All Right, It’s Elitist. So What?

Is deliberately serving wine in inadequate glassware any less pretentious than demanding the right stem?
Dec 15, 2009

NAPA VALLEY—I was in the restaurant Ad Hoc in Yountville this past Thanksgiving weekend. If you haven’t been to Yountville lately—or if you’ve seen it so often you’re inured to its transformation—you need to know that Yountville is Napa Valley’s version of the Las Vegas Strip.

You want shopping? Yountville has got it—in abundance. You want faux-Tuscan? Just park your carcass at the authentically Las Vegas–like Villagio Inn and Spa. You want eco-chic? Try the geothermally greener-than-thou Bardessono hotel. You want big-name-chef dining? There’s Thomas Keller and The French Laundry, of course.

Ad Hoc is Mr. Keller’s down-market, pâté-to-the-people restaurant, a two-minute jog from his temple of high gastronomy. “We wanted a place to dine for our community and ourselves,” is Ad Hoc’s raison d’être, according to its website.

Ad Hoc’s sole offering is a four-course dinner that changes daily. Food is served family-style: You dish it up from a platter placed in the center of your table. Courses are served sequentially: an appetizer, the main course, a simple cheese plate and dessert. Everyone in the room gets the same meal and is charged the same price: $49.

And how was it, you ask? The meal I had that night was excellent: straightforward, perfectly prepared and made with ingredients of a very high order. Service was welcoming and friendly, although the waiter did say “Enjoy!” (He apparently wasn’t aware of the French Laundry’s famous fatwa against this particular feel-good locution—or maybe it isn’t applied at Ad Hoc.)

However—you knew that was coming—when it came to wine, Ad Hoc went from family-style to autocratic. Mr. Keller, you see, doesn’t believe that wines (or his guests) need or deserve anything more than a straight-sided tumbler. I grant you that the tumbler—and the accompanying taller, narrower water glass—seemed of exceptionally good quality. So cost does not appear to be the overriding consideration.

“Chef has drunk many wines in these tumblers,” explained our affable waiter when I (gently) asked about the glassware. “And he thinks that wines taste great this way.” I murmured my doubts about this but didn’t make a big deal out of it. (Really.)

We had brought our own wines—corkage is $20—and I hauled out the red, a delicious 1998 Savignola Paolina Chianti Classico. But the aged white Burgundy, a 1996 François Jobard Meursault Charmes, that I also brought remained unexhumed, for obvious reasons I think.

“So how was the meal?” inquired our waiter as he brought the check. We assured him that we enjoyed it a lot, which we did. “And what did you think about drinking from the tumblers?” Wrong question.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” I replied. “I think chef Keller doesn’t know a goddamned thing about wine if he really believes that wines taste great from these tumblers. And what’s more, I think that it’s a kind of reverse-snobbery arrogance.

“Take a look at the flatware he’s using for his food,” I said, holding up the spotless fork. “Take a look at who makes it: Christofle Hotel. When it comes to presenting his food, he’s giving it the best he can offer, at least in this price category.

“But when it comes to somebody else’s wine, well, the message is clear: Wine isn’t important. And it certainly doesn’t deserve or warrant the same curatorial care and concern chef Keller rightly lavishes on his food.”

As you can imagine, our hapless waiter wasn’t expecting that sort of blast. And he personally didn’t deserve it. I said as much, suggesting that he convey it back to chef Keller should he see him.

I mention this example not because I have anything against Ad Hoc or its owner (I don’t), but rather because this sort of let’s-take-it-down-a-peg presentation of wine is becoming fashionable. For example, wine labels are becoming ever more gratuitously vulgar (Big Ass, Bitch, Fat Bastard).

We’re seeing an increasing number of restaurants that pointedly seek to “épater la bourgeoisie”—that rallying cry of the late 19th-century French Decadent poets—or “skewer the middle class,” shocking them from their complacent, smug conventionality.

To cite just one example (every city has them, I’m sure), there’s a much-lauded restaurant in Portland, Ore., called Le Pigeon that does this by serving its food on no-two-are-alike plates, some chipped, along with worn, shabby-not-so-chic flatware, both of which clearly came from a second-hand thrift shop. The message is clear: It’s all about the food, not the bourgeois trappings. Wine, curiously, gets better treatment: The glasses are appropriately shaped and of good quality.

I don’t think that you need a degree in semiotics to fathom the reasons for this new, reactive, reverse snobbery. The sociologically acute French—who are always at the ready with a poetically apt phrase—call it “nostalgie de la boue,” a yearning for the mud.

Now, this is not the same as an artful mixing of the high and the low. Rather, it’s a political statement, a declaration about a perceived preciousness in today’s food and wine culture. Anyone who gainsays this is dismissed as a fusty conservative. Wine has become too pretentious is the oft-heard cry. But is serving wine in straight-sided tumblers at Ad Hoc (with a wine list that ranges from $30 to $200 a bottle) any less pretentious or reverse-elitist than insisting on the full Riedel regalia?

Between these pretensions, I ask you: Which is worse? Drinking your wine out of the equivalent of a Fred Flintstone glass (however expensive) or from the purportedly just-right glass from some purveyor to the “wineoisie”?

The division today is not, as it was back in the 1950s and ’60s, a cultural chasm between white-tablecloth restaurants encrusted with tuxedo-clad waiters and “lesser” restaurants. Those days are long gone. So if you’re going to suggest that fine dining today is either white tablecloth or nothing, forget it. That’s a red herring. Not only won’t that dog hunt, it’s long since trotted off and made reservations at places like A16 in San Francisco, which uses butcher-paper table coverings and serves superlative pizzas and mouthwateringly good main courses presented on plain white plates partnered by wine-enhancing glassware (which, in turn, serves a truly remarkable wine list).

Those who believe that, in the name of bringing wine to its senses (and not the hedonistic sort), they are doing the food-and-wine world a favor are misguided. And boorish. These same chefs wouldn’t dream of using dull knives for a steak (or in their kitchens). But a dull glass for wine? Bring it on, baby! Let’s break down that wall between wine elitism and the “real people.”

Pish. We’ve seen this before. And we know where it leads, namely, to the very sort of we-know-what’s-best-for-you arrogance that these self-styled saviors are supposedly saving us from.

What we really need is simple. We need food that’s well prepared from good ingredients, served to us attractively and with respect (for the food itself, not just us).

And we need wines that are served co-equally: well-chosen, decently priced and presented to us in glasses that allow the wine to shine, that signal a respect for the effort that went into creating such wines and that, not least, allow us to effortlessly enjoy the wine.

If that’s elitist, all-righty then, I’m an elitist. I can live with it. Indeed, I can live better for it.

Can the chipped-plate and tumbler crowd say the same? Maybe. But I’ll beg to differ when I hear tell about how much they love and respect their food and wine.

Serving Wine Glassware Opinion

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