WineLine No. 22
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Aug. 31, 2002

Take control of your wine

Dear Friends:

Scratch a wine lover, and you're apt to find a perfectionist. Or at least someone eager to complain about wine service in restaurants.

Many wine enthusiasts are ambivalent about eating out. We love the chance to explore new dishes and find new wines (or, if corkage is low or waived, to try new dishes with some old favorites from our cellars). Tasting menus, with each course matched to a different wine, give us a chance to explore far afield without the dangers of picking an inappropriate wine (by the bottle) off the (expensive) list. Flights allow us to compare wines from the same grape varietal grown in different regions or countries.

Restaurants that offer such opportunities tend to be expensive, however. We run into danger when we dine at mid-range restaurants, where we are more likely to encounter problems that detract from our enjoyment. Some of these can be attributed to the economy and the difficulty restaurants have in attracting and keeping qualified and knowledgeable servers. But all too often, mishaps arise out of carelessness, inattentiveness, or even over-attentiveness by the restaurant staff. These service flaws are only magnified by the high markups typical in most restaurants. (Remember, wine lovers tend to know what a wine costs at retail, and maybe even wholesale.)

Here then, from the customer's point of view, are some of the most common restaurant wine mishaps (other than spillage), with some advice for restaurants on how to handle the oenogeek. And there're some words of wisdom here for diners, too.

Temperature: All too often, white wines are served too cold, and red wines too hot. This is not as counter-intuitive as it seems. Whites rarely show their best straight from the sub-zero, and the tableside ice bath doesn't allow them to warm up until the food is cold. And reds served at "room temperature" all too often are stored somewhere near the kitchen. Besides, that maxim comes from the old days when "room temperature" was considerably cooler than we consider comfortable, and people sat around massive fireplaces in smoking jackets and heavy wool sweaters just to keep from shivering.

Excessive cold disguises a white wine's fruit and can leave it tasting like pure grain alcohol. And excessive warmth has, well, a similar effect on red wine, accentuating the alcohol so that it dominates the fruit flavors. Go figure. The comfort range is narrower than we think.

And the solution is easy. Diners should "take control," and remove the Chardonnay from the ice bucket. Or ask for an ice bucket to give your sweltering Merlot a quick refreshing dunk.

Pitfalls abound here, though. I've wasted several evenings in restaurants battling with my waiter, the waiter from the next station over, and even the busboy and maitre d' to keep a white wine on the table and out of the ice. A bottle of white sitting on a table appears to be a magnet for eager servers out to impress. And asking the typical waiter for an ice bucket for a red usually elicits a response out of an old Star Trek episode: "I am not programmed to respond in this area ... "

The glasses: Wine snobs can be picky about their stemware. And if we're paying restaurant prices, we have a right to be. (Usually.) That does not mean that every restaurant should invest in Riedel wine glasses; the expense, not to mention the risk of breakage during washing or storage, can be prohibitive and eat more than its share of profits. And the "stemware" does not necessarily require stems. Chinese restaurants, for instance, or pizza parlors (even the fancier ones in D.C., such as Pizza Paradiso and Two Amys) can get by with tumblers or large drinking glasses, which have an added anti-establishment cachet to them. But these restaurants are generally not serving expensive wines.

Decent stemware is not an affectation. The shape of a wine glass helps direct and focus the aromas from the bowl toward the lip and the nose, and the aroma is half the flavor.

If your restaurant is striving for a higher level of cuisine (and prices), good stemware is needed.

A glass too full: Another pitfall in restaurants is the tendency to fill a glass to the rim. In by-the-glass sales, this gives the diner a sense of value - $5 or $8 for a glass doesn't buy air, after all. But it robs us of the chance to enjoy the wine's perfume (see above!). And waiters tend to be overzealous in refilling a wine glass, topping us off after every sip. Here's where it can be perilous for the server: The average diner may see this as attentive service, while the oenogeek seethes that the bottle is being emptied too fast and suspects the waiter is trying to force him to buy a second bottle before the entrées arrive. With large parties this tactic increases wine sales for the restaurant, but it rewards heavy drinkers in a crowd and in extreme cases could even raise liability concerns.

Again, here the responsibility for avoiding these errors rests equally on the diner as on the server. Wine lovers should not be shy about signaling the waiter that he or she wants to "take control" and savor the wine slowly, even to the point of saying, "We'll pour from here, thank you," after the initial pour. And servers should be alert to these signals and respect the diner's wish to enjoy the restaurant experience to the utmost.

Even if the patron doesn't wave the server off, there are visual or aural clues that can help a waiter spot a wine geek:

An inordinate amount of time spent reading a lengthy wine list, while the spouse or date looks uneasily about the room.
Informed questions about particular wines.
The person gives the wine more than a perfunctory sniff. (And does NOT sniff the cork.

Most important, if you spot a diner swirling and sniffing his water glass, have an ice bucket handy for that Merlot.

Dave McIntyre

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