So there we were in a very fancy, high-end restaurant in the Polanco district of Mexico City, the swankiest precinct of one of the world's largest cities. Although Mexico City is hardly awash in fine wine, it's not a backwater either. There's a growing number of wine importers and distributors. Not least, there's a small but impassioned contingent of wine lovers.
Knowing this, Mexico City's best restaurants offer pretty decent wine lists. Granted, they're not in the same big leagues as San Francisco or New York. But as a wine lover, you won't be slumming, either. In short, at the restaurant high-end, you're seeing a nicely emerging wine culture.
Service, however, is lagging a bit behind. A wine culture, after all, is more than just having good bottles.
Anyway, we're seated in the fancy restaurant and the would-be sommelier (I'm not sure that he either had that title or, for that matter, deserved it) comes over to hand the wine list to someone in our party of four. Of course, everyone pointed at me. Then it began.
First, he hands me the list, opened wide to a purposely chosen page. That page, I soon discovered, was the one that had the restaurant's most expensive wines, which were Burgundies and Bordeaux.
Now, I'm not a fan of buying expensive wines on restaurant lists. Partly it's a matter of personal economics. But mostly it's because there's no sport in choosing expensive wines. The real fun is finding the hidden jewels. Also, I like to choose wines that allow me to tell a story to my dining companions.
For the sake of efficiency and minimal service interruption, I selected both the white and the red for the entire meal. Big mistake.
I chose a white and a red and several minutes later the server returned with a different white than the one I had ordered (one about which I had a nice story to tell). "We didn't have the wine you ordered, so I brought you something else that's just as good," he said.
Oh boy. "I'm sorry," I replied as politely as I could. "But I don't want that wine. Please bring me the list again."
I don't doubt that the server—he really didn't deserve the designation "sommelier"—meant well (the other wine was, in fairness, similarly priced). But he created an unnecessarily adversarial situation. The alternative wine was thrust out with the expectation that his choice would be meekly accepted. After all, it was already there. It presumed that our table wanted and needed his wine advice. We had previously given no such indication.
Eventually he returned with the wine list, as well as the red wine. With no further ado, both bottles were opened, tasted, and found to be free of cork taint. Both, by the way, were at a good, cellar-cool temperature. Credit for that.
But now we had another problem. At that beginning moment in the meal, we didn't need or want the red wine. But there it sat on the table, getting warmer by the minute—warmer than we preferred. So we transferred it to the ice bucket. And that, in turn, required us to occasionally remove it from the ice bucket to prevent it from getting too cold.
You get the picture. What should be an effortless dining experience can, without thoughtful care in service, become a bit of a wrestling match. We've all experienced this. And it's so unnecessary
Everyone who dines out has stories to tell. I myself seem to be a magnet for out-of-stock wines. (It happened on two consecutive days in Mexico City and, I can assure you, occurs frequently no matter where we are.)
The other seemingly universal occurrence is being given ice buckets chockful of ice but with no water. Why is it so difficult to understand that a wine will cool faster and more easily in a mixture of a little ice and a lot of water, which also makes it easier to submerge the bottle up to its neck, than in an ice bucket packed solid enough to support a small polar bear?
Now, in fairness, faults don't always lie with the service. Sometimes it's us. Recently, a friend who is a great wine lover recounted her frustration at being unable to find a wine at a good price at one of San Francisco's—really, one of America's—greatest restaurants, Quince.
This surprised me. I know the list at Quince quite well. It's a beautifully chosen list, filled with well-priced jewels from interesting producers as well as, inevitably for a luxury restaurant, more famous, high-priced bottles. Quince's sommelier, Chris Baggetta, is an exceptional sommelier: approachable, easygoing, knowledgeable and on your side. She knows her stuff, and both the wine selection and its service is impeccable.
My friend, for her part, is a tech executive who was entertaining a client. So she couldn’t choose the inexpensive oddities that I seek; she had to select wines that were flatteringly expensive. That's why people in her position take clients to places like Quince, which are not only superb but also send a message of carefully considered luxury.
"But I can't order a wine that costs more than $250 a bottle," she explained. "The company sets that limit in order to comply with anti-bribery statutes.
With that, I was baffled. I mean, 250 bucks a bottle pretty well lubricates the choice, even at a high-end place like Quince. The list is chockablock with choices that fall well below that generous price threshold. (You can see for yourself, as the 44-page Quince wine list is available online.)
"But there were no older red Burgundies or Bordeaux at that price!" she exclaimed.
For once I was speechless, if only temporarily. I gently reproached her, saying that her demand was unreasonable. And that furthermore she was savvy enough to know that a list this well-chosen was surely because of real competence. And that she should take advantage of it.
"What you should have done," I said, "was turn to the sommelier, give her a notion of wines you really like or have recently enjoyed, tell her your wine budget for the evening and ask her to propose something."
The bottom line is this: Sometimes, it's not the restaurant. It's us. Then again, sometimes it's them. The trick is recognizing which is which.