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All We Need Is Love

Posted: Oct 20, 2008 8:44am ET

Restaurants are going to have to give their customers a lot of love in these difficult economic times, especially if the places are serving wine lovers like you and me. Otherwise, we will simply not go there any more. Spending a lot of money in a restaurant has to include everything and more these days.

I thought about this after two distinctly different wine experiences in restaurants in New York City over the last couple of days. I was in the Big Apple for the Wine Experience, as you probably already knew. (It was awesome, by the way, especially my 2005 Bordeaux tasting.)

Anyway, my loveless wine experience in a restaurant occurred at Esca, the popular Italian fish restaurant. I went there with four winemakers, including Jean Luc Zuger of Château Malescot St. Exupery, Jean-Michel Laporte of Château La Conseillante, Jean-Guillaume Prats of Château Cos d’Estournel and Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare. We were all looking forward to some fresh fish and good Italian wines. And the French were gearing up for their 2005 Bordeaux tasting the next day at the Wine Experience.

The food was fabulous, both raw and cooked, particularly the pastas. But the wine service was dismal. Not once did our wine arrive on time for the food. The sommelier was just completely out of sync. Moreover, we ordered a bottle of 2005 Bastianich Tocai Plus (the owner’ own wine) and it was oxidized, yet the sommelier refused to take it back. We paid $144 for it. Ouch! Granted, I tasted it and I thought it wasn’t all the bad at first, but when it was poured to all of us, the oxidation was evident. We just left the glasses full and I told her it wasn’t very good. But no love. It went on the bill.

I don’t want to belabor the whole thing, but it just left a bad feeling with all of us after leaving the restaurant paying close to $200 a head. “The sommelier just didn’t know what she was doing,” said Zuger as we left.

By comparison, a dinner at Bar Boulud a few days later with winemakers Stefano Moccagatta of Villa Sparina and Luca Sanjust of Petrolo and a couple of other friends was full of love. Sommelier Chris Scocca took charge and turned us on to some amazing bottles, and at good prices, too. I asked him for a recommendation for a 2005 red Burgundy that was not going to break the bank and he suggested a Fourrier Gevrey Chambertin Vielles Vignes which was wonderful with floral, mineral and berry character that lasted for minutes on the palate. It was clean and so refined. A 2006 Radio-Coteau Syrah Sonoma Coast Las Colinas that followed was equally inspiring, with lots of freshness yet bold and meaty character and clean fruit. We asked him for a serious Syrah from California and he delivered. And neither bottle broke the bank.

A heart made of spilled wine at Bar Boulud in New York.

My friends wanted to try a Pinot Noir from Beaux Frères, the Oregon winery in which critic Robert Parker is a partner (along with his brother-in-law Michael Etzel, the winery's managing partner, and business manager Robert Roy). So we ordered the 2006 Beaux Frères Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard. I thought it was sort of low-key, with a light vanilla, plum and strawberry character, medium body and a simple finish. It was annoying that there was some CO2 present as well, so it was a little fizzy. The Italians thought it was boring. It was expensive, too. We should have stuck to Scocca's recommendations! An awesome glass of sweet and layered 1999 Diznókó Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos made up for the Beaux Frères bottle.

Considering the great bistro food – my sautéed skate in lemon and capers was delicious, as were as the crisp French fries I stole from Stefano – delicious wines and professional service, Bar Boulud is a place I will be going back to soon. Besides, look at the photo with this blog. There’s a little heart in spilled wine next to my glass taken at the restaurant. What more could a wine lover want on a Sunday night with friends?

Roberto A Rojas
Costa Rica —  October 20, 2008 12:03pm ET
James, sounds like at times like these (economically speaking I mean) us wine lovers need to feel the love from the restaurant staff, etc... so thanks for pointing out when they don't do their job.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  October 20, 2008 1:20pm ET
I have to say that, in the day when I was the sommelier in a Grand Awatd restaurant, if you had told me a bottle of wine was oxidized, I would have taken it back and refunded your money - whether the wine was oxidized or not!
Julie Brosterman
October 20, 2008 2:48pm ET
Beyond the bad service you received at Esca, charging that kind of money for a wine they probably get at a great price is highway robbery. Here in LA, you can get a much better bottle of white for much less money. A shame the Batali crew are trying to gouge so much.
Jeffrey D Travis
October 20, 2008 3:35pm ET
James, all things considered, I wonder if it was completely necessary to use Esca's sommelier as a Pinata to make your point (that you did not receive credit for a wine you prior tasted, but ultimately did not like). Along those lines, I don't expect R.P.to comment on your oblique swipe at him when you point out he is part owner of Beaux Freres, just before giving a less than positive review of the 2006. My point, however, is why didn't the sommelier at Bar Bolund,"take charge" & immediately credit yor bill for this "fizzy, boring, & expensive" wine, that you and your friends obviously did not like? Praise for one sommelier, harsh criticism for the other.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  October 20, 2008 3:47pm ET
Thanks for your frank comments and strong advocacy for the consumer. I too have had some dismal wine experiences where even the basics of service seem to have been neglected. Sadly, there seems to be little correlation between wine price and service level -- I have had great experiences with an unknown wine (to me at least) at a basic restaurant and terrible experiences at some of the finest wine-list locales in the world... go figure. Maybe naming names will help improve things for all of us.
James Suckling
 —  October 20, 2008 3:49pm ET
Jeffrey. I didn't mention that we asked the sommelier to decant the Beaux Freres and the CO2 went away. I thought it was a good 88 point Pinot Noir -- but a little boring. I am sure Bob doesn't mind fair comment about his wine. He does the same to 1,000s of other producers. But I am sorry, the sommelier at Esca just wasn't up to scratch with the wine service at most restaurants in the same group. And I think that as we all have less dollars to spend, wine service should be top notch when you are paying high prices.
Julie Brosterman
October 20, 2008 5:44pm ET
I think Jeffrey D Travis needs to recognize the difference between a flawed wine and one you don't particularly like. Restaurants are not responsible for the latter....
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  October 20, 2008 6:15pm ET
Any bottle that is not to your liking should be taken back,regardless on circumstance.
Italy —  October 20, 2008 7:27pm ET
Hello James!!! Very interesting article, I think most of Restaurants owners would increase attention to their clients. I hope that this financial crisis doesn't tempt to McDonalds to pour wines.
Chris Haag
October 20, 2008 8:44pm ET
James, very interesting, I am heading to NYC and wanted to go to a Batali restaurant, maybe I will pass now. Any other recommendations of places you like when you go to the Big Apple!ch
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  October 20, 2008 9:53pm ET
I had a similar experience in a restaurant in St. Louis. Som was a ******, and I a being kind. The sommilier has to take care of the customer's wine, just as the chef has to take care of the food period. It may be different if someone did not like the $1,800 Screaming Eagle and took them half the bottle to decide. My impression of Esca dropped by a mile. My next place in NYC in November will London or Veritas where customers are treated respectfully.
Susan Aventi
Las Vegas NV —  October 21, 2008 1:09am ET
Maybe our expectations for excellent wine service are a tad out of reach. What are the qualifications of a Sommelier in the US? Are education, training, and passion required or just serendipitous?
Jordan Davis
Dallas TX —  October 21, 2008 10:02am ET
Spot on regarding Bar Boulud. On a recent trip to NYC, we stopped in mid afternoon, hot and tired from walking everywhere with 2 kids in tow, no less, and we were treated to a lovely afternoon. The sommelier steered us toward some great values, and the food was spectacular. My children still rave about the charcuterie.
James Suckling
 —  October 21, 2008 2:20pm ET
Chris: Babbo is still one of my favorite restaurants in the United States. So don't discount all of Bastianich and Batali's restaurants. Also, Del Posto is awesome (but very expensive) and it just received a Grand Award for its all-Italian wine list. The sommelier there is great.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 21, 2008 3:25pm ET
re: Stephanie A Hubbell

that is completely unfair to the restaurant. What if someone ordered a 45 Petrus and said, "Oh I don't quite like old wine". Or how about the customer that decides they want to do a wine tasting but rejects all the bottles because "they just didn't like it"?
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  October 21, 2008 6:39pm ET
Let's be honest here, that sommelier either had some self esteem issues or a tremendous ego. You are JAMES SUCKLING and along with you are 4 winemaking gods. I'd tend to give you the benefit of the doubt on a flawed wine at least out of respect for a fellow wine afficianado.
Glenn S Lucash
October 21, 2008 7:21pm ET
I agree with James regarding Babbo. One fabulous experience but almost impossible to get a reservation except at 5 or 10 PM.Same experience with Esca. Went there pre-theater and almost had an argument with the sommelier. Never went back, although food is good.Del Posto is sooo over priced it borders on Wall Street thievery. Beautiful space. Asked waiter, who hardly spoke english, if there were any scallops in the frutti di mare. My wife is deathly allergic to scallops. He assured us NO SCALLOPS. When served, there was the largest grilled scallop I ever saw on top the food. I wound up eating it and she ate my food. They should know better and the place just came off the "dirty restaurant list" from the Dept of Health. The best dining experience ever in my opinion, and I think I've been to most of the fine restaurants in the U.S. is Michael Mina in SF.
Leonardo Baruki
S?Paulo/ Brazil  —  October 21, 2008 9:45pm ET
Interesting, i went to NY for vacation in September and had dinner in several restaurants, like Per Se, Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, and Cafe Boulud ( i made the reservations with the necessary advance) and everything was fantastic.The only problem i had was with Esca; i reserved via Open Table, arrived in the exact time, but they said that i had to wait (and that was impossible to know for how long), even with some empty tables in the restaurant. The staff was very unpolite. I simply went away
Kam Naidoo
Dallas, TX —  October 22, 2008 6:11pm ET
I think a complaint on a bottle that has been tainted somehow is valid. If you order a steak rare and get a hockey puck, do you eat said hockey puck? On the other hand, if I order a bottle on my own and it is simply a dud or not to my liking, in all fairness, I should eat the cost. By no means should EVERYTHING you do not like be taken back.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 23, 2008 1:26am ET
As a sommelier, I love these types of comments - from both sides. It helps me deal w/ situations when they come up. Personally, I would have taken the wine back and did just that earlier this wk, even though I disagreed (not vocally) w/ the guest. Folks at the bar got Darioush at a great by the glass discount and I spread some love there w/ the regulars.
James Suckling
 —  October 23, 2008 2:45am ET
Just to let you all know, Esca e-mailed me and has said that it credited my card with the cost of the bottle as well as service.
David Allen
Lufkin, Texas —  October 23, 2008 8:05pm ET
James- Very wise they Credited your account. I am just sorry you and Foreign Wine Gods had a bad experience in New York with wine service .Most people would not complain.Well Done .
Jonathan Li
Toronto —  October 24, 2008 3:00pm ET
I would not like to be the sommelier at Esca. Her career may be over.

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