Wine and Waiters: A Volatile Mixture
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief
I was cruising the Pet Peeves forum on Wine Spectator's Web site recently and came across a post that got me thinking about wine service in restaurants.
One of the regular visitors to the site recounted an unhappy experience: He ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and it was corky. The waiter took it back but wanted to replace it with a different wine, explaining that he had tasted the rejected bottle, and it was fine, so another one would simply taste the same.
The post continues, "I held my temper and said, politely, that I was in the wine business (well, I used to be), and that bottle was definitely corked, and I'd like to try another one. He looked at me and said, 'Well, I'm in the wine business too' and walked off ... When it came time to pay the bill ... I left him a $1.00 tip and wrote on the sales slip (so management would be sure to see it) why I did so, and a recommendation that he not criticize a customer's taste in the future."
What makes restaurant wine service so fraught with peril? How can these pitfalls best be avoided? Restaurants come in all styles, and generally, I've found, wine service matches the overall approach. Each style demands a different strategy. I was in New Orleans recently, and three dining experiences there illustrate the point.
First is the policy of "Benign Neglect." Galatoire's is a century-old classic, serving traditional Creole cuisine in a shabby but endearing dining room smack in the middle of the hurly-burly of Bourbon Street. The menu never changes. You go for oysters en brochette and grilled pompano topped with crabmeat. The wine list feels like an afterthought; it's short and simple, just covering the standards at reasonable prices.
The waiters wear tuxedos, but their formality is merely a way to give their customers as much distance and deference as they desire; strike up a conversation about, say, fishing in Lake Pontchartrain, and you'll soon be fast friends. But would I ask them for a wine recommendation? Not exactly. Why put them on the spot? That's only asking for failure. The safest approach in a case like this is to choose a wine from a producer you know at a comfortable price. If something is wrong with the bottle, the odds are that they'll correct it without complaint, because they have the weary tolerance born of long experience. Benign Neglect restaurants are low-risk and low-reward when it comes to wine.
The second approach relies on a "Serious Sommelier." Chef Emeril Lagasse's flagship restaurant, Emeril's, is a casual place with boldly flavored food. It fosters a party ambiance, but while the customers cut loose, the servers go about their business in a friendly yet very professional manner. The wine program is ambitious -- the list offers over 1,000 selections -- but it is engineered to be as user-friendly as possible. Wines offered by the glass are listed on a chalkboard for easy reference; the seven-course degustation menu can be ordered with preselected matching wines.
When I ask my waiter what wines are available by the glass, he recites them in shorthand: "We have a broad range. Would you like a Chardonnay, a Pinot Grigio, a Sauvignon Blanc?" If all someone wants is the inevitable glass of Chardonnay, he'll stop there and the customer can get back to his company. But when I go on to ask what sparkling wines are available, he offers Roederer Estate. "It's made by a French company in California, and we think it's a great value," he explains. Who would refuse? Then, when I choose the degustation menu with the matching wines but ask to substitute the Roederer I'm drinking for the German Riesling that would accompany the first course, he agrees without hesitation, and later, the sparkler doesn't appear on my bill. My waiter at Emeril's is not the sommelier, Julio Hernandez, but he's been well-trained; he knows enough about wine and has enough authority to make the selection process as informative -- or as easy -- as the customer desires. You don't really need a wine strategy here, because the service is designed to take you just as far as you want to go. The odds are that a bad bottle of wine would rarely make it to the table, but I would bet that no argument would arise if one were sent back. Restaurants with Serious Sommeliers are low-risk and high-reward when it comes to wine.
The last approach I'll call "Befriend and Pretend." I ran across a classic case at Martinique's, a lively bistro in the Garden District. The decor is funky; the menu, inventive and satisfying. Spicy rabbit sausage, boned quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, braised lamb shank -- these are wine-friendly dishes, and the wine list, though fairly short, makes a serious attempt to match the food, with good selections from the United States and France concentrated in the $30-to-$50 price range.
At Martinique's, the servers are young and enthusiastic. When I order a bottle of Sancerre from Lucien Crochet, the waiter practically applauds. "That's my favorite white wine on the list," he says. But the vintage on the bottle isn't the same as the one on the list. Does he have the 1996 in stock? "Let me check." When I hesitate over a red, he suggests a magnum, since we are a large party. "I have a Chateauneuf that's really great," he volunteers. What is it? "Let me check."
After a while, his friendliness can't disguise his lack of knowledge; in fact, the initial impression of expertise, once unmasked, drains confidence from the entire interaction. This is a risky position for both server and customer. I wonder what would happen if a bottle turned out to be corky. Would the waiter accept our judgment? Or would he say, "Let me check," and head down the road toward conflict? Servers without proper training can turn even a savvy wine list into a disadvantage, especially for customers without extensive knowledge in the field; restaurants that Befriend and Pretend can be high-reward but are almost always high-risk when it comes to wine.
Bad bottles turn up in the best restaurants, and even the strongest lists include some weak wines. But whether or not a problem turns into a crisis depends first on the expectations of the customer and then on the response from the restaurant. Benign Neglect lowers expectations; a Serious Sommelier improves response. Restaurants that play Befriend and Pretend are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to attract the increasing pool of customers who take wine seriously, but won't invest in training the staff to meet their needs. It's no wonder the results are hurt feelings and poor tips.
So which type of restaurant do you most often run into? Tell us in this week's poll -- and pick your own category, too.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions