“The Wine Is Sound”

21 05 2012

A great bottle, particularly on a restaurant list for $85!

I’ve been travelling quite a bit for work lately (hence the limited and sporadic nature of my posting in May).  This past week I was in southern Ontario for a couple days and had the chance to eat dinner with some colleagues at a fantastic modern and wine-centric restaurant in downtown Toronto.  The place was built around wine, with a massive temperature-controlled cellar, multiple sommeliers on staff and a huge list of hundreds of bottles covering all points of the vinous spectrum.  Even better, instead of marking up their wines to 2 or 3 times retail price as per restaurant standards, this place took a unique approach to their pricing, tacking a fixed $25 markup onto their cost for each wine on their list and charging only that nominally-increased price to diners.  They basically offered their entire wine cellar to consumers at corkage prices, which is a phenomenal selling feature and an idea that I hope gains greater traction across the fine dining industry in the near future.  As I will describe below, the actual service of the wine was also a thing to behold, with every step from cellar to table carefully handled by a trained sommelier.  It was the epitome of restaurant wine experience…but as I left the place, the only thing I kept coming back to was one little thing the sommelier said as he handed me my glass.

Since it was an Italian restaurant, I decided to drink local and ordered a bottle of the 2006 Paolo Scavino Cannubi Barolo, which was on the list for an astounding $85.  2006 was an excellent year for Barolo and other wines from Piedmont in northwest Italy; Cannubi is one of the greatest single vineyard sites in all of Barolo; and I’m fairly confident that $85 is well below retail for this particular bottle, which you would likely see in stores selling for somewhere in the triple digits.  All together, this had the makings of a highly memorable wine.  The sommelier, dressed all in black, wheeled the bottle to the table on wine’s version of a tea cart, a little rolling table holding the Barolo, some linen cloths, four large-bowled drinking glasses and a decanter.  Then he went to work:  he presented the bottle (which I confirmed as the right one), thoroughly hand-buffed the glasses with the linen cloths and placed them in front of us, then whipped out the corkscrew, expertly removed the foil on top of the bottle and smoothly and silently extracted the cork.  Instead of pouring me a tasting portion directly from the bottle, he poured it into the decanter, gently swirled it around, sniffed it, then transferred it to the glass and presented it to me.  I was enthralled by the entire process.  But then, just as I was bringing the glass to my nose to give it that first exploratory sniff, he said to me:

“The wine is sound.”

Who dares question the man in black?

Um, what?  Isn’t the whole idea of giving the person who orders the wine a sample before pouring for everyone to let THAT person determine and declare whether the wine is sound?  What’s the point of letting me try the wine ahead of others if you’re just going to make my mind up for me about its fitness?  I’m not trying to suggest that my palate or tasting acumen is sharper than that of a trained sommelier, and if he’s saying the wine doesn’t have any faults then he’s probably right, but in terms of the ritual of wine service, any magic or romance inherent in the process went out the window as soon as he jumped the gun and came to my conclusion for me.  And it’s not just about quaint ceremony:  having been to a fine wine tasting recently where knowledgeable and experienced tasters couldn’t agree whether or not a particular bottle was flawed, I know that it’s at least possible that I could sense something in my Barolo that to me seems like a fault, whether or not the sommelier agrees.  Since I’ve had some formal training in wine tasting, I might feel comfortable enough to voice that opinion in the face of an expert telling me the opposite before I plunk down $85 on a bottle that I don’t think is quite right.  But for the overwhelming majority of diners who haven’t set foot in a WSET classroom or read a wine book?  Do you think that they would challenge the word of a career wine professional after he’s just told them that any opinion they hold that’s contrary to his is wrong?  Never in a million years.  Restaurant wine service should be about pleasing the customer and ensuring that they’re happy, and by depriving me of my opportunity to voice my opinion of my bottle before it was tainted by professional diagnosis, the sommelier put the restaurant’s interests ahead of mine.  I’m sure this approach makes sure that a lot less wine is sent back, but I bet it also leaves way more people walking out of the restaurant with a nagging sense of uncertainty and disappointment about their wine of choice.

To be clear, I don’t think my wine was actually flawed, and I’m sure that if it was, the sommelier would likely have whisked it away and replaced it before I even had a whiff of it.  I’m not saying that this otherwise-excellent restaurant was trying to put one over on me.  I AM saying that any place that puts this much time and effort into perfecting wine service should remember that the interactivity of the process is its primary charm.  If the sommelier wants to sniff the first glass of wine before handing it over and make an internal decision whether or not it’s OK, that’s fine; just let the customer play their part in the service dance before that opinion is voiced.  In almost all cases, the customer will be happy with their choice and you can proceed to pour for the table without further incident, leaving a paying wine lover feeling like they’ve had some direct involvement in their meal.  Instead, I left my meal in Toronto thinking about how one innocuous comment tarnished what was otherwise an absolutely stellar restaurant wine experience.



2 responses

22 05 2012

Ouch! That is unfortunate Peter. Comments of that nature are not part of the formal training syllabus and as you say, this was likely restaurant policy to reduce to number of unnecessary bottle returns.

We ordered a pricy bottle of CdP while out for dinner a few months ago with friends. After the server/sommelier (I doubt the latter) showed up at the table with only the bottle and screw, I kindly asked if he wouldn’t mind decanting the bottle for us. His response: ‘This wine does not need decanting, Sir.’ To which I sharply replied: ‘It certainly does, and I’m not really asking.’ … Turns out, all of their decanters were in use at the moment and we were told that we would need to wait. He later apologized and our desserts were on the house.


22 05 2012

Wow — that takes the cake. Good for you for standing up to him…the big worry is that the majority of people wouldn’t and ruin their wine experience as a result. Normally the only hassle I get with restaurant wine service is a patronizing “education” when I ask for an ice bucket to cool down an ordered bottle of 22 degrees C red, but this one nagged at me the whole weekend, which is why I finally decided to write it up. Don’t worry — I won’t hold it against your town!


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