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6 Things I Hate About Wine

Here's a full parade of my pet peeves with the world of vino
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 20, 2013 11:00am ET

My birthday isn't far off, and maybe I'm just getting ornery in my old age, but I've been thinking about my wine pet peeves lately. Wine Spectator editors pondered theirs in the Jan. 31 – Feb. 28 issue of the magazine, but I left out a few of mine. Here's a fleshed-out, even crankier list.

Wine List Extremes: Eating at a restaurant that's passionate about wine is a pleasure. A good list reveals the excitement of the wine buyer or sommelier over a particular region or variety, or the right matches for the chef's cuisine. It's wine lists at extreme ends of the spectrum that get on my nerves, both the "safe" lists, stocked with the predictable restaurant favorites, and the overly precious and obscure wine menus that seem to exist solely to prove how cool the sommelier is. Yawn.

Mysteries by the Glass: Do you always feel confident that you're getting the glass of wine you ordered at a restaurant? I don't. When the server arrives at the table, just about anything could be in that glass. Instead, servers should bring the bottle and pour the glass at the table. Better still; offer the customer a taste before pouring the glass. Let them sample before they buy.

Stale Pours: I know wines by the glass are a moneymaker for restaurants, but is it too much to ask for a fresh and vibrant wine? Too often the reds are bereft of fruit and the whites smell like the cooler: Either preserve the wine or regularly open a new bottle.

Old Shelf Talkers: Shelf talkers are those small signs on retail shelves that tell you about a wine, whether it's a score or a descriptor. You have to read them carefully because sometimes the wine mentioned on the shelf talker is a vintage or two older than the actual wine on the shelf. Whether the retailer is trying to be deceptive or he's just lazy, it's hard to know.

Alcohol Level Outrage: Obsessing over the alcohol content of California wine is approaching Howard Hughes levels of paranoia. California wines don't taste like Bordeaux or Chianti or Alsace or even Mendoza. Get over it. As it matures, every wine region finds its own terroir, its own style and balance. Instead of expecting every region to fit a narrow formula, wine lovers should challenge their comfort zone, or at least give the criticism a rest and stick to the regions they prefer.

Blind Advice: A good retailer or sommelier should be more interested in pleasing the customer than educating them. Learning about new wines is part of the fun of wine, but it should never become didactic. Too often retailers or sommeliers fail to ask even the most basic idea of the sort of wine the customer enjoys before reeling off recommendations. Whenever I'm asked to recommend a wine, I play the reporter and ask a few questions. Certainly I like to turn people onto new wines and regions, but my advice is never blind.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  February 20, 2013 12:28pm ET
I have been seeing a recent trend of the wines by the glass brought to the table and poured directly from the bottle. One is also allowed to try it before accepting. This is a good trend! I am amazed how few restaurants have quality control for their by the glass pours. Dating when the wine when it was opened and having it periodically sampled by the staff would be a positive step.
John I Hanbury
Hattiesburg, MS —  February 20, 2013 1:51pm ET
A corollary to the "wine list extreme" is the "no depth wine list." This is a restaurant that has an extensive wine list, but it only carries one bottle of many of the wines. Whenever I have a large group, they run out of the selected wine after one bottle. Now, before I order a wine, I have to ask whether they have more than one bottle.
Perry Rankin
Healdsburg, CA 95448 —  February 20, 2013 5:28pm ET
Can I get an AMEN!
William L Campbell
Winter Park, FL, USA —  February 20, 2013 5:34pm ET
My favorite restaurant has a very good wine list, and it rotates periodically based on the chain's MS's experiences and tastings around the world. All wines are poured from the bottle into the glass AT THE TABLE! I've never run into a "stale" by-the-glass wine when I buy it that way, and the wines are stored in a chateau at approximately 58 degrees F. That's why I go back there so often!!! :-)
Honolulu, Hawaii —  February 21, 2013 1:52am ET
My restaurant wine list peeves, which commonly occur, are the following scenarios:

1. The waiter/sommelier says, "Sorry, we are sold out
of the wine you ordered."

2. I say, "Excuse me. That's a different vintage than what's on the wine list."
T Jeffrey Addison
Wilton, CT —  February 21, 2013 12:04pm ET
I'm with you on the "old shelf talkers". I am a bit more cynical in that I am SURE they are meant to deceive. A national wine "super" store recently opened up nearby, before heading over I checked out it's inventory on line. I was interested in about a dozen of the wines they said they had on hand. 6 of those had out-dated tags, 2 were for vintages that were 2 removed from the current release. This was a brand new store so laziness or ignorance could not used as excuses.
Jesse Grimmer
Trophy Club (DFW), TX, USA —  February 21, 2013 3:38pm ET
COSTCO will have a tag that says, "this 2009 wine received a 92 by...". When you look in the bin all of the bottles are 2011.

White wines over chilled are a big pet peeve.
Doug Frost
San Francisco, CA, USA —  February 21, 2013 3:38pm ET
I agree with most of this list. I somewhat disagree with Mr. Fish's take on alcohol levels, however. Some producers seem to be increasing the alcohol level in their wines for reasons that have nothing to do with what's appropriate for their particular terroir and seem more to do with what they perceive as being fashionable in the marketplace.

I first noticed this trend in the early 2000s with California producers, particularly in reds such as Cabernet and Zinfandel. Then it expanded to the Pinot Noir producers and that's when it became alarming. Not all, but many wines with an alcohol level over 14.5% are just too darn hot. You smell and taste the alcohol when you should be savoring the wine. More recently I've even seen some French producers cross the 15% line. Yikes!

These are not producers who are only now finding the right alcohol level for their terroir, they're succumbing to a fad for forward, easily approachable wines. Hopefully cooler heads, and palettes, will eventually prevail.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  February 21, 2013 6:47pm ET
By the glass wine served at "room temperature" when the room is 70 degrees. Even if the bottle is fresh, the wine tastes flabby & the alcohol hot. It amazes me how many restaurants just keep the reds right up there on the bar. When I see that, I ask about the beers.
Diana Barone
Dix Hills, NY, USA —  February 24, 2013 5:05pm ET
I have run out of fingers to count on for the times the bottle brought to the table is the wrong (and often a poorer) vintage. Getting very tired of it!
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  February 25, 2013 9:15am ET
It also makes me a little crazy when restaurant wine lists don't include the vintages for what's on offer. With alarming regularity, servers don't know what the vintages are, so we have to wait while they go track down someone who does. All of which delays the process of ordering and enjoying some wine.

And I completely agree with you, Tim, on the outdated shelf talkers. The average consumer shopping in a retail store is easily fooled, and like Jeffrey, I have a difficult time believing it's accidental. I frequently caution other shoppers that what they're about to put in their cart is not what is reviewed on the shelf talker. It earns me gratitude from them and derision from employees in equal measure.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  February 25, 2013 1:21pm ET
One of my biggest peeves is definitely the "outdated shelf talkers".

Do you think it's just a co-incidence that they always seem to show higher scores (NEVER lower scores) than the vintage that happens to be sitting on the shelf?
Homer Cox
Virginia —  February 26, 2013 12:02pm ET
Old Shelf Talkers- I complained to an employee about this at a large Northern Virginia retailer who is the worst in displaying accurate tags. He couldn't understand my problem.
Brandon Redman
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  February 26, 2013 1:29pm ET
Love it! I'll add this frustration: when a server keeps topping off my glass, after having just a few sips, in an obvious attempt to get us to "finish" the bottle quickly and hopefully order more.
Andrew Hopkins
Massachusetts —  February 27, 2013 12:45am ET
I highly disagree with your pet peeve of wine list extremes containing only obscure and precious wines. There are far too many restaurants and wine bars out there that don't think outside the box. Isn't this what many of us go to restaurants and wine bars for? It's a breath of fresh air to go into a restaurant and see nothing I recognize, give the staff a few examples of wines and traits I like, and feeling that discovery factor again, I wouldn't be experience if it wasnt for that restaurant. Maybe I'll like it, maybe I'll be blown away by it, maybe I'll think its a dud, but I tried something new and for that opportunity they provide me, I'm thankful not resentful.
Bruce Bertsch
San Diego, CA —  February 27, 2013 2:58pm ET
I don't understand wine experts who spend an entire column, as did one in my local newspaper, explaining how to properly pair wines and then add at the end, " Of course, you can drink chardonnay with steak if that is what you prefer."
Kathy Dipietro
Dallas, TX —  March 3, 2013 3:20pm ET
I echo my "Amen" for your pet peeves! Many of them are mine, as well.

I can't speak for other retailers to the shelf-talkers, but as someone who is employed by one of those wine "super-stores" may I interject my observations regarding the out of date shelf-talkers, etc.?

We currently offer 8,000+ wines and make every effort to insure that the correct vintage is on the tags that specify ratings. We do something once a month called "shelf-review". But, having said that, we often have 8-10 merchandisers who work, not for us, but for the distributors and they just open the case and stock the wine in the appropriate place, with no interest in correcting vintage signage when the vintage changes. As I said, during shelf-review week we pay attention to those inconsistencies, but during the other twenty-some-odd days of the month we replace signage when we notice a vintage in the bin different from that on the shelf, but as I said - with 8000+ wines, it's a daunting task! In our stores, when a customer brings it to our attention, the tag is changed immediately and we are thankful for the heads-up on the inconsistency.

Janet L Hutcheson
Palo Alto, Ca. USA —  March 6, 2013 5:14pm ET
I agree with most of Tim Fish's list. But my biggest annoyance is when I go to an expensive restaurant that has a wine list like a small town telephone book. I spend considerable time deciding on THE wine to drink with our dinners, and then the waiter tells me they have no more of this wine left. So I make a second, sometimes a third choice, and with time a-wasting, the waiter tells me these are out of stock, too. Then the sommelier offers something I will like "just as much, maybe better", and it is even more expensive. Worse, I often do NOT like it as much as my first two or three choices. This literally leaves a bad taste in my mouth!
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  March 7, 2013 11:41am ET
Amen on the alcohol issue and well stated.

Wine pours is interesting. I actually caught a host in the act once. I started that meal with a nice syrah. I finished it and asked for another glass. It just so happened that the bottles were sitting about 15 feet away. He took the correct syrah but it ran out 1/2 through his pour. He then took a brief look around, grabbed a zin and finished my pour! I was dumbfounded for about 5 minutes before I called the manager and pointed it out. He didn't seem to care and maybe thought I just didn't know wine (which I do) but of course I had seen it happen! At some point, they gave me a glass of the correct syrah begrudgingly opening a new bottle. Seriously? What happens when you can't see the bottles?
Wendell Beavers
Redmond, WA USA —  March 7, 2013 12:52pm ET
I agree with the frustration over outdated shelf-talkers. But I was glad to see the comment above from the employee of one of the large "super-stores". I have often thought it would be difficult to keep all those shelf-talkers current with the volume sold and distributers doing much of the stocking and can see her point. I learned long ago to check the shelf vintage against the shelf-talkers...and to look toward the back of the shelf to see if a couple of bottles of my preferred vintage were hidden in the back.

Thanks to her for her comments...I will be more apt to mention shelf-talker discrepancies to the store employees. The store where I shop seems to really care about customer satisfaction.
Stacey Ahrweiler
Los Altos, CA, USA —  March 8, 2013 1:51pm ET
Just a brief comment about shelf talkers. I'm a wine/liquor buyer for an upscale grocery store. I too, both as a comsumer and purchaser of wine, hate out-of-date shelf talkers, not to mention the fact that you can be fined for misleading the public. However, managing a department that contains over a thousand wines with just two people, sometimes things get overlooked. We both work VERY hard to keep things clean and up-to-date, and I bristled at the suggestion that we might be "lazy" and "deceptive". Oh, btw, we are not "he's". We are both highly trained women.

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