Long before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the restaurant world, what was once the classic role of sommelier—or, if not officially certified, a dedicated wine director — had morphed into something … well, different, as many somms elected to pursue careers outside the endless grind of restaurant life.
Of course, finding and keeping good employees has been an industry issue for some time. (As someone married to a restaurateur, I have plenty of eyewitness experience with this disheartening reality.) The pandemic, naturally, has made the situation trickier still, and two-plus years into this catastrophe, the staffing situation remains a serious challenge for every strata of the industry.
These days, even many restaurants with reasonably serious wine programs—outside, perhaps, the Michelin-starred—may not employ a somm or wine director, and not necessarily out of choice but availability. Compound that situation with servers who may be relatively green, or at least new to the place they’re working at, plus newly minted wine directors with limited experience, and you have a recipe for wine roulette: you may get lucky, but probably not.
Recently, my wife and I settled in for lunch at a favorite San Francisco eatery with what I consider to be a model wine list: not overly lengthy, offering a range of excellently chosen and well-priced bottles from both the old and new worlds, and with a short but likewise fine selection of wines by the glass.
However, it was lunch service and the staff were largely recent hires, so the situation was far from ideal. First our server brought a different Champagne than the one we’d ordered. Easily rectified, but when the correct bottle appeared, it proved to be one of those bubbly bottles full of pent-up energy. The server clearly had little experience opening such a bottle, and after he wrestled uncorking the thing, we looked on with minor horror as something like a glassful gurgled relentlessly onto the sidewalk. Then there was a rather awkward rearrangement of our table to settle on where to place the ice bucket.
Before the pandemic, I would likely have let my displeasure be known. But in this case, it was obvious that our server was not only in training but nervously trying his best. So rather than reacting like an entitled jerk, it seemed that some gracious understanding was in order.
As a wine merchant by trade, I’m adept at navigating most wine lists, even if I may not be familiar with every bottle offered. I also know at what temperature I want my wine, what pour level in the glass provides the best experience, and how to detect a wine spoiled by cork taint. But how can “normal” people, i.e., those who enjoy wine but haven’t chosen to make it a hobby — or, as with some of us, an obsession — work around these potential dilemmas?
Here is some practical advice that might help increase your chances of getting lucky.
Should you be fortunate enough to be at a restaurant that still employs a wine director, or at least has a knowledgeable staff member, ask questions. Tell them what you like and the price window you’d like to spend within.
But say, for example, that it’s a weekday lunch service and being short staffed, the restaurant has no such person available. In this situation my advice is to default to a sparkling wine. One may still find it something of a crapshoot, but here one can usually find something tasty, interesting, and food-friendly to accompany a variety of dishes.
Check the cork
When your server opens the bottle and either offers the cork to you or sets it on the table, please take a moment to smell the end that was in contact with the wine. I can tell you that, while thankfully less of an issue than it once was, wines spoiled by cork taint still account for a small percentage of bottles we encounter. At worst the wine will smell of damp newspaper or dirty socks and a sip will leave an unpleasant, “mousy” aftertaste. At best the wine will be dull and lifeless—which is something far harder to detect, especially if the wine is unfamiliar.
If the cork smells off, or the wine seems to be, don’t be shy about asking their opinion (or if necessary, a manager’s), or about pressing the point if you really feel the bottle you ordered is compromised. A good place will respect your concern and will replace that bottle with a fresh one if need be.
Control your temps
The temperature of wine is another issue when dining out (and at home — a topic I’ve covered before in this magazine). While some restaurants carefully ensure that the reds are stored not too warm and the whites not too cold, plenty of others do not. Both cases will dumb a wine’s expressiveness. So if the wine arrives at a less than ideal temperature, don’t feel awkward asking for a cooling bucket for your red, or to forgo one if a white is too cold.
Ask for the glass half empty
Few non-geeks realize that the fill level of a wine glass is critical, especially on the “nose.” Too many servers believe they should “top off” a patron’s wine glasses willy-nilly, to appear attentive. A bad idea.
First, the best fill level is roughly a quarter to one-third up the bowl (visually where the glass’s “waist” sits). This allows the aromas to evolve, and gives one room to swirl the glass — to aid what is an equal part of wine enjoyment. Second, mixing a wine with the same one but of a different temperature can likewise dull the experience. Because you’ve been enjoying the wine in your glass for some minutes now, and it’s been exposed to oxygen, opening up and evolving in character, it’s fruitier, for example; the tannins have softened, and it’s most likely warmed up in the glass from bottle temperature. When a server tops off that glass, it’s like pouring a brand new wine on top of what remains, creating a mixture that’s likely not the same as what you may have been enjoying to that point. So if your server is constantly topping off your bottle, politely let them know you prefer to pour for yourselves.
Finally, remember that patience is a good thing, especially in our current world, where we’re all a bit battered by this pandemic. Your restaurant owner wants you to have the most pleasurable of experiences, even if your server may be having a rough shift for whatever reason. So be cordial, but also be politely sure you’re getting what you paid for.
—Wayne Garcia is the proprietor of DIG Wine