Why so hard to get the wine service right?

We brought a bottle of '92 Togni Cab to dinner Friday night…and an incident during the service got me thinking… why is it so hard for restaurants to get the wine service right?

After we were seated, the sommelier stopped by to ask if she could open the bottle. I stated that the bottle had already been opened at home, decanted for sediment, and rebottled. That we were just going to have the bottle with our steaks, and if she could just pop the cork that would be great. I also offered her a taste, which she took.

She proceeded to look at me like I was crazy, popped the cork, and started to pour into my wife’s glass. I got in a “just a tiny taste for us” before she proceeded to pour a good 2-3 ounces in each of our glasses. Again, ultimately not a big deal, as I was happy to check in on the wine and see how it evolved before we enjoyed it with our steaks. But it was also not what I had asked for either.

This was at what is purported to be one of the better steakhouses in New Orleans. The rest of the meal was wonderful. The steaks and appetizers were great and service was top notch.

But again this got me wondering why so few restaurants get this portion of the service correct. Below are two other pet peeves that I see quite a bit of, and that I view as a detriment to service. How do others view these gaffes? Since they are so easily avoidable, why do otherwise service-oriented restaurants continue to make these mistakes?

The one that I actually see quite a bit of, and that frustrates me the most, is when I order the wine, but when the server returns with the wine, they ask who would like to taste, or worse, they just assume the taste should go to my wife or whatever parental unit has joined us for dinner. My understanding is that the person who ordered the bottle should always be offered the taste. Is that not right?

The other I see is where a dish comes out before the wine that was ordered to pair with it. This is most frustrating when we clearly order a given wine one or two courses ahead and indicate to the server that we are ordering it to pair with a certain dish.

I just want to take this opportunity to say that Bistro Jeanty opened my 1981 La Conseillante with a Durand and handled everything perfectly. I would go back for the food anyway but it’s great to know a place that’s serious about it.

I once had a waitress pour over a third of a 750 into my glass while vacationing in Orlando.

Good question. This is a sore point for me right now as we had terrible wine service with a 2004 Il Poggione Brunello on Friday night (at a Michelin starred restaurant.) To give an indication of how bad it was, I had to ask for red wine glasses as the sommelier was about to serve the wine in the default white glasses (!) Then the Sommelier ignored our requests to allow us to pour our own wine. On the second pour around, he got so involved in chatting to us that he didn’t notice how high he was filling up one diner’s glass. I had to finally shout “stop” at him to get him to move to the next glass. So the one diner had about 6 oz in her glass with about 2oz left in the bottle for the remaining two diners.

So I was amused to see Alice Feiring’s article on this issue. Her sommelier used the exact same language that ours did when we said we wanted to pour our own wine: “I’m not doing my job if you pour your own wine.” Maybe they get this line in sommelier school. Fiering’s graphic sure resonated strongly with me:

Waitpeople are very busy and under considerable pressure. Let’s give them a break. What is too little attention at one table might seem to be too much at another table on the same night. Their instinct is to pour wine; that is their job, they are expected to do it, their bosses expect it, and most patrons like it that way. They often can’t hear your instructions over the noise in the restaurant. And there is no rule about who should taste the wine; every table is different. And expecting the waitperson to perfectly coordinate the wine steward and the kitchen 100% of the time is not realistic.
Yes, they sometimes make mistakes. We could all tell a story. Just like all of our co-workers could tell a story about each of us.
Perhaps we are setting our standards just a touch too high.
It’s OK to be a wine geek. It’s not OK to be a wine snob.
Phil Jones

Yes. I’ve been a wait person. I know how stressful it is.

And in the incident I related I didn’t make a big deal out if it. Our table was enjoying ourselves anyway and I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s mood.

But that’s what this forum is for in part, isn’t it? To indulge our inner wine geek or snob. (I guess you’re clear on the difference, and how to draw the line. Not sure I am. But whatever). I for one like reading other’s stories about wine service flops. It’s good to know one isn’t the only persnickety nut out there.

expectations are almost always met when they over communicated and spelled out simply and clear.
before you are sat at the table why not spell everything out to the manager/somm and repeat as necessary all expectations regarding glassware, pour size/frequency, and who is/isnt getting what.
again over communicate, in my experience in both serving as a waiter and as a guest it works.

I think most restaurants I frequent would think I was a royal PITA if I did that. Plus, sounds like too much work for dinner/wine. I’d rather grin and bear it (again) and kvetch here. Or stay in and cook myself.

Good point!
Phil Jones

The only thing that drives me crazy is when they try to pour the entire bottle during the first series of pours. For example, when there are 4 people at the table and the server pours way too much in each glass, resulting in the entire bottle or most of the bottle being finished. . Now I realize some will say that you could say something, but it sometimes happens before you realize it. Plus it can be awkward telling the server to pour less as he is pouring the wine in someone else’s glass. Also, at times there are those as the table who do not want to drink that much. In a nice establishment the servers need to be trained better when it comes to pouring the appropriate amount of wine. If they pour a huge amount in the glasses, there is also a risk of the customer assuming the server is trying to push another bottle-- whether that was the intention or not

Pretty much this.

With the exception of seeking out the somm in advance of sitting down, this is what happened, and is what I described above. The somm was tableside within two minutes of us sitting down. I explained to her I had already opened the bottle, decanted for sediment, that we were having the wine with our steaks, and that just popping the cork for us was all we needed for now.

Could I have been super literal and said “please pop the cork but do not pour the wine”? Sure. I could have. I didn’t as I felt that bordered on being anal retentive.

Restaurant service is one of those topics where you could talk to a dozen people and get a dozen different responses on expectations. I will say though that it’s more than possible to feel let down by service and handle it graciously without coming across as a snob when discussing it. Frankly, food/wine service is one of things where you see a very wide range of experience levels and attitudes which can often lead to disappointment. And it’s not unreasonable to expect a good standard of service when dining at a fine restaurant with a staffed sommelier whose responsibility is certainly more than just selling wines of the list.

It’s okay to hope and even expect for good service and it’s definitely okay to recognize that bad service happens. And that’s coming from someone who is frequently apologetic for wait staff having an off night. While this particular case involved a bottle brought to the restaurant, everyday customers spend hundreds on a bottle off the list and have it served improperly. (Particularly with temperature). There’s nothing wrong with expecting a professional to get these things right most of the time and more often than not I think we are surprised when it actually does occur.

So you didn’t want any wine in your glass until the steak arrived?
Did you plan on finishing the wine and the steak at the same time too?

I learned years ago to tell them up front that we’ll pour the wine. We offer them some but make it clear that their job is to leave us alone. Not to force their unwanted attention on us.

That goes for bottles I buy from them and bottles I bring in. I don’t ask them to cut my steak, to chew my chicken, or to pour my wine. They don’t know how much each person wants, whether everyone liked the wine, or whether anyone wants any more. The reason they pour is to finish the bottle and offer us another one.

We try not to be jerks. They should too. And truth is, most of them aren’t jerks and they’re relieved to be able to take care of their other customers and come taste some wine with us. In any country I’ve visited, I’ve never had a problem by being clear from the get-go.

I got the sense that with a 92’ the concern might be that it could be fragile in the glass especially if it had been double decanted back into bottle. Not the worst offense a sommelier could make, but when dealing with older bottles you certainly want to defer to the customer on its service. No doubt it’s a habit to pour the wine automatically but it’s definitely a moment to be patient when dealing with an older or special bottle.

again this is great. you made your expectations quite clear from the start and everyone wins. no one benefits from ambiguity.

Too many damn “Sommeliers”…

It reminds me of trying to get help in fixing a problem when the person in customer service-medical center-government agency keeps repeating “I apologize sir. I am trying to help you.” when doing anything but.

We planned on finishing the wine with the steak, or shortly thereafter. After looking at the menu, we determined that the appetizers we’d ordered would pair better with a glass from their menu, and we tend to drink quite a bit of wine with our steaks.

Between the taste I took earlier in the day to ensure the bottle was correct, as well as pours for the sommelier and waiter, there were only about two glasses for each of us. As it was, with the pours the sommelier gave us at the beginning, there was just barely enough wine left to get us through the steaks.

Again, the rest of the service was great, and overall it was an absolutely wonderful evening. This was just a blip, albeit a slightly annoying one, on the radar.

Hey, I’m just happy if they have decent stemware. As someone living on the TX/NM border, I crave the opportunity to BYO.