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12.30.2005

A Waiter's Perspective On Wine

My favorite ornery comedian-philosopher has decided to teach his readers about wine from a waiter's perspective, and has some interesting and sometimes funny notes on "How to Order Wine Without Looking Like an Asshole." This isn't wine class for those who may be dining in the finest restaurants in New York, this is wine class for the folks who want a $30 bottle to go with their pasta. Amidst all the snark and attitude (don't be scared off, he's old and jaded), the Waiter provides some pretty no nonsense advice for those looking to learn, as well as some admonitions for those bozos who don't understand, for instance, that the waiter is not pouring you a taste to make sure you like it, he's pouring you a taste only so that if it is spoiled you can send it back.

My favorite piece of advice, though, is his last: Its wine, not the Blood of Christ. Don't worship it. Enjoy it.

Hallelujah.

Comments (10)

beau wrote:
12.30.05 at 10:33 AM

Alder,
Let me preface this comment by stating that I'm not in anyway trying to pick a fight. Rather, I genuinely want to understand something that I see pop up every once in a while in our neck of the blogosphere.

These two sentiments seem dissonant to me:

"..as well as some admonitions for those bozos who don't understand, for instance, that the waiter is not pouring you a taste to make sure you like it, he's pouring you a taste only so that if it is spoiled you can send it back..."

"My favorite piece of advice, though, is his last: Its wine, not the Blood of Christ. Don’t worship it. Enjoy it....Hallelujah."

On the one hand it appears you're echoing the Waiter's encouragement for people to just to go ahead and enjoy wine without feeling the need to understand all its intricacies & conventions. On the other hand, with the bozo remark, it appears there is some looking-down-the nose at those who don't understand the whole wine presentation/pouring ritual. Perhaps I'm completely misreading your remarks. Perhaps it strikes a bit close to home for me. Let me explain.

I grew up in a non-wine drinking household. I never saw, ordered or drank wine until I was well into my twenties. I often hated ordering wine in restaurants because I felt as if I should know all the secrets about wine & wine rituals before ordering. Since I've edumacated myself in wine and now teach wine classes, I've found that it's quite common for people to feel horrified when buying, ordering or discussing wine. For those who grew up with wine in the home or in the family, I think it may be quite difficult to understand just how little wine newbies might know; and just how intimidated they might feel.

Occasionally, I read a food or wine blog that purports to be anti-snob, but then some of the content comes off as snobbish in the sense that the writer seems to assume that all readers must know A, B & C about a topic. And if they don't then, well, they're not up-to-snuff.

Does this make any sense? Of course, there also exists the distinct possibility that I'm out of my gourd.

Alder wrote:
12.31.05 at 5:24 PM

Beau,

Thanks for your disclaimer, but I would never think you were trying to pick a fight. Your question is a good one. Let me explain my point of view on this one.

First, I definitely, and emphatically believe that people should enjoy wine no matter what their interest or education level may be with all of wines intracacies and conventions. I completely empathize with your background in wine drinking -- I grew up in a household that didn't drink either, and I was once totally clueless and befuddled by wine lists -- and I agree that the vast majority of the wine drinking public falls in this camp. You and I have had plenty of e-mail conversations about the need to demystify wine, and make it a lot less of a big deal to people. This need still very much exists

Now, how is it then, that I can make disparaging ("bozo")remarks about people who want restaurants to replace wines that they have ordered simply because they don't like they way they taste? For the same reason I could make similar remarks about someone who might order a Manhattan at a bar because they think it's an interesting sounding drink and then when they don't like the way it tastes, expect the bartender to give them another drink free.

It doesn't take much common sense or empathy to realize that ordering a bottle of wine, tasting it, and deciding to refuse it not because it is spoiled, but because you don't like the way it tastes, costs a restaurant money.

This isn't about wine knowledge, it's about ethics. And while some people may not know the protocols of wine, and can’t be held responsible for not knowing that sniffing the cork doesn't tell them anything (silly of the Waiter to make a big deal out of that) EVERYONE should be held to the standards of good ethical conduct. Restaurants shouldn't lose money because you ordered the wrong wine.

The world is full of people who don't know anything about wine and want to learn more. These are not the bozos I refer to. Instead I'm talking about the folks who bring a general sense of personal entitlement and arrogance into their wine consumption, regarless of their level of knowledge.

Hope that makes sense !

beau wrote:
01.01.06 at 10:59 AM

Alder,
You make a lot of sense. I think I misunderstood your original remarks. I see where you're coming from and wholeheartedly agree with what you say.

Of course the next can of worms to be opened would be this (and this is based on an actual experience of an aquaintance of mine): Suppose you sniff/sample a wine you ordered at a restaurant and find it to be spoiled (either corked or oxidized). The server politely disagrees and insists the wine is fine - "it's just the style of the wine."

Now to fight or not to fight? This would be easier for someone with a bit of wine knowledge to do. However, what if you didn't know much about wine, but your nose did indeed sense something amiss. What to do. What to do..

Ahh the dilemma :)

Cheers,
beau

Alder wrote:
01.01.06 at 11:20 AM

Beau,

Yeah. Tricky situation. This is one of those things that is the gray area in dining in general, and both a demonstration of the quality of service in a restaurant and our honesty to ourselves.

My point of view is this:

1. If you feel you know enough about wine to assess the wine you have been served as spoiled in any way, then you should tell the restaurant that you think it is spoiled.

2. Some restaurants will have the level of service where the instant you say this, they will whisk away the bottle and bring you a new one. Once they do, you will know whether you were right or not. (If you were mistaken, and that is just the quality of the wine, you should offer to pay for the first bottle as well). Some restaurants will want to check the wine themselves. If they maintain that it is fine, you can choose to agree or not. If you don't that should end the discussion and the restaurant should take the wine back without further fuss.

3. If you feel you don't know enough about wine to make a definite call about your wine, then you should ask. "Excuse me, Waiter. I'm still learning about wine, so I can't be sure about this, but this wine tastes a bit funny to me, like it might be oxidized, or something like that. Could you or the Sommelier check it for me, and let me know what you think?" Most restaurants do not want to serve bad wine to their customers, so they're likely to be honest in their appraisal of the wine. If they come back to you and say it is fine, you can choose to agree with them and try out the wine (I suggest letting it breathe for a while, as this can sometimes dispell odd odors and transform initially funky tastes into something more interesting). If you decide however, that you know better than them, and you refuse the wine, the restaurant should take it back wthout further fuss, though you may have to be pretty strong in your refusal.

At the end of the day, if you honestly feel that anything you have received at a restaurant is spoiled, you have the right to fight to get it replaced or redressed by the management. It is generally NOT ok to fight about things you just don't like (though many restaurants, when faced with an honest disappointment by customers about something, especially the food, will sometimes offer a replacement, though it shouldn't be assumed that it will be free, even if it often is).

Anyhow, that's what I think.

Eric LECOURS wrote:
01.01.06 at 3:16 PM

While many of the server's comments are valid, he clearly has contempt for his customers and therefore his livelihood and should probably look for a career where he could be more satisfied. An admirable goal of a true service professional would be that the customer enjoys his wine and food experience to the fullest. If the restaurant actually sells $ 500 Barolo there shouldn’t be impatience with any wine questions. Such restaurants should have plenty of staff to consult with their customers' on any aspect of food or wine. Those energies would be better spent in the pursuit of excellent service.

I have dined in Asia, Europe and across the USA and in my experience the servers in the USA seem to have their ego/personality more involved in the customer's dining experience than anywhere else. I'm quite sure some of the diners who smell the cork or have trouble pronouncing wine names sense this server's contempt. Frankly, when I dine in restaurants all that is needed is a genuine desire that we, the customer, enjoy ourselves and a basic level of competence in the timing of service and the pouring of wine, i.e. don't bring a rack of lamb when the customer is only half way through an appetizer or pour a balloon glass to the rim so you can pull the bottle from the table. That's it. The customer doesn’t need a show, an intrusive display of confidence or anything else to interfere with a conversation or the enjoyment of the dining experience.

Again, the server makes some valid points with which I don’t dispute. However too many people are in the service industry whose ego is challenged by the very nature of the job and whose personalities are much more suited to other fields. Many don't see service as a career but rather a means to a decent living between careers. If one compared a broad section of servers in Tokyo, Paris and New York over the course of 20 years my guess is there would be a much higher percentage of servers in Tokyo and Paris who were stayed in the service business over that period and thus had made it their career. Rather than having contempt for their career they have pride in it. Tipping has put restaurants in a position to limit their service staff (and therefore their quality of service) so as to increase their servers’ income. What is needed is an individual who has the same passion for service of food and wine that a chef or winemaker has in their preparation, someone whose satisfaction and pride lie in their contribution to their customer's enjoyment in the dining experience and can sympathize with some customers' inadequacies and can tolerate the unpleasantness of a few.

chdz wrote:
01.01.06 at 9:59 PM

Re. Eric Lecours' comments:

in all fairness to your opinions, i feel that i need to point out that - as the server himself has pointed out - the server's site is called Waiter Rant, not Waiter Zen. it's his personal outlet for what he's feeling, not the definitive Waiter's Manifesto. that old rag about "not judging someone until you've walked a hundred miles in his shoes" applies here, i think.

Richard wrote:
01.02.06 at 9:36 AM

A good, common sense article - thanks for posting - but there was one line that goes onto my "Things I Wish I'd Never Read" list:

"But if you’re showing off in order to make me look bad - I have ways of exacting vengeance."

Ouch! I don't even want to think about that.

Richard

Alder wrote:
01.02.06 at 9:41 AM

Thanks for the comment Richard. You mean things like this?

Eric LECOURS wrote:
01.02.06 at 12:02 PM

chdz,

An outlet for frustration is one thing; contempt, on the other hand, is an attitude that is thought out, developed over time and not easily shaken. I'm sure this server has some buttons that if pushed his customers experience will degrade dramatically. The server's attitude will become an unwelcome part of the diner's experience. It is clear he doesn't have the humility to provide excellent service if his customer doesn't act how he deems appropriate.

This is not a personal condemnation. Rather, service is not for everyone. It is for those who have the passion and temperment to excel in the service of others. It requires a combination of a kind soul, energy and good sense.

As in Europe, service should be included in the cost of a meal. Restaurants should be responsible to pay a salary to servers. The USA must have the lowest server to diner ratio at medium to higher-priced restaurants in the world, precisely because the server's income is determined by the the number of tables they are responsible for. The restaurants have pressure to give servers enough tables so they can earn a decent income. Otherwise, servers will move to other restaurants where they can earn such an income. As with any other industry, experience and ability should warrant a commensurate salary. The restaurant would then be determine the server to diner ratio rather than labor pressure or competition. In fact, if servers were paid a salary, pressure would be put in the direction of less tables so they could provide better service.

Angela wrote:
01.03.06 at 11:29 AM

FYI: John Mariani underscores the points about what a diner's obligations are to receive good service (primarily wine oriented, but touches on reservations and basic ettiquette) in today's Wine Spectator "Sips & Tips"

http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Free/Newsletter_Tip_Main/0,3963,47,00.html

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