After I wrote a post a few months back bemoaning the state of wine service of Seattle, I heard back from half a dozen dedicated drinkers who felt my take was unfair to the city's wine professionals and wanted to discuss the matter further. I responded to each plea with an offer to continue the conversation in person or by phone, since I'm always eager to learn more about the local wine scene -- but only one of my correspondents followed up.
So I don't know exactly why the writers faulted my assessment, but most of them indicated in their initial e-mails they'd like more details about Seattle wine service gone wrong. Unfortunately, a visit to Joule -- the subject of this week's review -- provided me with the perfect example.
The review of Joule was tough to write, because I deeply respect chef Rachel Yang (who was only evident in the kitchen on one of my three visits) and really like the restaurant's concept. But it disappointed multiple times, with the few bright spots on the menu overshadowed by mangled dishes and more service flubs than I could squeeze into my print column.
On my final visit, I was waited on by a friendly woman who was far more engaged than my previous Joule servers: She knew the menu well, and demonstrated admirable composure in a busy dining room. I was beginning to rethink my opinion of the restaurant's service when I noticed a silver dollar-sized crystalline formation in my $9 glass of 2010 Two Mountain Lemberger. Although the wine was a tad gritty, I'd assumed the small Rattlesnake Hills winery responsible for it perhaps didn't filter as exuberantly as its industrial counterparts. But I couldn't easily explain away the pendant of sediment: When my server spied me ogling it, she snapped, "You'll learn that's what you get with nicer wines."
I was mildly taken aback by her tone, but the server's real offense was a misunderstanding of wine mechanics. When I recounted the situation for Soul Wine's Michael Teer, he immediately diagnosed the problem as tartaric acid crystals, commonly known as wine diamonds when found in solid form.
"Tartaric acid can 'drop out' of a wine as it ages and can also form if the wine was not cold stabilized," Teer explains. "Exposure to cold temperatures at some later point can form tartaric crystals. The problem could be that you got the dregs of the bottle - not cool at $10 a glass - or that the bottle was filled from the bottom of the barrel and sucked up the tartaric that forms in the barrel."
Teer dismissed the server's explanation that the problem was somehow related to the wine's quality. Although sediment's expected when opening, say, a 1955 Lafite Rothschild, it's a stretch to categorize a wine which retails for $11.99 at Total Wine & More alongside vintage Bourdeaux. Nor did he buy my rationalization that artisan methods were responsible for the flaw.
"I think that for the most part, in a wine-by-the-glass program, there should be no sediment," he writes. "If it is truly a 'natural' (loaded term) wine that is exceptional, there should be some explanation on the menu. Or it should only be at the kind of place with solid wine folks pouring and talking about the wine."
According to Teer, restaurant goers shouldn't hesitate to return glasses of wine tainted by sediment, soap stains or chlorine odor. And it's the server's job to accept the return: "The server should have apologized and brought you a fresh glass," Teer said. "That is what I would expect."
Speaking of expectations, I fully expected to love Joule: Beef, Korean cuisine, shared plates, Revel and creativity all rank very high on my list of culinary likes. But instead of a gem, I found a wine diamond.
Not everything went awry at Joule: For the names of the five dishes you shouldn't miss if you dine there, check out my full review here.