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Drinking Out Loud

How Not to Serve Wine

Why is it so difficult for some restaurants to get it right?
Photo by: Jon Moe

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 16, 2013

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.

Heitor Almeida
champaign, IL —  July 16, 2013 12:30pm ET
Nice post Matt. Your warm red wine issue is my biggest problem with wine service in the US. Even a Beujolais is often served at "room temperature", which usually means more than 70F. This is true even in high-end places. Not a big problem if you get a bottle (and an ice bucket, water please!). But sometimes you just want a glass, and it is virtually impossible to cool a glass of red wine. Restaurants should either offer open wines at correct temps (as in France and Italy for example), or offer more half bottles (ditto). What I end up doing in most cases is NEVER ordering reds by the glass, only whites, roses and sparkling. Those are often too cold, but it is easy to warm them up at the table!
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  July 16, 2013 9:42pm ET
I"m glad you shared an often times complaint of mine with red wine service at restaurants in the summertime. Too warm and no temperature control.

I too complain when a wine list runs out and just shrugs their shoulders.

An even larger complaint is opened red wines that are past enjoyment. Isn't the bartender tasting these wines prior to pouring?

Finally, very limited selections and the som trying to push more expensive wines. I ALWAYS give the som a budget and let him choose.
David Blakeley
Somerville, New Jersey —  July 17, 2013 9:10am ET
Spot on as always Matt. Was the glassware appropriate at least? One of my other pet peeves is, regardless of price point, thick-rimmed or otherwise terrrible glassware.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 17, 2013 10:48am ET
Mr. Blakeley: Yes, the glassware in several high-end restaurants in Mexico City was quite good. The problem, I believe, is as I previously mentioned, more a matter of a wine culture.

We had the same problem in America a few decades ago. Collectively, we were unfamiliar with wine. It was a "bolt-on" experience. So when you had wine in fancy restaurants the service was not just formal but formulaic, copying what we were told was the way the French supposedly did it in their restaurants. It was paint-by-numbers. The servers themselves neither identified with wine nor really had it in their daily lives themselves.

The same, I suspect, applies in Mexico. It's not yet "normal" in their culture, as it's now (finally!) become in increasingly large parts of America. When this familiarity happens, wine service in restaurants not only becomes more sensitive and better but also, in the best sense, more relaxed.

Right now, it appears that the "form" is installed, i.e., good glasses, increasingly better wine selection from more ambitious importers as well as better-quality native wines.

So I imagine that, over time, a "wine culture" will emerge, at least in those parts of Mexico's cities that serve a growing and more sophisticated middle class.

I'm no expert on Mexico, so I certainly welcome any and all observations from those who know more and better about Mexican life today, especially as it relates to wine.
Joe Malvagna
New York —  July 17, 2013 11:10am ET
Great piece, Matt.
In addition to those mentioned, another pet peeve is over-filling the glasses on the table. I sometimes get the idea that the server wants to sell us another bottle or they're just looking for something to do as they do a drive by on our table.
Jamie Hodder
Columbus, OH —  July 17, 2013 11:18am ET
I would expect better wine service at a high end place too, but I little more on your end could've easily avoided all this. Maybe there was a language barrier preventing communication, but when ordering the bottle of red telling them that you'd like it with your entrees, or even saying something when they first brought the wines to the table seems like it would've been much less effort than trying to temperature control the bottle yourself. Should you have to? Absolutely not, but why let something so correctable damper your dining experience? Is it too much to say something to ensure that YOU have the dining experience YOU expect? Maybe you just like to complain after the fact. I agree that the restaurant is the one at fault here, but it could've been easily corrected by the diner.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 17, 2013 11:55am ET
Mr. Hodder: You raise a good point. I agree that there is always a responsibility on the part of the diner. As for language, the servers seemed quite fluent in English. And one of our party was a native Mexican Spanish speaker. So I don't think that language was an issue.

The matter seems to be one of how much instruction a diner needs to provide. The very essence of good service is anticipation. And that's the restaurant's job, not the diner's. It's their responsibility to insure that wines are served at the appropriate time in the service of the meal, as well as at the appropriate temperature. The diner's job is not to be a server's supervisor, let alone his or her instructor.

Granted, if one has very particular requirements or preferences then yes, by all means, one should be explicit about them. But aside from that, good service is something that allows diners to enjoy each others' company, the food and wine and not even think about its service. To achieve that on the part of the restaurant requires both attentiveness and anticipation, as well as an almost empathetic sense of what it's like to sit in the diner's seat.

Obviously, achieving such an ideal isn't easy. And even in the best, most rigorous, restaurants it doesn't always come off.

You're quite right: the diner plays a role and can help things along. But good service shouldn't require instruction from the diner. Mostly it's a matter of professional good sense, a real sensitivity (the best servers are very nearly mind readers!) and a feeling for the ebb and flow of the meal as it evolves.
Jeremiah Morehouse
San Francisco, CA —  July 17, 2013 4:40pm ET
Thank you very much Matt all very well put. As another San Francisco sommelier I really appreciate the insight.
I agree, Chris is really great, she has compiled a fantastic cellar and a strong team.
Yes we are on your side everyone. Drink well, cheers!
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  July 18, 2013 4:15pm ET

One would think, over time, that certain practices would become "industry standard". Surely enough wines have been poured to arrive at several accepted practices for serving wine properly. Amazing!

Drew Innes
Toronto, Ontario, Canada —  July 19, 2013 11:48am ET
Somm, importer, and wine educator here. Very funny to read the posts - some legit complaints but we really don't have it that badly. The fact that we are able to know wine as well as we do and enjoy it in most larger cities in our countries sometimes gets lost when things don't go exactly our way.

Wine is ours to enjoy but perhaps we've become a little spoiled. And Matt, with all the times you seem to run into wine list outages, you might consider a back up or two - you know, just in case :)
Les Cohen
Reno Nevada —  July 20, 2013 1:16pm ET
Why pay two or three times retail at all? When I dine out I bring wine from my cellar, sometimes a wine I know particularly well and sometimes one that I'm eager to taste. Corkage fees are rarely expensive enough to offset the advantages. I am never at the mercy of a sommelier (or, more likely, a waiter) who doesn't know my taste or may not have good taste of his or her own. I have kept the wine in a good environment so I never worry about a corked wine. (It has happened once, so I bought a bottle at the restaurant.) In sum, I know exactly what I'm getting at a price that doesn't make me choke.
Hugh Giorgio
Annapolis, MD —  July 20, 2013 2:31pm ET
Great post. Unfortunately, we don't necessarily have to travel to Mexico for poor wine service!!

Trying to find reasonably priced, good wines in restaurants is the sport of it in my opinion. Maybe self serving, but I take a little bit of pride in picking a wine or two that's already sold out. Perhaps confirming that I found a diamond in the rough, if only a day late....
Jean Dickson
St. George, UT —  July 22, 2013 7:05pm ET
I guess, because I am not a PRO I am a little at a loss to understand why the Sim was supposed to just "know" that you wanted the red later and the white now. I have gone out with friends that do not drink white, so it stands to reason that the two bottles were to satisfy all palates. Or, maybe I just don't understand ALL the facts I have read.
Still learning and loving it all. so I thank you all for your insitefull comments.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 22, 2013 9:12pm ET
Ms. Dickson: You raise a fair point. Generally, wines tend to be "paired" with the food. Conventionally, whites precede reds, if only because many menus present lighter, white-wine-friendly appetizers to be served before stronger, richer and often meatier fare as the main course.

All of this is simply convention. So you're quite right: How would the server know that we wanted only the white wine at the beginning of the meal?

The answer lies with the fact that most tables, most of the time, choose white (or a sparkling wine) to begin their meal and to accompany lighter appetizers or fish. Usually, if there's a demand for both a red and a white to be served together, it's explicitly expressed by the guests.

So servers play the "system". If the server has any doubts--or might like to subtly suggest that the red wine might pair well with some guests' appetizers--he or she might inquire if both the white and the red might be served simultaneously. Or the server might suggest it, based upon his or her experience with the food.

Otherwise, the white wine is presented and served first. Only later is the red wine presented to first be tasted and then poured, preferably during the interlude before the main (red wine-oriented) main courses have arrived.

That said, serving multiple wines during a long dinner is a tricky thing, a matter of the pace of both the diners (possibly slow and lingering) as well as the kitchen (often slammed by many orders at once). Either can throw off the wine service of even the most accomplished, attentive sommelier.

Terry French
Columbia, MO —  July 23, 2013 12:34pm ET
I have had numerous bad experience with wine service. But a recent one may top them all. My wife and I and a couple that we were treating to dinner were seated in a restaurant in Minneapolis. The wine captain was on vacation, I had brought a bottle of Champagne, and my friend had brought a Barolo from his cellar. I asked the young waiter who came to our table to please open both and decant the Barolo. In a few minutes he returned with the open bottles, set them on the table, and walked away. When he returned, I asked if we could have some glasses. He pointed at the Barolo and asked if it was a red. In a few minutes, he returned with four Bordeaux glasses, set them down, and walked away. When he next passed by, I flagged him down and asked if they had any Champagne flutes. "Flutes?", he asked. "Champagne glasses." He returned in a minute with the flutes and walked away. I asked my friend if we should attempt to get a decanter for the Barolo. He suggested that we just pour it and let it air while we drank the Champagne. The restaurant was busy, and I decided not to make a scene, but I did contact the owner later to relate my experience.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  July 24, 2013 11:56am ET
Great recommendation to your friend. I rely upon the sommelier more and more to guide me to the best option. I am rarely disappointed.
Matt - I would be interested in knowing your thoughts about offering the sommelier a sample of the wine(s) that has/have been selected? If not now, maybe in a future essay?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 24, 2013 5:22pm ET
Mr. Bishop: As for offering the sommelier a sample of the wines one has ordered (or, especially, brought), I can only say that I ALWAYS do that, especially if it's an obscure or unusual wine that he or she may not have previously had the opportunity to taste.

Of course, most of the wines that most people are likely to order from a list the sommelier has already tasted. After all, it's the sommelier who chose the wine to begin with.

In my case, because I live on the West Coast where corkage (bringing your own wine and paying the restaurant a fee to serve it) is common, especially in the Bay Area, it's very much a requisite courtesy to offer the sommelier a taste. This is especially important if what you've brought along is old or rare or simply esoteric. Besides, it's a companionable thing to do.

A wine-interested server, never mind whether he or she is the sommelier, is part of the potential pleasure of your dining experience. If you include them in, as Casey Stengel might have said, you'll get that much more pleasure. Wine, after all, is meant to be shared--and that includes the servers.

Good service is a two-way street. If you want to get, you gotta give.
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  July 25, 2013 1:17pm ET
Yor are always on the spot: "...good service shouldn't require instruction from the diner and the best servers are very nearly mind readers!"
In the case of us amateur wine lovers, the som should be the teacher..!..and allow the client to have that diner effortlessly and worry free (us amateurs tend to do that - worry, that is - specially with guests).
adam wedrychowicz
Mexico City —  January 29, 2015 1:01am ET
I tend to think you were in Polanco (not PALANCO). I agree with J. Hodder. Also good practice to select some back-ups no matter if you are in DF or Dijon

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