiful, with dried cherry, spice and floral character on the nose and palate. We had it decanted and it opened up into a beautiful Sangiovese. It had nothing to do with the first bottle.
But the damage had been done. She and her sommelier managed to mar our experience at what appears to be a very good wine bar. And her sommelier is the first person I have ever seen who can taste and make a judgment on a faulty bottle over the phone!
I finally spoke to the sommelier about 20 minutes later. He came down from his chamber. I told him that I worked for the magazine and that I tasted most of the Italian wines and that I didn’t think the first bottle was “the character of the wine.” He didn’t seem to care. No big deal ...
We drank a warm bottle of 2003 Pio Cesare Barolo after the Carmignano, and left after paying. The wines were a very good value off the list, but it's a shame about the rest of the experience at Vertical.
Maybe they should change the name to Horizontal, because they are clearly asleep at the wheel?
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