"Give me back my bottle!"
How many times have I felt like that anguished infant when caught in sommelier turf wars about bottle control? Too often.
I don't get combative. Instead I put my hand up and say, "Thank you, but I'd rather do it myself."
But I never thought my pouring my own bottle could be taken as a sommelier's failure until back in May when hanging with my friend David Fields who was up from Philly. We were at Rebelle on the Bowery, taking the first sips of the Richard Leroy 2012, Clos des Rouliers.
The person behind the bar tried to refresh our glasses. I flashed up my hand up, signaling, no. David had the same impulse. He asked that we remain be in charge of pouring our next fills.
Seeing us handle our bottle, the sabering champ sommelier Patrick Cappiello, came over, he was smiling but was perturbed. "I hate when I see this," he confessed. He then picked up the bottle to pour. But--but...we tried to say, and he explained, "If I'm not pouring, it means I'm not doing my job."
But we argued, you are. You are letting us enjoy our bottle our way. You are doing your job.There are times when two people are not interested in splitting the bottle evenly. There are times you want to make sure you keep track of what you drink. There are all sorts of reasons that a diner could want to take charge.
He pushed back. He knew the indignities. He knew sommeliers who over pour, accelerating the speed which a drinker goes through a bottle. He knew the too much in a glass syndrome. He knew the difficulty in having a sommelier hover, when the diner wants them to disappear. But it was his job to determine how to play the situation correctly, with all of the variables. And with Patrick, I trust him enough and I've a good enough rapport with him, that I usually relinquish my bottle to him, as I have done and happily so, on other occasions.
But whether high service or low service, I don't get how it's possible to intuit all of the drinking eccentricities at a table. Let's take low.
Last week I was out to dinner with friends at a newish French place on the Bowery.
We were allowed corkage and my generous friend had brought two stellar bottles, one of them a crush-worthy, acid on the head 1996 Krug, (Oh, for the old days of glorious Krug.)
Early on in the evening another friend joined us for a quick apero. The waiter came over and poured him way more than he wanted--he needed to run back to his restaurant and take charge there. I looked at the glass thinking, oh my, what a waste. That hurt. Then as usual, the person who drinks fastest got topped off. In fact the waitress basically emptied the entire bottle into her glass, as if the 1996 Krug could easily be replaced. While we were in the hands of a waiter and not a trained wine person, I've yet to see the wine pro who didn't mess up on the top off, at least some of the time.
Eduardo Porto Carreiro (of the new Untitled at the Whitney) said ten years ago he might have been offended if a customer wanted to take charge, now? He just understands and informs his staff. Aldo Sohm says he usually gets this request for religious reasons, so he of course obliges (why orthodox Jews would be dining at Le Bernadin is another question.)
The most involved response came from Erin Scala who now works in Virginia at Fleurie.
"While I want diners to trust me to pour correctly and intuitively for them, when I am on the other side of the table, I'll take matters into my own hands if I need to. I'll ensure whoever is pouring is aware of any oddities at the table (i.e. "my grandma doesn't drink that much and is only going to have a sip"). I'll give every staff a chance, but the moment they lose my trust I will politely request to pour my own for the rest of the night. Winemakers work too hard for their wine to be left in glasses at the end of the night because a server over-poured someone who didn't want to drink that much. I have been over-poured at many restaurants by unintuitive servers, or by up-selling servers who pour out the whole bottle before making it around the table. It's really not that difficult to ration wine equally from a bottle. If someone can't do it, they are either inexperienced or doing it on purpose. And I can't just sit back and watch as someone messes up the distribution of a prized bottle I have just paid good money for! "
That evening at Rebelle, we commandeered our bottle back from Patrick. I mean, it's not personally. Patrick can pour for me any time, but in all these years of drinking out, it's a trust issue and I've been burned more times than it's been good. Trust gets tougher and tougher, not easier.
The thing is, from Eduardo to Erin to Aldo, all feel a twinge of damn, when they can't interact with the table and the thought that perhaps they failed. The only reason Patrick made his feelings known so honestly was because he knew us.
I'm glad he did because I learned something that evening; when I ask for control of the bottle, a wing of an angel falls to the ground. So, the next time, I'm going to execute my request with a little extra softness. After all, it might be in the sommelier job description, along with sensitivity, but having ESP is really not.
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