We naturally expect excellent food and service when dining out for a simple meal or to celebrate an important occasion. And rightfully so. But why are the same standards not always applied to wine service even at some of the most renowned restaurants?

This was the subject of a conversation I had recently with José Luis Nazar—a good friend and highly respected wine collector from Los Angeles. In addition to wine, José Luis has many cultural interests and approaches each with deep understanding, knowledge and extreme passion. Inferior wine service harms the entire dining experience and tops his list of “correctable errors.”

While all restaurateurs believe strongly in the proper training of their chef, kitchen crew and wait staff, they often fall short with those serving the wine. Thankfully, here in wine country with our local audience inferior wine service is rare and more commonly experienced elsewhere in the country.

Extensive wine lists, professional sommeliers, expensive glassware and other vinous accoutrements normally found in the five-star establishments here and abroad are not necessary in most eateries. But if restaurants choose to offer wine they should also accept the responsibility to store and serve it properly.

So what are some of the major pet peeves when it comes to wine service, and what can we do about them?

We naturally expect food to be served at proper temperatures but white wines are often served too cold and reds too warm to fully appreciate the character in the bottle. This is perhaps the greatest shortfall in quality wine service and one of the easier ones to correct.

If the red is too warm, request an ice bucket (ideally half water and half ice), ignore the strange look on the server’s face and let the wine cool down for several minutes. If the white is too cold, pour a little in each glass and cup the bowl in your hands while the rest of the bottle warms up on the table.

Many servers want to overfill your glass either because they don’t know better or just want to sell more wine. I suggest the server only pour a small amount in each glass to let it breathe. If the server then proceeds to refill the glasses of those not drinking, I request they leave the bottle on the table and say, “We’ll handle it from here.”

Proper glassware is necessary to the enjoyment of fine wine. We expect proper china and flatware when dining out so why not expect the same with the wine glass? While there’s not much we can do about this, I have on occasion requested a highball bar glass (sort of Italian style) to enjoy my wine rather than sip from a small wine glass.

The “eleventh commandment” of wine service is that wine always be served before the food arrives, but often this is not the case. If the wine is not served in a reasonable time, I remind the server to bring it before the dish arrives. It just takes a little prodding.

In the days of computer printed wine lists and perpetual inventories, it always irks me when the wine ordered is unavailable, especially when the same thing happens with the replacement. And there is little excuse when the vintage or vineyard designation ordered differs from the bottle served without first receiving an explanation from the server who should also offer an alternative suggestion.

As José Luis said during our conversation, “Wine service should be seamless, and having to fuss with the server should not be necessary.”

Most responses to my Sept. 18 column “Interpreting a tasting note” echoed reader disappointment with the current trend of using unfamiliar terminology and would prefer something more understandable. But others took the opposite view and that’s what a controversial topic is all about.

John—Very well written and perfect for those of us who enjoy wine on a regular basis but do not have the imagination or interest in playing word games. I liked your description of balance, structure and texture.

Rouene—I’ve tasted gooseberries (fresh off the bush) and smelled cat pee (fresh from the cat). And I recently had a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc that reminded me a bit of both!

Steve—Hooray! I am in such agreement!

Jon—Yes, I know all the crazy descriptors can seem (and actually be) pretentious. But we are stuck trying to use words to convey experiences capturing the senses and painting word pictures.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.


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