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!