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A Tale of Two Sommeliers

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 13, 2008 3:39pm ET

Sometimes it's the minor details that make a wining and dining experience satisfying or not. Two dinners this past weekend at a couple of wine-savvy restaurants in New York underline how easily a good-hearted sommelier can tip the balance toward the positive end of the scale, while relatively minor problems with service can take the gloss off a good meal.

Names are omitted to keep this civil. Although I did not identify myself, I was recognized in both places from my connection to Wine Spectator. So the playing field was even.

Upon arriving in New York on Friday, I met friends at a casual Italian enoteca. Even before we sat down, the host asked if we would like to start with something to drink. I was thinking Prosecco, but said nothing. The bottle of De Faveri Prosecco, which tasted like dry, sparkling pear juice, made a perfect opener.

The sommelier recalled that the last time I had dined there, we went through four cork-tainted bottles before we found two that were OK. He had handled it well, but he joked that he was ready to empty the cellar this time if need be. As we all had ordered fish, vegetables and non-meat pasta dishes, I asked him to suggest a Northern Italian white, perhaps from Friuli.

He emerged from the cellar a few minutes later with a bottle of Zuani Collio 2006, a blend of Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Friulano. I was unfamiliar with the wine, and he explained that the winery made two bottlings, one aged in oak, and this one, called Vigne, matured only in stainless steel ($45 on the list). I liked it on first sip, as it was refreshing, with almond and melon undertones to the grapefruit flavors. (I later looked it up in our database and my colleague James Suckling wrote nice things but only gave it 83 points.)

The straightforward approach and the sommelier's selection of a modestly priced but personality-filled wine delivered just what we wanted.

The next night we had an early pre-theater dinner with some other friends at a casual restaurant owned by one of New York's star chefs. The evening started out with a reservation problem, but when we were finally seated, I thumbed through the wine list. I would have ordered Black Chook Shiraz-Viognier 2006, at $40 one of the few wines on the list under $60, but instead I chose the Betts & Scholl Grenache Barossa Valley The O.G. 2006, at $72. Everyone at the table loved it.

While we were waiting for the wine, the sommelier came over to say hello. He was unaware that we had already ordered. Uh oh, I thought, communication isn't what it should be.

During the 50-minute hiatus before our main dishes arrived (only half the table had ordered appetizers), the server (not the somm) topped up the glasses. The bottle ran out before he got to mine, down to about 1/2 ounce. "Don't I get any more?" I smiled congenially. He got defensive, huffing, "I was just trying to make sure everyone got the same amount."

He did return to the table a few minutes later with a bottle (apparently the wine was on the by-the-glass list) and silently topped up my glass. But the balance had subtly shifted to an adversarial relationship.

Things got worse on the service front. Unbeknownst to me, my wife and daughter were told that the restaurant was out of the filet mignons on the prix-fixe menu they had ordered. Mind you, this was at 6 p.m. on a Saturday. They asked, reasonably enough, if the restaurant could substitute one of the steaks on the à la carte side of the menu, and serve it with the green beans and potatoes on the prix-fixe plate. Oh, no, they couldn't do that. They had to order à la carte.

Time was running out for us when the steaks finally arrived, overcooked of course. So the delay before the main course cascaded into several problems. It took the edge off our enjoyment of the meal, which otherwise was well executed, and made it impossible to fix the steaks. Most restaurants would have done something to make up for the problems. But we got charged for everything except the green beans. They did bring some Jaboulet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise to sip after dinner, which we barely had time to slug before it was off to the theater.

Individually, these were not huge problems. But with a $100 per person tab and a big-name chef's name up on the marquee, the cumulative effect of these and other small-ish annoyances meant that none of us could really relax and enjoy dinner. And all the problems could have been salved by the server being gracious instead of adversarial.

On the wine front, the Aussie Grenache was clearly better than the Prosecco or the Collio white. But we enjoyed the Italian wines in the context of their experience much better. That's the difference service can make.

Farhana Haque
Queens, NY —  October 13, 2008 6:43pm ET
Not to steer away from the topic, but I'm enjoying the new mixologist bar movement here in NYC. Simply because the mixologists are there to make drinks for their patrons. Mixologists aren't just putting gin in the same glass as some tonic, so they actually care about their service. Unfortunately, in NYC, many bars and restaurants have waitstaffs that are really worried about their modelling/acting career. The restaurant job is just to pay the bills and they could care less about how well they do their jobs.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  October 13, 2008 8:30pm ET
I had dinner last week at one of the more highly rated Italian restaurants in New York City. It was the first time for our group of five. I asked the sommelier for a recommendation and he suggested the 2002 Rivalta. Upon serving the wine he did the usual pour and I went through the usual procedure for smelling and tasting the wine. The wine was pleasant, but no more. When it came time to get a second bottle I asked the rest of my party if they wanted the same wine or another one and they chose to get the same one again. When the sommelier brought out the second bottle he just poured it into the glasses without even asking me to check if the bottle was OK. Because the first one was fine did that mean that the second one was? I wasn't tasting the first bottle to find out if the wine was good or not. I tasted it to find out if it was tainted in any way. Likewise, the sommelier should have brought out a clean glass and asked me to check out the wine. For a restaurant that prides itself on its wine list, I was truly surprised. It seems that they go through the ritual just for show. Furthermore, while the food was good but no more, I felt that this restaurant was not nearly in the class of Babbo or L'Impero which had received very similar ratings.
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  October 13, 2008 9:58pm ET
I may be in the minority here, but I'll say it anyway:Good service, mediocre food...I'm OK.Bad service, great food...I'm upset and I don't care HOW GOOD the food is!I simply do not want to consume an elegant meal when I am pissed off.JMHO,Colin
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  October 13, 2008 11:34pm ET
How was the play?
Jason Gullion
October 14, 2008 2:32pm ET
Excellent blog, Harvey. I've always believed that great service can be as layered, artful and engaging as a great wine. When a meal is hitting on all cylinders, there are few more satisfying experiences in life. And when it's not, good service can still save the day. Unfortunately, poor service has the potential to leave a much worse taste in your mouth than an off wine--afterall, you can always send the wine back.On an unrelated note, have you had the opportunity to taste any of the 2006 Ken Wright wines, and if so, when are we likely to see your thoughts on these wines in print.
Joshua Kates
October 14, 2008 9:10pm ET
I, too, enjoyed your blog, Harvey,But why not name names? I was treated horribly by a maitre d at Jean George (after many fine meals there), and I will never go back. Christmastime at Le Bec Fin the waiter tried to talk us out of one of the courses, apparently, he was in a hurry to go home; and the food was ordinary. On the other hand, last time at Per Se, though they served nothing eye-opening--is all the innovation at the French Laundry?--the service was so perfect that we went away pleased (despite the really ridiculous cost).
Jim Callen
October 15, 2008 3:03pm ET
Richard-As a som here in NYC, when I see a guest is deep in conversation, I regularly just start pouring the second bottle ordered. Why not? If the wine smells sound, I don't see the need to interrupt conversation. Worse comes to worse and the bottle is bad, the som gets a different bottle or two for you on the house.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 15, 2008 5:53pm ET
Jim, I am afraid I have to side with Richard on this one. Do you really want to take the chance that the guest will pick up the glass and taste something ugly? You can't always tell by smelling. TCA is nefarious stuff. At low levels it can seem relatively inoffensive at first, then blossom on the glass into something awful.

The solution is easy. Bring another glass for the host, place it quietly on the table and pour a bit. I would wager that most people would notice and taste the wine. If not, you can wait a few seconds for a lull in the conversation and ask if the second bottle could be tasted.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  October 17, 2008 1:31pm ET
Harvey, your comments are spot-on. I am surprised, however, that you and your guests wouldn't have elected to pour the wine yourselves. I always tell the server and/or somm. that we can take care of pouring our own wine ... this prevents us from being rushed through a bottle or from having our glasses filled too high (I usually prefer smaller pours).... and here's another inquiring mind re: '06 Ken Wright pinots ...-Brian Grafstrom
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  October 18, 2008 2:37am ET
The last time I was in NYC, I went to Del Frisco's because some friends had spotted some great values on the wine list. I ordered an Araujo and a Marcassin Blue Slide Ridge. The bill for the wine was close to $600. The waitress poured each of the wines out in about 30 mins flat. The wine never got a chance to breath! I was livid and left with a $50 tip for a bill that went to about $1,000. The maitre d' (or the waitress?) had the gall to ask me if there was anything wrong with the service! I will NEVER go back. In Asia I always pour my own wine. I will insist on that in American restaurants going forward.
Jim Callen
October 19, 2008 11:30pm ET
Harvey- I agree, but my restaurant is one where I am required to taste the wine, and so I do that as well.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 23, 2008 1:49am ET
My opinion on the 2nd btl is split. I often pour a 2nd btl w/out the guest tasting it. Esp w/large parties. Usu w/ a smaller group in deep conversation I will bring a clean gls for 2nd btl but then ask the host 'would you like to taste this btl as well.' 99% of the time they decline. Many guests really don't even want to do the 1st btl tasting. Basically, you have to read the guest & the situation. As for the overpouring, that is just poor service.
Dr J Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  October 28, 2008 1:38pm ET
Harvey, and any other sommeliers reading, is it considered "rude" or "guache" on the part of the restaurant customer to want to pour their own wine? I have often felt that I would prefer to pour, but was uncomfortable that this would either upset the server, or worse, get them in trouble with their own management, for perceived poor service. Thoughts, comments.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 29, 2008 3:48pm ET
Pouring your own wine at a casual restaurant is not rude or gauche, especially if your glass is empty and the service staff doesn't seem to notice. If the bottle is out of reach, either in an ice bucket or on a separate table, you have to get up from your seat, which calls attention to the action and could embarrass the servers, but it's their fault if they're not paying attention to you. In a formal setting, it's normal for the sommelier to pour the wine. If he or she isn't paying attention, I have no qualms about doing it myself for a table of two or four, but if the table is larger you can't reach all the glasses it gets trickier.

The solution, as always, is communication. Just gently insist that you want to pour your own wine. Don't worry about upsetting the server. Remember rule one, that the restaurant is there to make YOU happy, not the other way around.
Dr J Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  November 2, 2008 12:59am ET
Harvey, thanks for the tips! I will let servers know that I prefer to pour. Keep up your blogging, it's always so interesting to read your point of views!

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