REMEMBER IN COLLEGE when we'd go to a little neighborhood Italian restaurant, and they'd haul out a wicker-covered bottle of Chianti and just plop it on the table and leave us alone? There were no pretensions and no expectation that we were supposed to do anything other than just slurp the stuff down with a huge plate of spaghetti.
What the hell happened?
Well, wine started to become written about, which made rock stars out of wine makers, which gave them a sense of self-importance, which gave them license to jack prices way up, which created a cult following for their wines, which caused wine consumers to demand these wines at restaurants, which inspired restaurant owners to start carrying these wines, which allowed consumers to purchase them, which provided restaurant owners with the realization that they can make gangster profits on it.
For example, you know that precocious little chardonnay that's on the restaurant's Oxford English Dictionary-size wine menu for 30 dollars? It cost the restaurant about 10 bucks. In my book, that's not a mark-up—that's a vig.
What's gotten lost in all of this is that wine is, after all, nothing more than a beverage. It's supposed to enhance your food experience. But restaurants have turned it in to a sort of Gong Show-cum-coronation. That said, I've come up with a wine service manifesto, each of its points guaranteed to make even the friendliest restaurant owner or waiter nervous.
Lower the fucking prices already.
If you don't, I'm going to start bringing my own wine to your restaurant, thus denying you a good chunk of your profit margin. And if you make a fuss about it, I'll stop coming to your restaurant altogether. Is that what you want? Then do something about your wine prices before you find yourself in bankruptcy court wondering how the wheels fell off.
Dump the ceremonies.
Why carry the bottle of wine to my table as if you're protecting a wounded dove? I'm getting nervous already because you're setting me up to pay for something rare and precious. Setting a newly pulled cork down before a customer is a tired, unnecessary, and macho practice, born when wine was frequently flawed, when it was deemed manly to protect one's inferiors (original translation: women) from the ravages of skanky wine. Instead of setting the cork on the table, why not inspect it yourself? If the wine stinks, you'll score points by bringing it to my attention. Even goofier is the First Sip Ceremony. You know, that's where you pour a small taste of wine, bow your head, mumble something obsequious and unintelligible, then back away from the table while the customer tries to figure out how not to look like an imbecile. Enough.
Throw away the ice bucket.
Wine makers would have aneurisms if they could see how you're abusing their white wine. Know why? Because your restaurant is probably keeping it in a refrigerator, a surefire method for castrating even the most flavorful wine. And if you're not refrigerating it, you're probably jamming it into an ice bucket. White wine tastes best when it's served about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than room temperature—in other words, slightly chilled. The fact that your ice bucket is sterling silver or festooned with jewels changes none of this.
I can't speak for all wine customers, but almost nothing about restaurant service is more annoying than the aggressiveness with which waiters pour wine. Are you aware that when you fill the glass more than halfway, the wine can't easily be swirled without the customer flinging it around the restaurant? Swirling releases the flavors and aromas for us to enjoy. But just when I've drunk the wine down to a comfortable level for swirling and sniffing, you top off my tank. Relax: What you view as anticipating our needs is usually perceived as neurotic doting.
Ask the customer how she wants to be served.
I'm always very pleasantly surprised when a waiter asks me questions like "Shall I leave the cork?" or "Would you like to taste the wine before I pour it for everyone?" Better you should ask these questions than serve your customer in a manner that's not comfortable to her. In fact, it's never a good idea to take a cookie-cutter approach to customer service. Instead, ask us questions and observe our comfort level with wine, since it varies from person to person. We'll let you know how we want to be handled.
Don't fake it.
Lots of restaurant patrons really do want good wine information and like to kibbitz about it. I recall overhearing a customer ask this question: "I notice you have a Barbaresco on your wine list, and I've always wanted to try one. What can you tell me about it?" To which the waiter unflinchingly responded, "It's red." If you don't know the freaking answer, go find out. Apply the same thirst for knowledge about the food you serve to the wines you serve. And acknowledge that some customers really consider wine to be an important part of the meal. Come to think of it, you're charging us like it's the most important part of the meal, so we're not going to take kindly to any dismissive treatment.
Buy the right stemware.
What makes for a good glass? First, it should never be colored or etched. Many people appreciate the visual clues that wine provides, so it makes sense to give us unencumbered access to that information. Next, it should have a good feel in the hand, with a stem that's not too thin or too thick and doesn't have annoying seams. And the glass should be large enough (at least 14 ounces) to facilitate swirling. Finally, it should be the right shape, resembling a tulip, with an appropriately wide bowl that tapers inward toward the top. Where do you find glasses like these? Pottery Barn has been selling 'em for years.
Help your customer match food and wine.
Part of the formulaic approach many restaurants apply to wine service is the old bromide Red wine with meat, white wine with fish. While there is much truth to that saying, it doesn't take into account the circumstances of your patrons—she orders the venison in a plum reduction, he orders seared ahi over soba noodles in a mild peanut sauce. You can go two ways: Split the difference between the flavor intensity of the two meals, or choose a wine, like pinot noir, that will work with both.
Carry half bottles.
One of the joys of spending an evening in a good restaurant is tasting different things. Whether you know it or not, there's a whole lotta food swapping going on at the tables. We Americans like to share things, food and wine included. We frequently order different meals than our tablemate, but we're usually stuck with the same wine. If you offered half bottles, people could make better food and wine pairings, and share the results of their ingenuity. Hey, come to think of it . . .
Offer good wines by the glass.
A table of two would never have the opportunity to try all those different wines if their only option were full-size bottles, and offering better wines by the glass allows people to match wine to each course of their meal. A side benefit: Any option that doesn't force them to buy a whole bottle gives them a better shot at driving home sober.
Visit Robert at Ponti.
Every now and then I'll find a restaurant that has such a high regard for wine and how it's served, they'll actually hire a person just to deal with it. Some restaurants call this person a sommelier, while others call him or her a wine steward. Their function is to provide the customer with an informed opinion. Good wine stewards are prepared for any and all questions. They know their stuff. The best sommeliers are incredibly sensitive to wine customers, observing them closely then relating to them in terms they feel comfortable with. These stewards spend as much time with (and show as much enthusiasm for) a bottle of $13 riesling as they do for a $90 boutique cabernet sauvignon. And for that, we thank them.
Are you being served? Kathryn Robinson lists 10 things she wishes waiters would stop doing.