Serves You Wrong – When Restaurant Wine Service is Bad

Being served tepid Champagne in an expensive restaurant during a Sydney summer is one of my bugbears. This happened recently in a restaurant in one of our top international hotels, and a gentle complaint elicited no action at all. At the same restaurant, which is expensive, by the way, I was repeatedly served wine AFTER the food had arrived at the table. I can forgive a lot of shortcomings in wine service, but that’s not one of them. The wine must always arrive before the food.

There was also the high-profile Sydney wine bar in which a sommelier with a French accent regaled me and my dining companion with far more detail about wine than we wanted, failing to read our body language. Sommeliers should be able to tell when the customer wants information and when they don’t, and act accordingly. To harangue diners with boring and irrelevant wine talk (about soils and viticultural methods) is simply rude.

Then there was the almost unbelievable event at a wine bar in another Sydney international hotel in which four wine-professionals were served a New Zealand sparkling wine when we’d ordered a Champagne. My partners were all winemen, one of whom has an extraordinarily sharp palate, and we could all tell after one sniff that it wasn’t Champagne, but the waiter repeatedly insisted it was. After we asked to see the bottle, and it took a long time for him to find and show us an empty bottle, we challenged him and he eventually admitted he had poured a cheap Kiwi sparkling wine (Lindauer) instead of the Deutz Champagne we’d ordered. When asked why, he could only giggle and pretend that he’d been playing a game with us and wanted to see if we could tell the difference.

Instead of waiving the charge for all of our drinks, which would have been reasonable, he simply changed the sparkling wine’s price from the champagne to the Kiwi bubbly. I wasn’t recognised in any of these encounters, so I must assume I received standard treatment.

My latest dining debacle happened in France. Now, it’s not unusual today for restaurants to not have a menu, but to serve a set degustation. At Tetsuya’s for instance it works well because there are many small dishes; if you don’t especially like one, there are plenty of others you probably will. And normally, you order your own wine, unless you ask the sommelier to take charge.

Not so at Esprit du Vin, in Albi, south-west France. Dinner for two, without dessert or coffee or expensive wine, cost $250, so we’re not talking about a cheap eatery here.

The food was superb, including possibly the best goat dish I’ve ever eaten – roasted simply with herbs and served with beans and garnishes.

However, like most wine-lovers, I like to have a say in what I’m to drink and eat when I dine out. Here, for the meal, we were simply given a list of possible ingredients and asked if there was anything we did not wish to eat. My partner told the waiter ris de veau (veal sweetbreads) was the only thing to avoid. And guess what turned up in the tossed beans? Little morsels of ris d’agneau, whereupon the waiter/sommelier argued that these were not veal sweetbreads but lamb, and therefore it was OK. Well, it certainly was not OK for my partner.

We were presented with a wine list but then told we could not order wine: the sommelier would choose it for us. This was so that the wine could be selected specifically to marry perfectly with the food. It was all to be a lovely big surprise. We were not choosing our food (there would be an entree and a main course, but they would be chosen by the chef), so it followed that the wine would be a surprise, too. The whole concept was termed a ‘discovery’ meal. Well, the sweetbreads certainly were a discovery – of the nasty kind.

The sommelier chose a local Gaillac white wine – made from mauzac, a local grape – to go with a splendid, richly-sauced dish of scallops. It was a pleasant enough wine but unexciting, and when the sommelier asked if we enjoyed it, I had to volunteer that I thought a chardonnay, such as one of the several smart white burgundies on his list, would have been a better match. He seemed offended, then told us he would not be opening an expensive bottle as there were only two tables of two dining that night, and he could not justify serving an expensive wine. This of course, made us feel somewhat less special than we already felt.

The main course was adequately partnered with a Cotes du Rhone red, also an inexpensive wine, albeit a very good Cotes du Rhone: Perrin Reserve 2009 (tastings).

The coup de grace was the realisation that, for all his protestations that the “sommelier’s choice” concept was to ensure that we received wine expertly partnered with the food, the other diners were both receiving the same two wines as us, from the same bottles – although they were served quite different dishes. So much for the sacred art of food and wine matching!

I can understand that restaurants want to innovate, and they want to feature their sommeliers – to whom they pay premium wages. But it does seem that in some quarters, restaurant wine service is getting increasingly bizarre.


First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 14 June 2011.

 

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