John JuergensHotel wines

One of my all-time pet peeves is hotel bar and restaurant wine, especially by-the-glass service. I have addressed this issue to some extent in the past, but some recent experiences prompt me to renew my rant.

I routinely pack my own wine when traveling simply because I refused to be held hostage by most hotels' absurd attitudes toward wine. After a day of enduring the rigors of air travel or a long drive, one of the great pleasures in life for me is to celebrate my success in safely reaching my temporary lodgings with a nice glass of wine. But the last thing I want to do at this point - sometimes it can be pretty late in the evening - is to go out foraging for wine.

Sure, it might be easier to just go to the hotel bar when I'm staying in the larger hotels, but from years of experience it is worth the hassle and the risk of wine-stained clothes to pack my own.

On a recent conference trip to a large Midwestern city, I was staying in one of the large international hotel chains, and it was about 10:30 p.m. when I finally got to my room. Although it was kind of late, I really wanted a glass of wine to unwind before I hit the rack. I had some wine with me, but I was saving that for a visit with some old friends who were also attending the meeting. So I ventured down to one of the bars in the hotel to see what they had available by the glass.

Initially, I was pleasantly surprised at the fairly nice assortment of wines available, and the prices were not terribly out of line. I ordered an old standby Chardonnay from Washington State because I wasn't in the mood to do any exploring; I just wanted a familiar comfort wine. What I got was anything but comforting. First, the wine was so cold it frosted the glass, and probably was close to forming ice crystals. Of course, at that temperature most of the wine's characteristics were completely suppressed. So I warmed it in my hands while I watched a group of odd model train conventioneers attempt to play pool - badly.

As the wine began to warm, I took a couple of sips and recognized immediately that this wine was not right. Rather than the nice melon and tropical fruit flavors I expected, all I was getting was acid and some tired, faded fruit. Since this was a sports bar, I really didn't think it was worth the effort to send it back, so I finished it and went back to the wine list.

This time I went for a red Zinfandel, thinking I could certainly find some nice fruit flavors. But this wine, too, was old and tired with faded fruit, like the colors in a travel poster that has been in a south-facing window for too long. The wine was warm and oxidation had already set in, indicating that the bottle had been open for at least a couple of days and had been stored improperly. I suffered through about half of the glass, gave up and went back to my room. After taxes and tip, the tab came to about $18 for a couple glasses of poor wine that should have been good.

Unfortunately, in my experience this is more the rule than the exception for hotel bars, and many restaurant bars as well. I have never understood this. It seems to me that if one is in the food and beverage business, you would want to optimize the quality of every service you provide, which certainly should be possible for the prices charged. So why is the wine service so frequently disappointing even in large posh hotels?

I really don't have a definitive answer and can only speculate. It might be a combination of factors including, 1) because of the lack of a wine culture in this country we don't demand better, 2) wine is a bit more complex than beer, spirits, and soft drinks so it takes more work to understand it and to get it right, and 3) the management doesn't see the value of educating bar and restaurant staff, which frequently is young and transitory, in the context of No. 1 above.

I sometimes get the impression that those who operate bars and restaurants believe wine will sell itself and only give it a passing nod. They probably make more money off of beer and spirits, anyway, which have better storage and shelf life characteristics, and there are far fewer brands and types to choose from to carry in inventory.

But I have always believed that with even a modest amount of attention to details any restaurant or bar could greatly increase the amount of wine it sells in all price categories. But until they do that here is my advice for wine drinkers who want a good glass of wine in hotel restaurants and bars. This also applies to just about any kind of restaurant that has wine by the glass service.

What I try to do when I enter an establishment is get a look at how the wines are stored at the bar, especially the red wines. Frequently, the by-the-glass wines will be lined up on the back bar, which can get warm from lighting, refrigeration units, etc. I also try to get an idea of how much wine is in the bottles that have been opened. Always ask how long any particular wine has been opened, but try not to sound snobbish. Ask for a sample taste as they do when you order wine by the bottle. Any bar or restaurant should give you a small sample, which is your best bet for getting a fresh wine.

But if you are seated at a table, you might not be able to get a good look at the wines. When you order, they usually will just bring you a full glass of wine, and you will have to deal with it. If the wine is too warm or has any hint of oxidation, then ask the waiter how long it has been open. If he or she doesn't know, politely ask if they can open a fresh bottle. The same goes for white wines, but if it is too cold you will have to warm the wine by cupping your hands around the wine glass before you can determine if the wine has been open too long.

An alternative to this is to buy a whole bottle if there are two or more people drinking the same wine. I know it can be daunting to consider buying a bottle of wine for $30 to $40 that you know costs maybe $12 to $15 in your retail store. But if you consider that there are about five to six drinks per bottle, that comes to about $5 to $7 per glass, which usually will be less than the by-the-glass cost.

The added benefit is that you usually won't have to worry about the freshness of the wine. And in some hotels, you might be able to take an unfinished bottle back to your room to enjoy later or the next day.

As far as I'm concerned, enjoying a glass of wine when you are out traveling or just having dinner at a restaurant shouldn't be so difficult. If I have to pay $7 to $10 for glass of wine, I think I should be able to expect the wine to be as fresh as if I bought it at the store and opened it in my house. The bottom line is that you should never have to endure a wine that has not been stored properly or has been open too long. If it doesn't taste right, send it back. If enough of us do this, maybe the food and beverage people will start getting the message. As Steve Martin said in one of his movies, "Give us fresh wine!"

July 2005

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