My obsession began, pre-COVID, on an August trip to New York City in 2019.
After arriving jet-lagged with my wife and son, we went to dinner in a trendy downtown Middle Eastern restaurant.
The mezze were delicious, and I ordered a glass of wine—an Israeli Pinot Noir for a whopping $16.
But when it arrived, the wine had a common summertime affliction: It was warm. Like 80° F warm. The first sip tasted like a cherry lollipop dipped in some mild household cleaner. At proper temperature, it was probably a perfectly serviceable red, but this was just Yeeccch!
I had the usual the-wine-is-warm discussion with the server, who gave me the standard-issue response that red wines are generally served at “room temperature” while whites and rosés are chilled.
What the heck is “room temperature?” I quipped. To me, that’s around 68° F, which is the upper limit of serving temperature for red wine. Red wines should never, ever be served at “room temperature” when the “room” (or more like the shelf by the kitchen) is in the 70s or 80s.
Above that, wines become something else.
So that night, I ordered a substitute glass of unmemorable—but at least properly chilled—white wine.
“Room temperature” is a terrible concept. Room temperature where and when? In Britain or in most Old World cellars where you need (or at least used to) a sweater 10 months a year?
I could just shut up about this and drink rosé in the summer like everybody else. (The recent popularity of rosé, I think, is fueled in part by the fact that it’s refrigerated while reds are often neglected at soaring temperatures.) But while I love interesting white wines when on offer, particularly at lunchtime, I seldom drink pink ones. Fifteen years of living in Provence kind of beat that out of me. After sunset, I want red wine—no matter the season.
Please note: I am not talking about restaurants with real wine programs. It’s likely that if a restaurant has a somm, there won’t be a problem with service temperature. But the problem persists in the multitudes of more casual trattorias and pizzerias in Italy, bistros and cafés in France and their stateside brethren.
The next day in New York, I found a restaurant supply store and bought myself a pocket-sized digital thermometer that I started carrying around to city restaurants.
A few nights later, we were out with family at a Theater District bistro, and I ordered a glass of Côtes du Rhône. I felt the glass, stuck the tip of the thermometer in it and bingo—it registered 27° C, or just over 80° F!
After a small sip (blecch!), I reported this to our harried server and handed him back the glass. “Just bring me a beer,” I said. “Please.”
OK, so I am sorry—just a little bit—for acting this way. I hope I did not contribute to anyone deciding that waiting tables wasn’t worth it. But New York restaurants aren’t giving wine away, and I figured I was being asked to pay the price of a properly served wine. Serving wine warm is as bad as serving it in a chipped wineglass.
When I returned to Italy, I stopped at the trattoria on our street and ordered a simple glass of Valpolicella, which would normally be a fresh and lively red. But it was hot indoors, with no air-conditioning, and the wine tasted simultaneously gummy and aggressive.
I know the owners, and they responded to my complaint by offering to cool down the open bottle in the fridge. After that night, they started keeping at least one or two of their reds on offer by the glass in the wine fridge.
At home in summer, I lean to the colder end of the scale. I’ll cool red wine bottles in the fridge for at least a half-hour. If they come out too cold, I wait for them to warm up in the glass, just like one would in a Burgundy cellar in January.
I know I am not alone in this. Take Spain—a big, hot country—where bottles are typically brought to the table cold and sweating from condensation. Oscar Farinetti, the founder of the high-end Eataly market chain, once confessed to me that one of his pleasures was drinking cold Barolo with shrimp. During the latest Italian heat wave, an American wine importer on a beach holiday told me how he’d horrified local restaurant staff by ordering ice to plop directly into his glass of red wine.
When out with friends in summer, I invariably ask for an ice bucket to cool a bottle down before the meal—even when the whole bottle cost as much as that glass in New York. Servers get that request. Or at least they pretend to.
But after that one occasion, I stowed the wine thermometer in a desk drawer. No sense trying to be that scientific about a matter of taste.