Liquids: Getting Good Wine Service

During dinner one night at one of Boston’s most fancy-schmancy (read: French) restaurants, the sommelier poured me a glass of expensive California chardonnay that smelled distinctly like a pile of moldy, damp newspapers. It was “corked,” a wine term meaning that the cork had either failed to seal the bottle properly and had therefore let air in to ruin it, or the cork was contaminated and had tainted the wine. It happens all the time, but with varying degrees of damage. Rather than reject it outright, I first asked the sommelier to smell the wine and tell me if he agreed that it was funky. He sniffed it quickly, looked me square in the eye, and said, “That’s the oak you’re smelling; it’s particular to this wine.” Oh, really? He then proceeded to pour glasses for the rest of our party before hurrying off to the cellar.

While we all sipped the wine incredulously and debated how to handle the situation—meaning, exactly how to tell him we weren’t going to pay for it—he returned to our table and said, “I just took another sniff of that wine and I think that perhaps it is off.” Perhaps? Within seconds, a new bottle was opened, new glasses were proffered, and dinner happily resumed. Still, I couldn’t believe the audacity of Mr. Know-it-all Wine Guy, considering the caliber of the restaurant and the rules of wine service that a man in his position surely should have known.

What should he have done? He should have sniffed or sipped the wine, told us his opinion, and then—regardless of whether there was anything wrong with it or not—offered us another bottle of the same wine or something similar. If the wine was indeed flawed (as ours was), the bottle should go back to the distributor for credit, so nobody loses money. If the wine was funky but fine, the wine director could sell it by the glass at the bar as a special, and everyone still wins.

Obviously, Mr. Know-it-all didn’t attend master sommelier Evan Goldstein’s one-day Allied Domecq Academy of Wine & Service Excellence seminar when it came to Boston. Goldstein’s program teaches restaurant professionals how to increase sales, improve customer care, and better communicate with diners. When I told Goldstein what had happened at Chez Fancy, he was appalled but not surprised. “Any professional should know how to address and handle any situation, how to defuse a problem in a manner that not only leaves the customer satisfied, but also leaves the customer with a ‘wow’ feeling about the way it was handled so that he or she will leave and tell people about how great the experience was,” Goldstein said. “Even when there was a problem.”

And all it takes is one negative experience to turn a customer off, said Goldstein, referring to a poll taken by the restaurant reservations network, which found that 56 percent of respondents who experience bad service just once at a restaurant will not return. Which explains why I get so many letters in the mail from readers with gripes and ethical questions with regard to wine service. These missives would make great fodder for a column I’d like to call “The Wine Ethicist.” Here’s what it might look like:

Why are wines priced so much higher on wine lists than they are on retail shelves? I think it’s deplorable that a restaurant can charge 400 percent above retail! Is that fair?

“Fair” is a subjective term. Most restaurateurs would justify their pricing by saying you’re paying for the supposedly proper storage, the service, the atmosphere, the glassware—the whole “experience.” It’s the same thinking behind why food costs less in the supermarket than at a restaurant and why you probably wouldn’t want to drink wine with a meal under the fluorescent lights of your local wine shop. Indeed, the entire price structure of most restaurants is based on how valuable they think their real estate is—which means your seat.

I ordered a bottle of wine, but the waiter returned to inform me that the restaurant was out of it. I asked him to recommend another wine and he did—at $25 more than the one I originally requested. Am I crazy, or is that inappropriate?

I have no idea if you’re crazy, but the waiter was definitely out of line. If you ordered a cabernet and there was no other cabernet priced within $5 of the one you originally requested, the waiter or wine steward should have told you that and made another suggestion around the same price.

What do you do when the waiter pours out an entire bottle into four glasses, way up to the tippy-top? Why on earth would he do that? And what should I do, if anything?

Sadly, I’ve seen this happen often, and it’s typically because the waiter is trying to get you to order another bottle. I’m usually distracted from dinner conversation by a flaw during wine service and will often tell the pourer, if I see this happening, “That’s quite enough, thank you—stop!” If it’s red wine, I’ll deal with it once, but if it’s white, I won’t settle for wine that’s going to get warm as it sits in the glass. I’ll tell the waiter to bring me another bottle or bring me the manager.

In the end, whenever I find myself flabbergasted by bad service, I ask the waiter or wine steward one simple question that puts everything into perspective: “I’m sorry, but who’s paying for this, anyway?” Not too surprisingly, that usually produces the service—and just the wine—I want.