Shattered glasses. Champagne eruptions. Prankster chefs and tyrant diners. Every night is a new minefield to navigate in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of high-end restaurant wine service. We asked these nine sommeliers from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners about their craziest stories working the floor.
Wine Spectator: What's the strangest, craziest or funniest experience you've ever had working the floor as a sommelier?
Erin Scala, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Fleurie in Charlottesville, Va.: I think most sommeliers' funny experiences revolve around losing control of Champagne bottles. And I definitely got one all over my boss, his long-term girlfriend and her parents. This was years ago, in New York City. I don't want to say which restaurant, but let's just say that there was Champagne everywhere—all over. In what felt like slow motion, I pointed the bottle away from them, and then I got it all over a row of tables. Needless to say, all of those tables got a nice round of Champagne. Afterward, I was just in shock. I picked up my serviette and started tapping the wine off of the hair of the mother, and said, "Pardon me. We've got a live one!"
And I didn't get fired! [The owner] was so gracious about it. There was silence in the whole restaurant. Everybody was just in shock. And then he yells out, "Mazel tov!" Everybody in the restaurant laughed. I hope that karma comes back to him in some way, because I really appreciated that. After that, I created a rule: All sparkling wines get opened behind the bar. That rule never changes.
Jon McDaniel, wine director of Gage Hospitality Group in Chicago, including Best of Award of Excellence winner Acanto and Award of Excellence winners Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe and the Gage: I was executing a tasting dinner with a very famous, internationally renowned wine critic and an equally famous California winemaker whose wines are auction darlings. It was the two of them and their wives and 17 different wines that were made by this winemaker. The winemaker refused decanting the wines, didn't want them opened; [I] just handed him a corkscrew, and there were 17 glasses per person on the table. He opened, I poured for everyone just as these massive tri-tip steaks hit the table. Thirteen of the 17 wines were corked. No backups. The winemaker started to well up, then the wife, then the critic. Soon, all four of them were basically weeping at the table. Then they drank a 3-liter of Billecart-Salmon rosé [Champagne], tipped 30 percent and we never spoke of it again, seeing them both several times since.
Crystl Horton, wine director at Grand Award winner Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House in New York: Dave Matthews was in, and he needed some help with the wine list. At the time, I just happened to be about 9 months pregnant. I walked over to the table, and he stood up and immediately grabbed my giant belly and began singing to it. One of his guests blurts out, "Oh my God—you can't just grab someone's belly like that!" And Dave looks up at me and says with a grin, "I'm so sorry … my wife is equally as pregnant as you are, and I just love the baby belly." We all burst out laughing. It was a great icebreaker if nothing else and an interesting segue to talking about wine!
Jill Gubesch, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Frontera Grill/Topolobampo in Chicago: We had a guest who suffered a heart attack in Frontera, then came back in from the ambulance to finish their dinner. I guess they figured they waited long enough for that table they were not leaving without experiencing our food!
Heidi Turzyn, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Gotham Bar & Grill in New York: You know, you get challenged a lot. See those large formats up there? [Points to bottles on display in the restaurant.] When I started [at Gotham], I was told, "You see those bottles? You should try to sell one," and it was very pricey. And I asked if they were stored properly, and they said yes, so I was like, "Well, once I open one I'll taste and see." I accepted the challenge, did it, sold it. Then I'm walking around with this big bottle, so proud of myself, presented it to the large party—a group of business guys—and I go back to open it up and took the foil off … It was recorked, and there was water inside. I was like, "Oh, my God!"
So then I returned to the table with two magnums and explained to the guests that there was confusion with the bottle, and it was not what I thought it was, and offered them a substitution for it. But I turned it around and still made a great sale, and the guests were pleased. But that was pretty crazy. I was sweating.
Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director of Barteca Restaurant Group, including 13 Best of Award of Excellence–winning Barcelona Wine Bars: At one of the restaurants I worked at in the early stages of my career, I worked at an open kitchen concept, and we had a line cook who liked to show off for the guests with flaming pans. Until he set the sprinkler system off in the middle of a busy Saturday night (always), and all the food prep was destroyed with dirty sprinkler pipe water. I grabbed a trainee, gave them a 15-second tutorial on how to [expedite] the line [of service between the front of house and the kitchen], and I started prepping food in the back to get caught back up. That night was crazy, and I look back at it so fondly. Everyone needs to have a good war story!
Virginia Philip, wine director at Grand Award winner HMF and Best of Award of Excellence winner Flagler Steakhouse at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla.: On a busy night in the L'Escalier, days [before the restaurant reopened as HMF], I had a table of six order a super-expensive bottle of California red. It needed to be decanted, and I had it in the cradle. Now, as much as I warn others on my team to be careful so that the wine does not shoot out in a vertical position onto the decanting cart, it happened to me.
There was a woman sitting at the table to my left. She was wearing a gold lamé sweater set. When I pulled the cork out, that wine shot out and went about a foot or so and hit her right in the back. She gasped and kept right on participating in the conversation. I was so stunned! One of my somms was standing next to me. We were both horrified but trying so hard not to laugh at the same time. I quickly went over to apologize to her and she said, "Don't worry about it. It really is not that big of a deal." The fabric had some small holes in it, so I knew it was probably running down her back on the inside of the sweater. Her graciousness has never been lost on me. When a server or someone spills something on me, I brush it off and tell them not to worry about it.
James Bremner, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Giada in Las Vegas: Crazy stories? Absolutely. Most of them, unfortunately, incriminate a lot of people. I've been working on the Strip for 17 years now. I have nights when I go in … Just since being at Giada's restaurant, I had four guys doing a Bryant vertical of ’01, ’02, ’04, ’05, ’07. I think Vegas is just one of those celebratory markets. People like to throw money around, people like to spend money, and I encourage that. It's fun in that you never know, on any given night, if someone's going to come in and drop that kind of money and do some insane tasting that you get to be a part of, just because you're there that night.
Henk Schuitemaker, wine director at Grand Award winner the Angus Barn in Raleigh, N.C.: This was a long time ago. One of the first things I tell my new staff that come in, I always say, “No one appreciates a wine snob." If people are drinking wine—and I don’t care what it is: peach wine, apple wine—they’re drinking wine. That’s what they like; there's no room for snobbery, there just isn’t. One night, these people came in and ordered a fairly expensive bottle of wine. I opened it—and they were European—and they asked for two glasses of Pepsi, half-full. And so they poured their wine into the Pepsi, and I thought to myself, "Wow, what is this about?" And I found out they were Eastern Europeans, and that’s the way they like to drink their wine. That’s when it stuck with me; I say, “You know, when they're drinking wine, and they like it that way, what's wrong with that?”