I was debating this to myself and then thought “surely others on WB have faced this conundrum before” … so curious what you did and how it worked out. If you are on vacation and have reservations somewhere exceptional (TFL, Inn at Little Washington, Per Se, etc) do you bring one of the best bottles from your collection (DRC, Screaming Eagle, whatever)?
Part of me feels like, “if not now, when WOULD be the occasion” … and most of these places have VERY high corkage fees which you want to make “worth it” … but the other part feels like 1) wine like that is meant to be enjoyed with fellow enthusiasts and 2) the wine may overshadow the food and make an otherwise memorable meal into a memorable bottle of wine and you forget the meal.
So anyway … what have you done? How did it work out?
I do not combine very special restaurants (talking tasting menu type places here, mostly) with very special bottles. To me, they rarely marry well in practice, though I totally understand why the combination makes sense intellectually. I’ve done it myself in the past for sure, and usually have wished I’d done things differently.
I deeply believe that the most complex and exquisite food is best accompanied by high quality, but more straight forward, wines. Similarly, I strongly feel the most complex and important bottles are best complemented by (again) high quality, but simpler food. As an example, one of the best Burgundies I have ever had, an '86 Leroy Musigny, was lifted to stunning heights by a perfectly seared duck breast, potatoes roasted in the fat, and haricots verts with a little butter.
To the question of “what would be the occasion,” well, I don’t really think you need one.
Sarah’s response is great. I prefer my best wines at home or the home of a friend where there are fewer distractions where I can focus. I too prefer simpler food with great wine like a simple grilled beef tenderloin with red Bdx or Rhone, simple chicken or salmon with Pinot/Burg, and something like sole with a great white. Cheers!
On of our favorite ways to enjoy a great Champagne is with a bowl of popcorn and a movie. The popcorn is a great foil. The other (and this is especially good for BdB Champagnes) is just steamed lobster and lemon. Simple matches that are ideal for wonderful Champagnes.
These are good questions and I think it depends. We have a pretty special restaurant in Providence, RI that used to be in Bristol, RI. One time we wanted to celebrate a friend’s birthday milestone when the restaurant was still in Bristol. We called a few weeks ahead to make a reservation and explain to them the reason for dinner that night and whether they had a corkage fee. The fee was not exorbitant at $25/bottle so we decided to bring special wines…Dom Perignon, Domaine Leflaive Chev. Montrachet, and a DRC La Tache. All were appropriately aged(10-20 yrs) and all were on song. What we did was sent a small pour back to the chef for each wine. He was so pleased we received more dishes from the tasting menu than we originally ordered. Then towards the end of the night he came out to visit with us. We left a hefty tip for the wait staff for their fabulous service. Great night and prefect restaurant to celebrate at for a special birthday.
If I am going to splurge $300+ per person for a tasting menu, I would usually just go all in and get the wine pairings. Often bring nice/special wines to restaurants with more traditional menus that I can control the pairing with.
I’m with Scott, when dining at a high end tasting menu place, going with the wine pairing usually fair better in terms of pairings.
As Sarah aptly put, it’s hard to have a wine that can marry well across the entire range of a large tasting menu—though I think Champagne may come close. For drinking special bottles, preparing high-quality simpler meal usually let’s the wines shine their brightest and take centre stage rather than playing a ill-fitting supporting character role.
I think it depends on how many people are going and what the “special wine” is. There’s a fair amount of variation - some dishes can overshadow or clash with an 86 Leroy Musigny (not that I’ve had one), but I’d be less concerned about an 89 Haut Brion. As for the number of people - if you’re going with 4 people and bring 4 bottles, you can control the pairings much better so don’t run into this issue. I’ve done higher end BYOB at higher end restaurants and thought it has been perfectly fine, though again - with a group of 4 people who are into wine.
Personally, I think restaurant wine pairings are a poor choice. I’d much rather get a solid bottle than leave the choice up to someone who doesn’t know my palate. Also, wine pairings tends to be the highest margin points for restaurants, which often doesn’t fill me with confidence.
I think that’s kind of what I’m thinking … that the marriage is better on paper (I.e. “drinking a bottle of Screaming Eagle at TFL”) than in practice. I do generally subscribe to the idea that wine pairings can be (and are) over-thought, but I also think I might enjoy the bottles at home with good company more than as a production at a restaurant.
Tasting menus always include courses that will clash with whatever wines we bring. Wine directors know how what to pair with those courses. I often find a great pairing is a better experience than a great wine that doesn’t quite go with the food. So, the suggested pairings often seem like the best option.
That said, Champagne goes with almost everything. I have had Champagne with most of a tasting menu, maybe with a glass of red to supplement, and not been disappointed. Also, BYO is a lot different with 4 people than with 2. 4 people could bring 4 bottles and have a good option for almost any course. Plus, several of my favorite meals have been omakase sushi, and I will absolutely drink my best Champagne and Riesling with that.
If there’s a wine so special to me that I only have one bottle and am unlikely to ever have it again, I would rather drink it at home or with friends. The restaurant experience can be a distraction if I want to get as much possible out of the wine.
I agree with Doug for the most part. I have done both depending on the circumstances. Sometimes I enjoy the adventure of the suggested wine pairing, especially when the focus is on the food. But the wine pairings are never a “value” play IMO. Also, there may be one or two wines accompanying a tasting menu that you might not be fond of the variety or blend - for example, if you do not like Riesling, or Cab/Syrah blend or Pinotage. When we went to the Inn at Little Washington to celebrate our anniversary we brought a champagne and bordeaux from our anniversary year and it worked great. Recently, we went to the Inn to celebrate a milestone with our daughter and, after reviewing the pairings, simply bought off the list (Walter Scott 2015 X-Novo which was reasonably priced all things considered).
French Laundry will not allow corkage if the wine is on their list. That being said, probably 15 years ago, I checked the list, brought two bottles, clearly not on the list, one was a DRC La Tache and the other an 1982 Mouton Rothschild. We had taken our neighbors there for showing us around Tuscany that summer. They told me the 82 Mouton was on their list, but during the meal I made the comment out loud, it was not on their list. At the end of the dinner, they came over and said, yes I was correct and they could open it. Total BS. We had the Mouton the next day at Tre Vigne, and it blew the La Tache away…
At home we have two huge distractions (ok, not so huge, both are under 4 feet) and dinner, while always a family affair, is generally over fairly quickly. If I want to open a special bottle in a setting that will allow me to really appreciate it, it is not going to be at home.
With some friends we took '82 Mouton and '86 Mouton to the French Laundry about 15 years ago. Took them over in the afternoon to consult about decanting-ahead time (good idea at that point; even more decanting ahead would have been appropriate) and to make sure they agreed that the wines were not on their list.
We had white wines off their list that went well with the earlier courses and the Moutons were splendid with the latter part of the menu. A highly recommended experience, very memorable! I also recommend going to the restaurant in advance. It’s a sign of respect, and good for ironing out any rough edges (we had to withdraw an '82 Margaux from consideration on an earlier visit because it actually was on the list).
I love bringing nice bottles to high end restaurants. I will never spend money on the pairing; it’s almost never worth it. The only exception was last year at Mccradys because they knew they were closing the next day so opened up the cellar.
Last couple bottles I’ve brought to restaurants were 07 LT, 07 Clos de Tart, and 17 Rousseau CSJ and they all showed well. In the future for tasting menus with only two diners I’d probably bring a really nice champagne and get reds btg for the meat course assuming they have something good.
In June we went to TFL for our 20th anniversary. First time there for me, just the two of us. Corkage is crazy high, like $150 a bottle. I also generally won’t bring wine that they have on their list to a restaurant, but I don’t have any Screaming Eagle to worry about that. Some places offer a pairing, some don’t. Sometimes it is really spot on (Commis), and you get a great wine to match each course or two. Other times, it just seems inflated. So what did we do? First, they brought us Schramsberg sparkling (and later a whole unopened bottle with our names and “Happy 20th Anniversary” engraved, as we left), which we drank with the caviar and pearls course and a lighter appetizer. Then we had a half bottle of a Loire SB (Sancerre, I think) and then a half bottle of a Villages or PC red burgundy. Both were great with the food without overshadowing it–the precise wines aren’t even emblazoned in my memory, but the meal was. The next table over brought some wines and ordered from the list, and shared a small pour of Eisele SB with us. Perfect.
I don’t have $1000 bottles anyway, but when I open something special, usually it’s at home with a group of friends and something we made ourselves–we have really good cooks in our house.
I have done this on several occasions, but the best was El Ideas in Chicago in 2013, which is BYO. I was taking a colleague and her husband to dinner, and they said they would bring the wine. I brought a LdH and they surprised me with some really nice bottles from their cellar, including a 1990 Ch. Margaux. It was a very special experience.
Incidentally, I am celebrating a birthday this Thursday, and headed to a local nice restaurant, Jont. Corkage is $75, two bottle max. Bringing a bottle of 2004 Dom Ruinart Rose and a 1972 Joe Swan Zinfandel (my birth year.) I’m hoping that will cover the bases for most of the courses. The regular pairing is $195; the “iconic” pairing is $395…and I think we will be more than happy with the two wines. And we won’t drink the entirety of both bottles, so it will be lovely to share some with the staff as well.
Here’s a shot of the bottles we opened in 2013, for fun.