In this year's annual Restaurant Awards issue, Wine Spectator conducted a poll via our website that netted some very interesting consumer feedback in regard to today's level and style of restaurant wine service.
While we still see occasional wine lists entered into our program that omit vintages, have spelling mistakes or use the antiquated "captain’s list" format, these are now in the distinct minority, whereas just 10 years ago they seemed to proliferate. In addition, the American sommelier's role in restaurants has grown rapidly in recent years. The role has been modernized by American sommeliers who, as a group, have dusted off the more formal profile of their European counterparts to provide for a more accessible, interactive wine/dining experience. Clearly the role of wine in restaurants is bigger than ever, and service has improved with this growth. Everything is copacetic. Or is it?
Despite these trends, quite a few of you seem unimpressed. Out of the 18,000-plus respondents to our poll, 59 percent said they considered wine service in restaurants either "poor" or just "fair" as opposed to "good" or "excellent." A recent thread on our own forums took such an aggressively anti-sommelier tack, I had to turn away. So much for coming a long way …
For me, the most eye-opening result of the poll was the 84 percent of respondents who said they did not want a sommelier to taste the wine they had ordered before serving it to them. The sommelier’s taste, to ensure that the bottle is sound before pouring it for the host, is one of the most basic, generally accepted aspects of wine service. At least, that’s what I thought. That's what the sommeliers think too, many of whom were as surprised as I was at the 84 percent figure.
“I am disturbed to hear the results of your poll,” said Tim Kopec, head sommelier at Veritas in New York, a Grand Award winner. "At Veritas, we taste everything we serve. It is necessary because our reputation is for serving some of the greatest wines in the world on a daily basis. We want people to experience the wine in the state that it should [be]."
"I would love to show you the amount of corked or oxidized wines I have in my office,” said Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group. “I think [tasting the customer’s bottle] is a service we offer to the guests. I would hate for someone to drink a bad bottle of wine. Many times we don’t get a credit or a replacement on the [flawed] wines, but I feel as an 'ambassador for wine,' we owe it to the consumer. It is not only our job but our responsibility."
Most of the sommeliers who I talked to, including Aaron Von Rock of Telepan, Aviram Turgeman of Nice Matin, Mark Mendoza of Sona and Eric Zillier of Alto (which was upgraded to a Grand Award this year) were in agreement that no bad bottle of wine should ever make it to a customer (and that's why they taste them beforehand).
However, there were some who, in a possible nod to a diner perhaps perceiving they are being ‘taken’ in some way, do not necessarily taste each bottle.
"We feel as though we shouldn't taste the wine unless we know the guest well or they invite us to do so," said Richard Betts, wine director at The Little Nell. "We do, however, smell everything to get some idea and help to avoid the customer getting a corked bottle."
The miscommunication between diner and sommelier on this issue likely stems from the fact that American wine culture, for all its rapid advances over the past generation, is still very young. Despite the speed at which wine reviews of new releases move over the Internet or newly vinified vintages are either panned or lauded, the depth of consumer knowledge still has a ways to go.
In contrast to the tasting experience of most consumers, sommeliers at top restaurants typically taste thousands of wines a year and, in turn, use that knowledge to help not only ward off bad bottles before they get to the table (where the diner might recognize them as flawed or not), but also steer customers to what is in a peak period of drinking.
But it might be that this spread of knowledge between diner and sommelier, combined with wine pricing in restaurants (which has always been a thorny issue between consumers and restaurateurs) is what leads to a diner's misperception of a sommelier’s intention. Therefore it probably shouldn’t be too surprising then that many customers bristle when they see someone tasting their wine at a nearby server’s station (or worse, feel like they’re being taken for a ride when someone opens or decants their bottle out of view altogether). Perhaps the sommeliers should realize that more often than not, the customer knows full well that the $150 bottle they have just ordered can be found for much less via retail (and that perhaps the customer even owns the bottle at that price in their cellar at home).
Peter Kasperski, owner and wine director of Arizona-based Spaghetti Western Productions, which has seven Best of Award of Excellence winners in our program, including Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz World Wine Bar, was in the minority of those I spoke too: His restaurants have no official sommelier on duty despite the encyclopedic wine lists his restaurants provide—over 3,000 selections, many with paragraph-long descriptions.
"Our policy is no official sommelier on the floor, servers do their own sales and service. But there is always someone at a more expert level on property to provide assistance as needed," said Kasperski. "We would never taste a guest's wine unless the guest requested us to. Restaurant meals have evolved, restaurant service has evolved, and it’s about time wine service evolves, too."
That evolution needs to come from both parties, however—the sommeliers and the diners. If the relationship between the two can become more symbiotic, the dining experience only becomes better.
"At the end of the day we are here to serve and to make people happy," said Zillier. "So if someone objects to the practice [of tasting the bottle wine before serving the diner] ... let their objection be known beforehand [and] we will not taste the wine."