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A Plea for Reasonable Restaurant Wine Service
By Michael Apstein
Jan 15, 2008
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Wine service in restaurants, even many that carry one of the Wine Spectator's awards for superior wine lists, seems to be an afterthought.  Although the Spectator's awards are solely for wine lists, you'd hope that those restaurants with stellar lists would also have stellar service--or service that is at least reasonable.  But that's rarely the case. 

I realize that wine is more important to me that the vast majority of diners.  I always order wine with dinner.   I invariably look at the wine list first and then select my food.  So even though I've never run a restaurant or consulted to one, I eat in them often and therefore can offer my observations in the hope that someone might be listening. 

What's particularly annoying is that the flaws in wine service at restaurants are easy to correct.  I'm not talking about investing vast sums of money in temperature-controlled cellars, high-end wine glasses or a special dishwasher for washing them.  Most of my complaints could be fixed without additional money. 

Michael Franz, my colleague here at WRO, pointed out problems with restaurant wine lists in a column last year (http://www.winereviewonline.com/franz_on_wine_list_excellence.cfm), so I'll not repeat his observations but, rather, comment mainly on service, along with my perspective on pricing.

Many Restaurants Get it Right

Some restaurant owners might say, why bother about wine service?  Few people judge restaurants solely by it, and even I don't go quite that far.  If a restaurant is continually packed and every table has wine on it, there might be no reason to change anything.  But most restaurants are not.  And some restaurants get it right all the time.  Order wine at Blantyre, the ultra-comfortable Tudor-like resort in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts and you will receive service that is flawless without being obsequious.  Or experience the less formal, but no less helpful or cordial wine service at Troquet in Boston, where Chris Campbell has the best list in the city--and food to match. 

California seems to do far better than the rest of the country in this regard.  Since California is the wine capital of the United States, residents in general feel more comfortable with it.  It's more a part of daily life, rather than a special occasion beverage.  Hence, those who work in restaurants are more familiar with it even before they start work in the industry.  The ability of customers to bring wine into restaurants in California surely increases pressure on the restaurant to offer 'something special' with regard to wine.  Places as diverse as Nopa and A16, deservedly popular informal spots in San Francisco, to Spago in Beverly Hills, to Cyrus, an upscale restaurant in Healdsburg, all provide professional wine service along with that something special.

But Far Too Many Make Mistakes

Keep the list accurate and up to date.  There is nothing worse than ordering a wine and then waiting for 15 minutes for the wait staff to present the bottle just as the food arrives, at which point the wine turns out to be a different vintage than what you ordered.  And then you are told nonchalantly that they 'changed vintages.'  Would they bring you veal when you ordered steak because it was just a younger version?  In fact, there is something worse.  The wait staff returns to inform you that the wine is unavailable.  (Would you like to order something else while your food gets cold?)  In an era when a laser printer costs less than a single bottle of First-Growth Bordeaux, any restaurant's list can be reprinted daily.  Items that are out of stock can be cut in an instant with any word-processing program, which can likewise permit a restaurateur to pasted it back in with no great effort when stock is restored.

Be sure the staff can find the wine.  Often, the staff fails to bring the bottle to the table before the food arrives.  Since this flaw seems economically foolish for the wait staff, it's particularly hard to understand.  If the bottle arrives promptly, many customers will use it as an aperitif as well, and a second bottle may follow, increasing the tab and the tip. 

Take more care with wine by the glass.  Wine by the glass, a great concept, has taken off in the last two decades.  Despite generating significant revenue for restaurants, many restaurants seemingly put little care into the wines themselves.  One orders a glass of wine at lunch at high risk in most establishments since, more often than not, the bottle has been open since the previous night.  Chefs would not use ingredients that are not fresh, but restaurants often serve wine by the glass that is not.  Since the wholesale price of the bottle is generally recouped with the first glass, it seems silly to squeeze every last drop out of the bottle and risk alienating a customer.  Better to open a new bottle.  If you think the wine in the open bottle is just as good, let the owner take it home for dinner.

Wine Prices are Often Obscene.  Steak houses seem to be the worst offenders, but many restaurants take advantage of a perceived 'normal mark-up.'  I am happy to pay for a unique service provided by the restaurant when it comes to wine, such as supplying aged wine.  But it's rare to find aged wines on a wine list anymore.  I am happy to pay for the expertise of sommeliers, such as Jeannie Rodgers at Il Capriccio, a superb Italian restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts, who goes to Italy to find and import wines for her restaurant.  Or for the services of a talented wine buyer who finds exceptional wines that have escaped my radar.  But I am outraged to pay three times the price for a wine I can buy in the local wine shop, and won't return to any restaurant that marks up wines at such a rate. 

I've heard the arguments to justify wine prices--money necessary to train staff, glass breakage, and the cost of carrying inventory.  Well, judging from the poor service in restaurants, many are not training their staffs adequately.  I'm sure glasses break, but so do plates and most restaurants aren't using $75 Reidel glasses.  These days, restaurants rely on current supplies from wholesalers and carry small inventories. 

The free-market should determine prices.  If every table is ordering wine, then the price must be correct.  But in most restaurants, wine is not on every table.  Perhaps outrageous prices are part of the problem.  Maybe lower mark-ups would sell more wine. 

I can understand the 'mark-up' on food--after all, the chef does something with it.  With wine, more often than not these days, someone just opens it.

Comments?  E-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com