Sommelier Roundtable: What's Your Biggest Pet Peeve?

From bad attitudes at the table to "grape-haters," 14 wine-and-food pros tell us what's bugging them in restaurants right now
Sommelier Roundtable: What's Your Biggest Pet Peeve?
In the cellar and on the restaurant floor, there's always room for improvement. (iStockPhoto)
Oct 5, 2018

Diners who refuse to be open-minded about wine or won't let sommeliers do their jobs. Sommeliers who condescend to diners or push their own wine agendas. Servers who refuse to believe your wine is corked or use nails-on-a-chalkboard clichés. These are just a few of the pet peeves on all sides of the dining equation that can mar an otherwise delightful restaurant experience.

We spoke to 14 sommeliers and chefs from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners about the annoyances and irritants large and small they feel in restaurants—both from their guests and their peers—and how to fix them.

And if you want to meet some somms who've really got things figured out, say hi to several of the respondents below at our New York Wine Experience, Oct. 18 to 20, where they'll be tasting to ensure all the pours are in stellar shape. They'll be donating their time for an event that benefits the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which underwrites grants to students and funds educational initiatives in the wine industry.

Wine Spectator: What's your biggest pet peeve in wine or dining—or one that's bugging you right now?

Daniel Humm and Cedric Nicaise, chef/owner and wine director of Grand Award winner Eleven Madison Park in New York

DH: I think one overarching thing in general is, don't have an ego. Don't have an ego as a chef, don't have an ego as a sommelier. It's one of the most annoying things ever when the sommelier wants you to drink something you don't want to drink. It happens all the time. We're here to serve the guest and give them what they want, and hopefully make it cohesive. It's not about me, it's not about [Cedric]. It's really about this experience that people come to have.

CN: I remember when I was first becoming a sommelier, somebody told me that at the beginning of every month, you should essentially make a list of all the wines you want to taste that month, and basically sell from that list so you get to taste things you want to taste. And I couldn't disagree with that philosophy more. I would sell the same bottle a hundred times, if that's what the guest wanted. The way the wine world is going now, I think it's becoming more about what the wine you're selling is than what the guest wants. As chef points out, that's so about your own ego.

Cheryl Wakerhauser, owner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Pix Pâtisserie & Bar Vivant in Portland, Ore.

When someone doesn't believe you or feels the need to "double-check" when you tell them a wine is corked. I am speaking as a customer here, but I always train my staff to never question, just get a fresh bottle.

Once, I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant when a corked glass of wine was served to me. After I pointed it out, the server got me a glass from a fresh bottle, but then put the old bottle on the back counter and motioned to the manager. The manager came over, tasted the wine and shook their head, and proceeded to put the corked bottle back in the ice bucket for serving. I was sitting 10 feet away the whole time. Agh. If you don't believe it is corked, at least wait until I leave to start serving it again!

Nicholas Stefanelli, chef and owner at Best of Award of Excellence winner Masseria in Washington, D.C.

When people blow their nose at a table. We spend a ton of money on our napkins, and when I see someone do that with a napkin, it’s like, "Did you really just do that?" It’s like, "Please go to the restroom. That’s $7.”

Jon McDaniel, founder and wine consultant, Second City Soil in Chicago; former wine director of Gage Hospitality Group

My biggest pet peeve is lack of communication. As a diner, it’s a lack of communication from the service staff, from the menu and from the restaurant about what it is that I am getting myself into and why. As a sommelier, it’s a lack of communication from the guest about what it is that they are really looking for. If you know that you are really into Merlot and your budget is $50, the sooner that you can convey the information to me, the sooner I can help you select a wine that will exceed your expectations, for $40. Guests are still very afraid to be honest at the table because they think I am going to judge their desires or that I will try to rip them off, but my only goal is to provide over-the-top value and service.

Sabrina Schatz, sommelier at Best of Award of Excellence winner Bobby Flay Steak in Atlantic City, N.J.

One of my biggest pet peeves in dining is a wine list that only has “supermarket” wines. That happens a lot in South Jersey. You’ll see the same 10 to 20 bottles of wine in every restaurant and store. The wine selection doesn’t need to be super-esoteric either, but a variety is important. Another pet peeve of mine is if I don’t see anything under $100 in a restaurant or under $20 in a shop.

Erik Segelbaum, wine director for Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants, including Best of Award of Excellence winners Upland, the Clocktower and Le Coucou in New York; Barclay Prime and Butcher & Singer in Philadelphia; Upland in Miami Beach and Steak 954 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Le Diplomate in Washington, D.C.

A lot of my colleagues on either side of the table, whether winemakers, vendors, distributors or—worst—sommeliers, are unnecessarily boring. And I get it. If you're great at making wine, you're not necessarily great at meeting with people and translating your passion for, like, soil pH. But if you're in a capacity where you sell, you need to be passionate and you need to be personable.

I won't let people rinse my glass with water [at a tasting]. I don't want to put chlorine in my glass. I don't care what the wine is, so long as you rinse it with something. I also hate when you have to wait until you're acknowledged [by someone behind a table pouring]. If you let me pour my own wine, I will pour less, I will waste less of your wine and I will have a better appreciation of what you're doing—I just wanted a taste of it. And a lot of people think that's rude.

Jennifer Foucher, head sommelier at Best of Award of Excellence winner Fiola in Washington, D.C.

When guests say that they need to decide what they would like to eat before they order wine. They always end up choosing a full-bodied red; I really would prefer that they make their wine selection first so that I can open and decant it before they drink it. They can enjoy their cocktails while looking at the menu. If everyone was deciding to drink white because it went better with their meal, it would be a different story.

Matthew Conway, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York

There are a lot of chefs out there who would never let their beverage directors taste the food. They put up the food, the guy pairs the wine. [Chef Marc Forgione and I] have been places together where we've had a dish at very high-end restaurant, and it was like the worst wine pairing in the world, and there's no way any human could have put those two things in their mouth and said they were going to put it on the menu.

And that happens in a lot of places. Some of it is time constraints, some of it is the back of the house doesn't think the front of the house deserves it, some of it is cost.

Josh MacGregor, sommelier at Best of Award of Excellence winner DB Bistro Moderne in New York

My biggest pet peeve in wine is when a dry wine is fruit-forward in style and the [drinker's] reaction is simply, "It's good … It's a little sweet, but its good." It's totally understandable that fruity aromas can be confused with actual sugar in the wine, but it's the pejorative nature of the statement that can cause a delicious fruit-forward wine to be aligned with a false negative stigma.

Jill Gubesch, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Frontera Grill/Topolobampo in Chicago

Closed-minded people and grape-haters.

Jenni Guizio, wine director at Union Square Hospitality Group's Best of Award of Excellence winner Maialino and Award of Excellence winner Marta in New York

Personally, I’d like for “How’s everything tasting here?” to be retired from the restaurant lexicon—but maybe there’s something I say that is someone else’s pet peeve ….

Kevin Bratt, wine director of Best of Award of Excellence–winning Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab locations in Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

One would be pairing the wrong wines with the wrong food. Taking [sommeliers'] advice, we can always find a great wine to pair with any dish, but I often find so many people are drinking current-vintage Napa Valley Cabernet with stone crab, and that just doesn't work. I don't really vocalize that pet peeve very often. If somebody wants that wine, I will gladly pour it for them and say nothing about it.

Sian Ferguson Nagan, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Alinea in Chicago

Guests and somms alike can be quick to decide that a certain grape or region is inferior or less worthy of attention or dollars. Just consider that our palates, preferences, situations change all the time, and [you should] be open to revisiting something that you maybe didn't love the first time. I hated peas as a kid, yet bit my tongue (literally) as I was so enthusiastically chowing down on them in the salad today.

Wine is the same: That fiasco of Chianti from that red-and-white-checkered-plastic-tablecloth Italian restaurant in the late ’80s was probably very different than the stellar Chianti options available to you now.

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