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richard betts' blog

A Shot Across the Bow: Ranking Wine Service Around the World


Posted: Dec 28, 2007 11:55am ET

According to the United Airlines website, I managed to complete 83 segments and fly 135,000 miles in 2007. This doesn’t include those on American, Southwest, Mexicana, Qantas, Air Dolomiti and Lufthansa. That’s a fair bit of travel and, naturally, one needs to eat along the way. As a self-professed foodie, wino and glutton I do manage to find my way to a fair number of fine tables (and exhaust all discretionary income). Through all of these miles, calories, hangovers and the like I have come away with some distinct impressions of the food-and-wine world in the places that I frequent the most.

It goes without saying that wine is always a part of these meals and, as one might imagine, I, as a sommelier, am paying attention to the wine service. With this in mind I have a few bones to pick, not just to be nit-picky but to try to make change happen. The point is to try to continually improve and sometimes it takes a little criticism to get the ball rolling.

I would like to preface these remarks by acknowledging that no one is perfect. I know that I too am very capable of service mistakes and have made any number of service blunders as a sommelier. Once, I had bottles of Mouton-Rothschild and Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve open on the same table. Accidently, I topped off one guest’s Mouton with Beringer. Oops!

I am certain that there will be more of them too. I do, however, always hope to learn and to increase my “batting average,” if you will, and to be the best batter out there. I would also like to state that I have no expectation that sommeliers or wine service be perfect. Taste is individual for sure but service should be consistently good and this is where the issues arise.

When I look at the three countries in which I drink the most wine—France, Italy and the U.S.—I am always struck by how generally poor the wine service is in the first two aforementioned countries. Remember now, I am not saying things on our shores are perfect—far from it—but I can say that wine knowledge, wine service and the place of wine has come further in the last 10 years in America than it has anywhere else.

I put forth the following summary:

Italy: best glassware, second best wines, shares worst wine service

France: worst glassware, excellent wines, shares worst wine service

United States: average glassware, very best wines, very best wine service

And let me tell you why. Today I’ll discuss Italy in depth. Next week, I’ll turn to France and the U.S.

When I look at Italy, I see the very best glassware. No one pays more attention to style and design more than the Italians and they have the most elaborate, varietal-specific, readily available and fun to use glasses on the planet. Order a bottle and something terrific will come out of the cabinet to serve it in. And as a courtesy they will open your bottle and perform some fancy ritual with the cork that usually leaves it hanging half off of the lip via some foil origami. Nice right? Then, they’ll pour a bit in a glass, rinse it around, pour it into the next glass and rinse it around so on and so forth until all of the glasses have been "seasoned" and then this bit of wine is poured out.

Well, last I checked wine was to be drunk, not used for seasoning glassware. And this is especially true when I am paying for it! I have to ask the question, what is wrong with just bringing clean glasses that are polished and already free of odor? This is something the waitstaff usually does, or should do, when they come in and prepare the restaurant for service each and every day.

Then, if you are really lucky, they will decant the bottle too. Among others, one of the reasons we decant wine is to separate it from the sediment that naturally forms in the bottle over time. It is our job as sommeliers to provide the guest with a clear glass of wine and to leave that sediment in the bottle. To do this, the bottle should be held cautiously and in the position in which it was resting to avoid jarring the sediment and turning the wine into a muddy mess unfit for service. But wait! Didn’t the sommelier just stand it up, open it, "season" all of the glassware, pour him or herself a taste to be sure the wine was fit for service, all before pouring it into that beautiful decanter that will adorn your table and from which he/she will pour you a glass of that mud? I just don’t get it—all of the pomp and circumstance just to compromise the wine and the experience. Time to drop the foulard and get practical!

Please check back next week for my thoughts on the foibles of France and the U.S. In the meantime, what wine service experiences have you had in Italy? Good and bad…

And until then, Happy New Year!

Alan Snitow
NJ/NYC —  December 28, 2007 7:24pm ET
When i honeymooned in Italy i encountered the seasoning of the glass phenomenon for the first time. I didnt mind though - i thought it kind of interesting and the amount of wine so small as not to be offensive.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  December 29, 2007 11:52am ET
The obvious compromise is to decant the wine before "seasoning" the glasses, don't you think?
Rajat
December 29, 2007 12:32pm ET
i agree with you. i will never forget drinking a cloudy bottle of Sandrone Canubi 1990 in La Morra. i doubt they will ever get it. Tradition stands before service.nice article my friendhappy new year
Eric A Utt
Stonington, CT USA —  December 29, 2007 2:57pm ET
I witnessed the "seasoning of the glass" for the first time while dining at Babbo in New York City this past fall. I found the practice to be elegant and added some pomp to the dining event. While I would never do this at home, due to the waste, I didn't mind as I was paying a premium for the total dining experience, not just the food
Richard Betts
denver airport at present —  December 29, 2007 4:27pm ET
Thanks Alan! Personally, it isn't so much offensive as just a question as to why not just do it right? I prefer the old adage of measure twice, cut once (e.g. start with clean, odor free glassware.)Hoyt, you're absolutely right - it would be a good first step for them to at least decant at the outset. :)Yo Rajat! Thanks man! Happy New Year to you too!Eric, I cannot say enough nice things about the entire Babbo experience - those guys are real pros. I have dined there numerous times and have always dined well. Further, it is my expectation that no matter what those guys do, they do it with the best. The seasoning there may indeed be part of the pomp, as you suggest, but I am certain that given their attention to detail those glasses where clean and odor-free at the outset.
Robert Renner
Silver Spring, MD —  December 31, 2007 2:30pm ET
The wine service I experienced in Italy was highly variable. The best being in the Dolomiti and the worst, believe it or not, was in Tuscany. My biggest complaint in Italy was actually the temperature the wine was served at. All the reds I ordered came to the table way too warm. Same problem with the shops there. Dreadful storage conditions seemed to be the norm. Between that and the weak dollar, I came home with 0 bottles. A shame too because I love Italian wine.
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  December 31, 2007 4:09pm ET
Here's a weird one for you..being a scientist, I wondered why someone has not concocted a wine centrifuge that would spin the bottle for a minute or so at a low speed, say 1000 rpm to get the sediment to the bottom; seems easy to me.
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  January 2, 2008 2:25am ET
The wines most likely to throw alot of sediment, i.e. older high quality reds, are not wines you would want to be spinning at 1000 rpm.
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  January 2, 2008 12:35pm ET
The force generated at 1000 rpm may be too much. We spin red cells at 1500 and no harm. Sediment in wine comes down at 500 but fines (that cloudy stuff)need more. I have actually tried it but not with bottles, just a representative pour from a bottle. I have had some old wines that had to actyally get filtered through brown (unbleached) coffee filters.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 2, 2008 1:36pm ET
I doubt you need to go as high as 1000 rpm to get most of the sediment. I've been known to grab a bottle by the neck and swing it in a big arc a few times, like a softball pitcher, to accomplish that task. (Be sure you have enough clearance to the ceiling before you try this at home!)

I am chuckling when I think of sommeliers adding this move to their repertoire.
Richard Betts
denver airport at present —  January 2, 2008 7:37pm ET
Hi Steve, Hi John - Thanks for this! I must admit that I had never imagined spinning the bottles. I also imagine - if somewhat superstitiously - that if the spining makes me dizzy, it must somehow affect the wine. I gotta say, I would prefer that the wine service just get it right at the outset, ya know?
Thomas A Mobley Iii
Tallahassee, FL —  January 3, 2008 11:13am ET
I agree with Richard - get and keep the glasses clean and ready, remove the cork while keeping the bottle in the position it was stored, use slow-steady-smooth motion when decanting,... No heavy science needed - just calm professionalism allied with attention to detail. Great blog, Richard!!!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 3, 2008 5:41pm ET
One point to be made about the "anointing" of glasses in Italy is that the water is generally very hard there. It's a nice way to make sure the glass is not coated with minerals you may not want in your wine. Not every restaurant can afford an expensive water-treatment system. But it's still critical to decant the wine carefully first.
John Osgood
New York, NY —  January 7, 2008 10:57am ET
It seems that all of Mario Batali's restaurants feature the wine seasoning ritual. It was kind of interesting the first time although I'd prefer they just pour the wine in the glass just as most fine restaurants do.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  January 7, 2008 4:23pm ET
I totally agree with Richard on this one. There should be no reason to season a glass! If there is a reason, it's that the wine service is lacking. At home, I dry and polish all of my wine glasses with a potato-sack handtowel (no lint or fuzz) immediately after washing - before the glasses even have a chance to dry -- this way, when I go to use them I know they will be perfectly clean and polished already. It always irritates me when I go to a fine restaurant, pay obnoxious prices for wine, and then don't even get clean stemware! Admittedly, my experiences are restricted solely to the U.S.A..

Brian Grafstrom

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