Time to rethink the restaurant wine ritual

The way that wine is offered in restaurants is confusing and bound to lead to problems, says Robert Joseph.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Wine is innately social. When a bottle is opened, its contents are usually shared.

But how social is the way wine is handled in a restaurant?

Is the man at table seven who’s been ignoring the other people at his table while immersed in private conversation with the sommelier really behaving that much better than the woman on table nine who’s talking on her phone?

The fascination the list holds for the customer on table seven suggests that he’s quite comfortable choosing wine. But what about the countless other, less confident, customers? The men and women who are acutely conscious of the risk they run of getting the selection process ‘wrong’?

As so often, the people who most keenly and vividly recognise this kind of human dilemma are the comedians. The popular British stand-up performer Michael McIntyre has drawn roars of laughter from live audiences, not to mention over 340,000 views of his performance on YouTube, with his description of the challenges implicit in buying wine in a restaurant

For McIntyre, most customers find themselves pretending to have expertise they don’t possess in order to play their part in what he calls “the bullshit [theatrical] production of wine”. When the waiter says, “would you like to see the wine list?” McIntyre goes on, “he might as well be saying ‘do you want to see the book of gibberish?’”

Given their limited knowledge, what those diners do, he says, is “ignore all the words and focus entirely on the prices”.

Another YouTube comedy clip called Second Cheapest Wine that makes the same point  has been watched over 700,000 times.

Readers of Meininger’s Wine Business International are probably more relaxed than most about choosing wine for their fellow diners, but after four decades of doing so, I still have challenging moments. Just as it can sometimes be hard to create a dinner party meal that will accommodate vegans, shellfish-allergics, the religiously observant and gluten-intolerants, it’s not always simple to please a group that includes one person who ‘hates’ Chardonnay, another who ‘can’t stand’ Sauvignon and a third who’d rather have red even though everyone’s eating fish.

And then of course there are the awkward occasions when no one has established whether one person is paying or the bill is to be divided between the diners. In other words, who’s going to pay for the unfortunate wine selection?

Even when everyone is happy with the choice, attitudes to price can vary widely too. John may think $75 an upper limit for a bottle in a restaurant, while Jean has no problem with spending $150. Consumption can be another issue: Donald may be content with a single glass while Donna might drink the bottle if given the chance.

But before Don and Donna even get a sip of wine, as McIntyre says, there are other hurdles to clear. Why, he wonders, does the waiter have to display the bottle of wine to the customer before opening it? After all, no one is shown a photo of the cow when they order a burger.

But that is a mere nicety when compared to what follows. What possible logic, McIntyre and I both wonder, is there in asking the customer to check whether the wine is faulty? Surely that task is the responsibility of the person serving it, especially in restaurants where that member of staff is a sommelier. By the same logic, the comedian suggests, why not give diners the cream and milk to sniff for freshness before adding it to their strawberries or coffee?

There is, of course, one clear advantage for the restaurateur in this tradition: customers almost always find fewer faults than the professionals do, which reduces the number of bottles that have to be returned to the suppliers.

Some sommeliers, however, strive to further minimise these returns by arguing with those diners who believe they have detected a fault. I know of few professionals who have not on occasion been told that an undeniably mouldy or stewy character is typical of the way the wine ‘is supposed to taste’. For one British wine merchant in France, one such situation led to the police being called.

Now, with the growing popularity of zero-SO2 natural wines among sommeliers, the risk of this experience is growing.

Stated bluntly, the only thing that’s less ‘social’ than publicly testing a customer’s wine tasting skills in front of his or her fellow diners is telling them that they’ve failed the test.

So, what would be so horribly wrong with treating wine and food in the same way? Why shouldn’t restaurants take the same responsibility for bad wine and as for bad shellfish: avoid serving either? And, above all, why not treat complaints about both in the same way – replacing Table Six’s ‘corked’ Rioja and Table Twelve’s ‘tough steak’ with equal equanimity. If I decide that I don’t like the way my veal has been cooked, even though there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it, any serious restaurant will take it on the chin and offer me another dish.

The same philosophy should be applied to wine, even if the sommelier privately thinks that the customer is an idiot. After all, isn’t that what most of us would do in a social gathering in our home?

Robert Joseph




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