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David Corcoran

Ordering wine

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I'm writing an article for the New Jersey section of the New York Times about ordering wine in restaurants. A daunting subject for many, if not most, diners. Amid a bewildering array of choices, how to proceed? In your experience, are servers usually helpful and knowledgeable? How can you tell when you're being steered correctly?

Anecdotes welcome. I won't be able to publish all responses, but if I do include yours, I'll want to use your actual name and hometown.

Thanks!

David

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my wife and i tend to drink wine by the glass as we know hardly anything about wine - and wines offered by the glass are usually very limited - it is very discerning when knowing very little about wine to trust somebody else's opinion - are we sure we all process flavors the same ? i think for a high volume restaurant they should offer more wine by the glass to help people like us - basically, for fine wines, it's an expensive hobby - of course there are lots of good wines available for around 10 to 20 a bottle, but we usually don't find these when dining out.

we want to eat at the tasting room because on their menu they have wine pairings which we like


Edited by intraining (log)

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I'm writing an article for the New Jersey section of the New York Times about ordering wine in restaurants. A daunting subject for many, if not most, diners. Amid a bewildering array of choices, how to proceed? In your experience, are servers usually helpful and knowledgeable? How can you tell when you're being steered correctly?

Anecdotes welcome. I won't be able to publish all responses, but if I do include yours, I'll want to use your actual name and hometown.

Thanks!

David

David,

You will find a dramatic difference between top tier restaurants in Manhattan and causual restaurants in New Jersey in terms of advice from servers. I work in a fine restaurant. Our wine by the glass goes from $6 - $19. All are fine wines. Our restaurant has 2 sommeliers. Most restaurants don't have anyone familiar with wine. The easiest solution for many restaurateurs is to let one distributor manage their winelist. They get the winelist printed for free (I update my winelist daily, myself) and don't have to worry about ordering more wine because the one salesman is there all the time. What disturbs me as a wine professional of more than 20 years is the constant corporate dominance and presence in the market place. LVMH, as well as Constellation, Diageo, Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson Estates, Gallo and Canandaigua are huge players in the market. Google any one of those companies and you will see that they are billion + $ companies. 95% or more of Americans who go out to restaurants and drink wine, drink the wine from those companies.


Mark

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I'm writing an article for the New Jersey section of the New York Times about ordering wine in restaurants. A daunting subject for many, if not most, diners. Amid a bewildering array of choices, how to proceed? In your experience, are servers usually helpful and knowledgeable? How can you tell when you're being steered correctly?

Anecdotes welcome. I won't be able to publish all responses, but if I do include yours, I'll want to use your actual name and hometown.

Thanks!

David

It really depends on the establisment and how much I trust the server/sommelier. I ask a few questions to guage knowledge and then decide from there. If I feel they are up to par I let them go ahead and suggest a bottle in my price range. I have discovered many wines I would have never tried on my own like this. On the other hand, if I feel that I may not be dealing with someone who has an sufficient understanding of the dishes and wines currently served I will just go ahead and pick a couple of old standbys myself.

Richard Laudadio, MD

Nutley, NJ


"My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them." ~Winston Churchill

Morels- God's gift to the unworthy human species

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I usually pick a few wines and point them out to the sommelier. I have had sommelier's tell me that if I like those wines I would be happy with such and such wine that is of a lower price. I don't feel I am being steered wrong when this happens. I believe this was the case at Nicholas Restaurant in Red Bank. I also found Terri Baldwin from The Bernards Inn to be especially helpful in picking out wines and not steering us to a more expensive bottle.

Also, the wine list at Amanda's in Hoboken is very user friendly and the manager Jeff is very helpful. They have three price points with a list of $22, $28, $38, $48 and a reserve list with many choices. This way you can zoom in on the price you want to pay. Their early bird special offers a bottle for $15.

At restaurants where I have dined often and the staff knows me I tell them I would like a certain wine, in a certain price range and have them pick it out. Always do this at Zoe's By the Lake in Sparta. The owner worked at The Rainbow Room, NYC before opening this restaurant and has always been on target.

We once had three bottles of the same wine opened at a NJ restaurant and the cork broke off all three times. We kept the third bottle because we were embarrassed not to. (I know--we shouldn't have) and the wine was horrible. The wine captain made no effort to suggest another bottle. It seems that the restaurant inherited the wines from the previous owner. Needless to say we never returned.

Also, many years ago we were offered port during a prix-fixe dinner. We assumed the port was included in the dinner. It wasn't and the price of a small glass was almost as high as the food bill. Now we ask.


Rosalie Saferstein, aka "Rosie"

TABLE HOPPING WITH ROSIE

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The problem with this topic, David, is that in New Jersey, roughly 85% of the better restaurants are BYOB. Most of the liquor licenses are taken by bars and taverns. So actually, this subject is only germaine to about 15% of the restaurant choices in New Jersey.

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Some restaurants now "suggest" wines in the menu itself, alongside the entree item. Either by name, or with a mention of a "light fruity red" or such. The wine list is then divided by types of wine using the same general categories. If you like oregon pinot noir, you may consider a rioja in the same general category.


Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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My husband manages a wine shop, so I let him do all the ordering. If I was not with him and had to order it would be difficult, I would probably just order a mixed drink. All the names seem to run together and some are unfamiliar, and depending on the place or the server I may be embarassed to seem less than knowledgable about the wine menu.

I think this explains the popularity of the more familiar wines (advertised) on a wine menu, customers may be hesitant to ask and order what they know. If you watched the Cleese show about wine on PBS there was a good segment about ordering wine at a restaurant.

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Hi David,

If you'd like a perspective from a owner on how we make wine friendly to customers here goes.

In addition to a wine list that is mostly American and ranging from $24 for Canyon Road Cab Sav '02 to Opus One '96 for $195, we offer many wines by the glass. Prices rang from $5.50 to $8.50. If you are unfamiliar with a wine we'll bring the bottle to the table and allow a taste. We'll carry between 12-16 wines by the glass, Sav Blanc from New Zealand, Chianti from Italy, etc, etc. Obviously most of these wines are less expensive than California wines and allows me to sell them at a good price to the customer. This also allows the customer to taste wines they might be afraid to order by the bottle either here or in a liquor store. Hope this is a help.

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The problem with this topic, David, is that in New Jersey, roughly 85% of the better restaurants are BYOB.  Most of the liquor licenses are taken by bars and taverns.  So actually, this subject is only germaine to about 15% of the restaurant choices in New Jersey.

Thanks for bringing this up, Menton! It was the first thought I had as well; unless your wallet permits, it's far easier to choose a great restaurant that's BYO rather than to worry about how much you're going to spend on wine and whether or not you'll like what you choose (or what is recommended).

David, one 'twist' to this or a future article might be to ask the question of how you decide what wine to take to a BYO restaurant when you don't (always) know ahead of time what you'll be eating!


"I'm not eating it...my tongue is just looking at it!" --My then-3.5 year-old niece, who was NOT eating a piece of gum

"Wow--this is a fancy restaurant! They keep bringing us more water and we didn't even ask for it!" --My 5.75 year-old niece, about Bread Bar

"He's jumped the flounder, as you might say."

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In my opinion, ordering wine in a restaurant is a matter of YOUR responsibility, to yourself and guests. SOME knowledge is your job. Knowing which varietals of wine best complement the foods you are likely to order.eg: Sauvignon Blanc with white meat seafood , Pinot Noir with the "steak meat" fishes. Then you can ask for more specific help. Especially if the producer/shippers names are unfamiliar.

There is SO much written about wine today, how can any consumer NOT get some ideas. (You could do some self education by investing $20 in one of the best wine books available to consumers: The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil , Workman Publishing).

Experimentation at home doesn't hurt either. If all else fails, you could even come down here to Maryland where I teach a whole bunch of consumer classes.

Ted Task

Rockville MD

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If one is price conscious and not an avid wine consumer, they may find the best value in any category is normally 3rd from the bottom in terms of price.

Doug

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In my opinion, ordering wine in a restaurant is a matter of YOUR responsibility, to yourself and guests.  SOME knowledge is your job. Knowing which varietals of wine best complement the foods you are likely to order.eg: Sauvignon Blanc with white meat seafood , Pinot Noir with the "steak meat" fishes.  Then you can ask for more specific help. Especially if the producer/shippers names are unfamiliar.

There is SO much written about wine today, how can any consumer NOT get some ideas. (You could do some self education by investing $20 in one of the best wine books available to consumers:  The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil , Workman Publishing).

Experimentation at home doesn't hurt either. If all else fails, you could even come down here to Maryland where I teach a whole bunch of consumer classes.

Ted Task

Rockville MD

Jeez, so now I have to do homework before going out to eat? :))

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Going through college I was a waitress in NYC. I didn't know anything about wine...nothing...nada. When asked I would avoid the question, or just wing it, agreeing to whatever the customer said. I was horrible at opening bottles, and had no clue as to pouring. The management never taught the staff what to do re. wine, and we were all students, actors, etc. and really could care less. I opened up a bottle of Dom Perignon once incorrectly and 1/4 of the bottle came jetting out...pitiful. Many years later, my ex. is a wine consultant and I have learned a little bit about the subject, and laugh at how unprepared I was to discuss wine with anyone, much less a customer. IMHO most waiters do not know a damn thing about wine, and you need to have some knowledge going in. BYO is the way to go!!

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You shouldn't have to do homework before you go out to eat, but you should want to!

Reading eGullet is my homework. And I want to!


"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best --" and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called. - A.A. Milne

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Seriously, it's the same as with just about anything that requires volition above the level of intravenous feeding: if you educate yourself you'll reap the rewards. Fine dining, fine wine, and the enjoyment of cuisine in general are things we work up to. These activities are laden with acquired tastes and conventions, and though they have become less regimented in recent decades there's still a learning curve. Heck, I've just written a whole book, Turning the Tables, devoted to helping people along that learning curve.

Sure, you don't want to think of it that way, because the enjoyment of cuisine is supposed to be hedonistic. Just like you wanted to believe you were great in bed, intuitively and with no experience. But, we hope, you learned otherwise.

So, sure, you can defer all judgment to the sommelier. But even a great sommelier, like a great lead in ballroom dancing, can only do so much. You need some basic knowledge of the enterprise, some basic self-knowledge, and some basic skills before you can take advantage of a great lead. Once you have the foundations, a great lead can help you dance several notches above your individual ability. That's what a great sommelier is supposed to be able to do for a customer.

Of course, most restaurants don't have sommeliers, and most restaurants that have sommeliers don't have particularly good ones. So, ironically, you actually need to know more about wine to get by in a bad restaurant than in a good one.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This is indeed a tough subject. As for whether the waitstaff is helpful or useful, is sadly a factor of two things, usually price, and your familiarity. As a general rule of thumb, more "upscale" restaurants usually have a good sommellier (or two) and well trained staff.

Now, that said, I HAVE myself run into the "pushy" sommellier in an upscale place. The one that "knows" they "know better than the customer" and insist on pushing their choice. Now, Im a wine professional, and been into wine since the 1977 vintage, and yet, had sommelliers sniff at my personal choice and push something they want me to drink, instead of what I KNOW I want after careful purusal of the list. If the sommellier or wait staff ask THIS question first, you're probably in good hands "What is good to YOU, what kinds of wine do YOU like?"

I've seen waitstaff push wines they know nothing about because there is often a promotion or bonus for selling certain wines. Its a dirty little secret sometimes, but a restaurant that sells a lot of a big producer's product will earn a trip to the winery, or a cash bonus...it happens.

I've seen waitstaff "fake" their way through the wine list too. They know nothing beyond what the manager told them to say.

The best advice, from my point, is to build a relationship with your favorite restaurants whenever possible. Get to know their taste and knowledge, and they can get to know your tastes and preferences.

These days, many restaurants will pour a small taste of a wine they sell by the glass if you ask them for one first. Don't be afraid to ask for one if unsure. All they can say is no. Don't be afraid to engage the waitstaff/sommellier in dialogue. TALK to them about what you like, what you want. Most importantly, don't be afraid to speak up if you DON"T like the wine they suggested/chose. Its YOUR money, don't be intimidated to say something. A quality restaurant will never have a problem with it.

MY horror story about waitstaff: I went to a new "upscale" expensive place in Palm Springs Calif. in the mid 1980s. It was a close friend's birthday, and my treat. I ordered the Jordan Cabernet (1978 the best vintage ever) from the waiter, who brought the bottle unopened to the table and plunked it down and left. I wanted it to breathe, but the waiter disappeared for half an hour. I finally got the busboy to ask the waiter to come open it. Busboy comes back with corkscrew, saying the waiter told HIM to open it...Poor kid had a terrible time, broke the cork and took it to the bartender, who pushed the cork INTO the bottle, and got alot of cork bits into the wine...

Waiter shows up finally, and I ask for another bottle of the cab. I explained that I did not care for cork bits in my wine...Waiter says I HAVE to pay for a second bottle. I insist that is not an option.

Waiter gets the MANAGER who agrees I have to buy a second bottle. I insist Im not drinking wine with cork in it, so Im not paying for the bottle THEY ruined. they can bring me a replacement bottle or Im not paying for it. They rudely insist on holding their position firmly.

Bill comes, I pay for everything EXCEPT the wine, and leave a 50cent tip on a 80dollar tab. As I leave, I tip poor busboy ten bucks IN FRONT of the waiter telling him he earned the tip and NOT to share it, and told the waiter to his face the fifty cents on the table was all he earned and said they were free to call the police if they had a problem with the wine tab.

Luckily that awful place was closed in less than six months.

Any more questions for your article, just let me know, glad to help. Time to dash to dinner.

Cheers

Rob


"When I lived in Paris, and champagne was relatively cheap, I always enjoyed a half-bottle in the middle of the morning and another half-bottle at six or so in the evening. It did me a tremendous amount of good." - Gerald Hamilton.

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The diner has no responsibility to anyone except for the diner. The diner should not be required to do his “homework” when going out to eat (for example, the diner need not know that Niman Ranch is a fine purveyor of pork…the restaurant/server should make sure this is understood if it’s questioned), or, when ordering wine. The diner should not be required to understand the “basics”, such as “sauvignon blanc with non oily fish and chardonnay with salmon and cream sauce-based fish dishes”. As an extension, the diner has no responsibility to know that “white burgundy” means chardonnay, and that whites from Boudreaux likely imply more steely sauvignon blancs. The diner shouldn’t need to know going in that red Boudreaux means “cabernet sauvignon” (and I say this only because I recently learned that most red bourdeaux wine is merlot dominated). The point here, of course, is that knowing a few grapes doesn’t necessarily help the diner, and sure doesn’t help the diner make a decision if he studies “cab, SB, chardonnay”, and he’s in a restaurant with a mostly-french wine list.

The diner, to me, has no responsibility. This is the job of the person taking the diner’s money. It’s really that simple. Don’t complain if you don’t like wine, but don’t feel like you have to study.

Beyond that, if the New Jersey diner is interested in maximizing his/her wine/food experience, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of basic knowledge. That, to me, might come in handy for several reasons, perhaps not the least of which is that the diner might get taken advantage of if he/she shows little or no knowledge (and granted, little or no interest) in wines entering a restaurant – and in this case it shows lack of regard/respect for the customer. Additionally, of course, when one *does* come across a sommelier at a New Jersey restaurant, there’s a good chance that the sommelier will get a bit pumped up to have a discussion beyond the perhaps usual “would you like red or white”. However, if the discussion doesn’t go beyond “do you like red or white”, that’s a sign that the sommelier sucks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “red or white” when I ask for a “list of wine by the glass”. Right then I know that I’m done with this person.

If I’m not making the wine person’s job easy by throwing out words like “bright, non-oaky, buttery, acidic”, then the wine person should step up to the plate. That’s the job. When I suck at my job, I don’t get paid. Isn’t this the way it is elsewhere? If not, I need a new job. As a diner, I don’t, and won’t, take responsibility for a wine steward’s lack of talent to read the diner. That’s the job. No ifs, ands, or buts. I’ve often played “dumb” at very expensive (sommelier staffed) NJ restaurants to see what the wine program had to offer. Now, as most of you assume, I don’t know much. But when I know more than the server or the sommelier after a very simple exchange, I know that it’s all on me to make the choice.

As an example of an unfortunate (to me) exchange…: this past weekend, I attended a bourdeaux tasting at a local wine shop. The person pouring was very nice. I announced that I didn’t know much about bourdeaux and would appreciate any comments about the 5 wines that were being served. I inquired about the blend of a particular wine, and I was told that it was “probably cabernet sauvignon”. At that point I knew I was on my own. I read the supplied notes.

What occurs to me, as I look back at many situations where I’ve ordered wines at NJ restaurants is the following:

1) you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to order any wine off the list, including the least expensive. Don’t apologize for your wine order: if there’s any reason to be embarrassed (and there ain’t), the restaurant shouldn’t have it on their list. Make no apologies for your wine choice.

2) The server most likely (in 99% of NJ restaurants) knows about as much as you, and probably less, and most likely hasn’t tasted the wines on the list: don’t feel embarrassed to ask for a “wine guy” for help in “pairing”.

3) You’re paying. If you like it, you’re right.

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The diner has no responsibility to anyone except for the diner. 

Assuming the correctness of that point, is is nonetheless beside the point. The best way for the diner to fulfill his responsibility to himself is to have some knowledge. You don't have to do homework for the restaurant's benefit; you should want to do it for your own benefit. Because as a great man once said, "if the New Jersey diner is interested in maximizing his/her wine/food experience, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of basic knowledge."

Even assuming the world's best sommelier, people's tastes are not uniform. If the customer contributes nothing to the dialog, the best the sommelier can do is make generic choices. I happen not to like a lot of the generic choices. For example I gravitate towards red wines whenever they can possibly be argued for. This is something I've learned by paying attention, aka doing my homework, listening to my own tastes, and acquiring experience. So I can increase my enjoyment of a meal by telling the sommelier -- again assuming a really good sommelier like you'd get at Nicholas or Ryland Inn or wherever -- that I'm looking to go to red earlier in the meal than the generic pairings would indicate. I've also accumulated a long list of wines that I do and don't like. My preferences don't correspond to conventional wisdom. There are wines with high scores from every reviewer that I'm just not crazy about, and there are wines with low scores from every reviewer that I find quite enjoyable. So I'm able to guide the selection process towards a result that works better for me.

If you truly have straight-and-narrow generic tastes, and you work with a really good sommelier, you may be able to get away with a non-participatory, know-nothing approach. But if your tastes diverge from the norm at all, and if the sommelier is anything less than a genius, you are going to be very well served by doing some homework. For yourself, for your own benefit.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Tommy says:

<<The diner shouldn’t need to know going in that red Boudreaux means “cabernet sauvignon” (and I say this only because I recently learned that most red bourdeaux wine is merlot dominated). >>

By the way, great reponse.

BORDEAUX is not dominated by Merlot. Typically the red wines of the vast area are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and bits of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Yes in St. Emilion and Pomerol, Merlot is the dominate part of the blend.

As to becoming an educated consumer, it can only benefit us if we become more knowledgeable whether dining or walking into our local wine shop.

All my best to the e-gulleters

Phil


I have never met a miserly wine lover

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Tommy says:

<<The diner shouldn’t need to know going in that red Boudreaux means “cabernet sauvignon” (and I say this only because I recently learned that most red bourdeaux wine is merlot dominated). >>

By the way, great reponse.

BORDEAUX is not dominated by Merlot. Typically the red wines of the vast area are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and bits of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Yes in St. Emilion and Pomerol, Merlot is the dominate part of the blend.

As to becoming an educated consumer, it can only benefit us if we become more knowledgeable whether dining or walking into our local wine shop.

All my best to the e-gulleters

Phil

phil, i remember reading somewhere, probably on egullet, that more merlot is grown in bourdeaux than cab. i don't know if stats referenced acreage, gallons of juice, or what, but my thought that bourdeaux = mostly cab is apparently not true (and another examlpe of a little knowledge being dangerous).

fat guy, thanks for the compliment.

personally, i'd like to see people involved in NJ's wine programs to step up a bit more and be knowledgeable/talented enough to handle the situations that they're no doubt put in every day. i've not recommended a non-participatory know-nothing approach, nor do i think anyone would.


Edited by tommy (log)

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First, Tommy, red Bordeaux from Pomerol and St. Emilion tends to have a higher percentage of Merlot, but other blends vary. Kudos to you for trying to suss it out on your own, though, as you're right in that you're not going to learn much from many of the so-called experts selling their wares around here.

Second, I respectfully disagree with Steven. No diner should have to do homework regarding what wine to order before they go out to a meal. If I'm going to a BYO, for example, I may try to learn, in advance, what the menu will be for the evening to have a better shot at bringing wines that will pair, but that's just me. And if I'm going to a fine restaurant, I may try to read a few reviews to learn what definitely to order and what to stay away from re: the cuisine. But, aside from that, a wine list is usually inaccessible in advance, and to suggest that you can "do your homework" on what wine you're going to want to order with your next meal is nearly impossible. It's hard enough to find current menus online -- it's almost unheard of to find a wine list available for perusal in advance. And homework along the nature of knowing to say, "I like dry, unoaky wines," is not so much research as just knowing how to express a general preference or dislike. But it does one absolutely no good if announcing such a phrase at a restaurant makes no difference because the waitstaff hasn't a clue what to do with the information.

To go back to David's original questions:

"Amid a bewildering array of choices, how to proceed?"

Wow, where are you going that there's a bewildering array of choices? :raz: OK, true, there is the occasional restaurant with a thick tome to read, but for the most part, the wine lists I see are short, generic, uninteresting, and overpriced. If so incredibly turned off, I will order a cocktail, instead, out of disgust. (Not that there's anything wrong with a cocktail! :smile: ) Along these lines, I must rant about the state of by-the-glass programs. A mere handful is usually the best I can find on a menu, usually the most boring choices, so overpriced, and usually poorly stored. Don't even get me started on the lack of half-bottles... if I'm dining with one other person and we're mixing "white" and "red" dishes, is it so inconceivable that we'd want half of one and half of another? Instead, we're forced to pick something inferior from by-the-glass or order something that only goes with half the meal or 2 bottles that will partially go wasted. So many restaurants have wine on their lists that is so overpriced and uninteresting, to begin with -- there is little attempt made to *inspire* people to want to enjoy wine with their meal, it's depressing. How to proceed? To echo others who have already posted in this thread: BYO! Thank goodness for it's popularity in this state.

"In your experience, are servers usually helpful and knowledgeable?"

Absolutely not. They haven't a clue what they're doing, and it's such a shame. They rarely know how to serve (I love having an older bottle of red tossed about so that the sediment gets mixed in, for instance - note dripping sarcasm), and they are frequently belligerent when confronted with a corked or otherwise damaged bottle because they are uneducated about the matter and assume that the customer is being difficult. Just as there are meetings to taste/discuss the dishes of the evening, would it be so tough to take a bottle or two that is offered (at least by the glass) and have your staff try a sip so that they can learn first-hand what it tastes like and have a little confidence in making suggestions? And especially, have the staff smell a corked and an oxidized bottle so they can recognize it! As for a suggestion? Even many of the so-called sommeliers I've encountered are neither well-versed in their inventories nor are they capable in their pairing abilities. When I go to a restaurant where there are dishes with unusual flavor combinations, I want someone skilled to suggest wine that will actually work. AND, they should have more than one option so that if I say I tend to like wine style A versus wine style B, there will be something that works either way. But if there is no real knowledge about the wines being offered, then why bother selling it? They may as well be selling refrigerators or shoes or anything else completely random of which they also have no knowledge. Oh, and please, let's cut out the snobbery in the wine selection process. Wine is meant to bring people together and make meals and events special, not be a source of embarrassment.

"How can you tell when you're being steered correctly?"

Good question, of course. Like Tommy suggested, one well-placed question when asking for advice can tell you a lot. Pick one bottle you know something about and ask a question or two about taste or pairing potential. Or say, "I'm thinking about bottles A, B, or C - which would you suggest based on what we've ordered?" - let one of them be a really off-choice, and see what the response is. Another great indicator: does the person making the suggestions point to lower priced options as well as higher ones, without any insinuation that the lower-priced ones are merely "cheap"?

I could go on and on - poor stemware, lack of vintage dates on menus, etc, but I'll cut myself off for the moment. If you want any more info, David, feel free to email me: ejb5@mindspring.com

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I could go on and on - poor stemware, lack of vintage dates on menus, etc, but I'll cut myself off for the moment.  If you want any more info, David, feel free to email me: ejb5@mindspring.com

:biggrin:

the state of wine "programs" in NJ is dreadful. it's actually dreadful just about everywhere. and when you come across someone with even just a bit of knowledge, it's such a relief. like otto, for example. i sat at the bar with a friend and we got menus and started looking at food and wine. the bartender (dennis, i believe), comes over, unprompted, and sets three bottles up on the bar and 3 glasses. and he proceeds to pour a taste of each, keeping the labels faced away, and then revealing them along with some dialog on each. it turned what would have been a pretty good experience into an awesome experience. the server knew about wine, and engaged us immediately in wine. i mean i can't think of many things i'd rather be engaged in. unforunately you don't find that very often in NJ, although you can. it's just such a pleasure. i'm going to Otto for lunch.

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The word "homework" is a loaded term, and folks are reading a lot into it. A reading of what I've been saying, however, should make clear that "homework" doesn't mean you have do do your homework in the sense of doing anything to serve the restaurant, it doesn't mean you have to choose your wines in advance, and it doesn't mean you have to accumulate wine-geek facts-and-figures on the average percentages of Merlot in different regions (although I happen to find that interesting, and participated on that thread). But there's also no way and no reason to sugar coat it: an ignorant diner gets less out of a restaurant than he would if he took the time to acquire some knowledge of food, wine, dining, and personal tastes. Some people don't want to hear this. They want restaurants to do everything for them. And that's fine -- good restaurants will do everything they can do for you whether you help them or not. But you have the choice to help them help you by bringing more information to the table. If that's homework, fine. It's homework in the sense that reading the libretto before you go to an opera is homework. You don't have to read the libretto. You can just go to the opera. But the opera is likely to be more enjoyable to you if you've read the libretto. It's like learning about a medical condition before going to see the doctor: you learn what questions to ask and the conversation goes much better. It's like being prepared for any given event in your life: for the most part, it helps.

Specifically with respect to wine, the more you know and the better you can relate your knowledge to your preferences, the better you can do in restaurants. Otherwise we should just let computers choose our wines for us: enter what you ordered and what you want to spend on wine, and the computer will tell you the bottle that has been scientifically determined to satisfy the greatest number of people within those parameters. With that system, most restaurants could get away with having 30 or so wines. No need to have these lists of hundreds or even thousands of wines -- those wines are only of interest to the people who do homework, and who wants to do that?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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