Two weeks ago I had the great pleasure of going to Gramercy Tavern with a reader. He chose the wine, and man, did he do it well, a 1981 Tondonia that was positively brilliant and reinforced my belief in wine as an extraordinary life force. A beauty. Ethereal, grace, power. A tour de force. A humbling experience. And it was one of the better prices around town at $375, more than our food bill.
At the end of the meal, when the gentleman asked me how he should tip, I was a little surprised and wondered, as I am prone to insane self doubt, had I gotten it all wrong? I thought the common practice was 20% on it all, unless service was inept.
But I was curious. In the old days there was a 'wine captain fee.' Hardly anyone used it. Sometimes money was pressed into palms. In any event, until recently it seemed, many people resented tipping on the beverage, not realizing the time and effort it took to create a great list and maintain it.
I surveyed some colleagues to find out whether per Pete Wells' recent column was wine tipping also an outmoded system.
Levi Dalton gave a great overview of the current situation.
Pascaline Lepeltier at Rouge Tomate per Levi's note, is one of those not in the tipping pool, which will surprise many of her guests who adore her. When she goes out, though, she shares Juliette Pope's (Gramercy Tavern's) philosophy (and for that matter mine,) take which is to tip 20% and everything but if the bottle reaches a certain amount (usually in the over five figure category) you don't need too - usually 10, 15% will suffice.
Lee Campbell, professional extraordinaire said: I don't know that I'm the person to ask as Brooklyn tipping is a lot more mellow. Not too many weird machinations, but also cheaper bottles than many of the Manhattan restos I've worked in.
In the past there was a financial incentive to lead the diner to something great, and the loss of htat is one of the downsides Dalton sees of today's system. "In general, what is missing is any financial incentive for a sommelier to down-sell a customer. If a customer is considering a $120 bottle and the sommelier recommends an $85 bottle instead, that might be the right recommendation for the customer and the moment, but it won't be rewarded financially.
But to someone like Aldo Sohm, this ain't a problem. He responded this way, "Since we're pretty straight organized at Le Bernadin, and the captains and cashier take care of the checks, so I honestly don't know the answer. It is not in my nature to look what someone tipped - that would spoil the beauty of being in this industry for me. I'm not sure if that's helpful to you?
Yes, Aldo. It was very helpful. And so were all of you who participated.
So, here's what I think. I am sorry that direct tipping to the sommelier is not par for the course. I am sorry it is in some cases verbotten, not right, it seems. So what to do? If you're a regular at a restaurant give your normal tip, on the entire bill. But if want to give your extra appreciation to the sommelier who goes out of her/his way, especially if you're a collector and have the means, give them gifts of very special wines, or even partial bottles. Go in with something open and say, hey you have to taste this.
The wine will go into their glasses, they'll share and the good will will go on.
After all, a sommelier is in the business for the wine and the love, so show them the love they can pocket and appreciate. And to those of us who don't have great collections, what can we do? A good tip, especially if they are allowed in the 'pool.' Definitely return, and share your verbal love of the wine with the sommelier. Write to management about how valuable the sommelier is to you as a diner. It seems with sommeliers, good old fashioned gratitude is payment in itself. That might be outmoded but it sure is inspirational.