Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wine-wise, I don't really know what to call myself. I have always prided myself on opening as much of the wine in our restaurant as I can--it gives me a sense of accomplishment [I am busier and faster than any waiter on any night] and keeps me directly connected to our guests in a nice, unobtrusive way. However, when guests ask if I am the sommelier I have to say, "no, I'm the restaurant's manager, but I try to open as much of the wine as possible".

I love wine--I'm drinking some right now as a matter of fact--currently the Copain Le Copains James Berry Vin Rouge is very pleasantly kicking my ass as I shoddily type my innermost feelings. I own a huge amount of wine personally and have taken great pride professionally in building an award-winning wine program with a renowned commercial collection, all in a fairly non wine-savvy part of the country--thank God for business dining.

I just can't seem to connect with many other people who have made restaurant wine service either the whole of a large part of their career. I just think most of them are trying too hard.

We have here, as I have mentioned briefly before, a new lounge downtown that has heralded itself as our town's first temple to Dale DeGroff and Tony abu-Ganim. The bartenders refer to themselves as "mixologists" not with proper self-loathing but with pride, and it takes about 10 minutes to get a frigging Manhattan. Ice cubes are big enough to sink the QM II, every drink has a name that makes it sound like it could be a fringe character from "The Great Gatsby" instead of an alcoholic beverage, and the self-important douchebags--I mean "mixologists"--won't let you drink in peace but insist on constantly sermonizing on the history of the cocktail [usually employing less than accurate factual information as an extra insult]. The one saving grace for Club Cocksucker is that it has managed to stumble into a really nice winelist, exemplary in fact for a drinks-only establishment.

Recently, my girlfriend and I [apologies to the deceased trial lawyer William Keleher] stopped in to this place to drink ourselves sane and quickly realized we were sitting next to a table full of sommeliers, including six or seven nationally known names [at least well known in the wine and hospitality industries]--apparently this alcohol brain-trust had been traveling together from one high-profile wine festival in our neck of the woods to another in the west and had been way-laid either by shoddy weather or shoddy airline.

Ensconced in our snuggly booth with our equally snuggly 1996 Penfolds 707 Cab, we waited for these icons of imbibation to start in on the "quirky, edgy" stuff--the aligotes and albarinos, the gruner veltliners, and the crisp Portugese whites. The Greek reds, the Argentinian Malbecs, the obscure American barberas, and last but most important the hallowed, HOLY BURGUNDY. I know I am ignoring the oft-quoted sommelier's de riguer obsession with "bubbles", but have decided I will leave this publicly emasculating fixation with champagne and sparkling wine for another time.

They didn't want any of the garbage that they are constantly spouting off about in magazines, on the Food Network, or at the massive cattle-call tastings that wine snobs flock to three or four times a year. They wanted good wine. They wanted big cabs, full-forward California pinots [or failing one of those one of the near-perfect Oregon wines from Domaine Serene]. They were looking for Kongsgaard syrah, Pahlmeyer, Glaetzer Amon-Ra. The guy responsible for them [maybe an agent, maybe an event producer--I don't really know] was amenable to whatever they wanted as it became clear that several of the biggest names in "celebrity sommelier-dom" were just starting a surprise 10 or 11-hour lay-over that clearly did not include a hotel. When they asked us about our wine and I replied that it was great, but that I was disappointed that I had already drunk all of the 1992 Shafer Hillside Select [a blatant, calculated lie], the bird-like, female TV-personality in the group nearly swooned.

Here were these people that carry contempt for oaked chardonnay and high-alcohol cab around with them like the true cross traveling the path to Golgotha, yet "in private" they were drooling over just the wines they publicly rail against.

Full disclosure: dry rose's are mostly fabulous wines that I truly wish were more popular in this country. The re-emerging wine industries of Spain and Portugal are achieving great successes as they continue to modernize and mature--just as those of South America, South Africa, and even some parts of Eastern Europe. Champagne and sparkling wine can be unbelievably enjoyable and fulfilling in a myriad of situations and for a nearly-unending list of occasions. The crisp whites of Austria, Alsace, and Germany match many foods masterfully and are woefully under appreciated.

With this disclosure proudly stated, I still find no justification for most of the prominent wine professionals in and around the hospitality industry to so blatantly shill for the wine "fringe" while so obviously ignoring the public's [and, surreptitiously their own] tastes.

Cabernet is king because it deserves to be. The flavor of a Peter Michael chardonnay is not ponderous and over-oaked, it is the flavor of a Peter Michael chardonnay--it is also far more satisfying to almost everyone than drinking the liquid slate of a grand cru chablis Le Clos. The heady richness of the DuMol Green Pinot Noir simply tastes better than the washed out violets and pebbles of a tired old chambolle-musigny. When I travelled to New York last year and went to a famous restaurant and ordered the 1990 Penfolds Grange as a birthday present to myself, the famous sommelier admitted that it was one of his favorite wines of all time, and he helped my companion and I drink two bottles--three weeks later I read him quoted in an issue of Sante, or Wine Enthusiast, or some other trade rag about his love for sangiovese, temperanillo, and of course dirt-and-acid burgundy. He claimed to eschew oak and fruit for structure and "terroir" [my most hated term].

"In vino veritas"--In wine there is truth. Apparently, not so much.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"A wise leader remembers that everyone views service in their own terms..."--unknown

When I was in New York gorging and drunkening myself last year, I noticed an odd trend during my occasional moments of lucidity. The bottles of wine, and there were very many of them, were almost never left at or near the table while we were dining. No matter whether brunch, lunch, or dinner and no matter whether a casual temple to food and wine or a NY Times four-star juggernaut--the bottles of wine I ordered were generally handled and kept out of sight.

It would never occur to me to not leave the bottle[s] where the guests could constantly see them. It would also never occur to me to open, pour, or decant wines away from the table. However, time after time these very actions were taken well away from my inebriated yet still attentive presence.

There have certainly been times when I have had a cork decompose, or have encountered one of those ridiculous clumps of wax wrapped around the top of a bottle [to supposedly denote quality] and have had to explain the problem I was faced with before excusing myself with the bottle so as to avoid making a mess at the table. But over and over again, I watched perfectly sound bottles whisked away from me after the initial presentation like brides before their ceremonies.

I am no expert. I am not Paul Roberts from Thomas Keller's restaurants or Larry Stone from Rubicon [first the restaurant, now the winery]. I can't out-taste Roger Dagorn or out-suggest Daniel Johnnes. I am, however, competent enough to open, serve, and even decant a wine if needed in front of my guests and without the need of a dedicated staging ground or conveyance of any kind.

I do not expect that any foul play occurred with any of the wines I ordered--I'm sure they were well-cared for and that we received all the wine from each bottle. The servers and wine professionals were adroit and courteous. I just don't understand, personally, why the bottles had to be kept sequestered.

These memories came rushing back to me tonight in the middle of a very challenging Saturday when one of our guests very courteously requested that, "the wine remain on our table". As soon as the gentleman made his request I informed him that such close placement was our policy. Later in the meal, once we had established a rapport, I asked him why he had made such a request. He then told me about staying in a very expensive, very luxurious hotel in Washington DC just a few days before and having his very expensive bottle of DRC burgundy whisked away to behind a Asian-style screen where it was badly decanted and where it remained throughout the meal--he remarked that his guests had no idea they were drinking La Tache until one of the men went to the bathroom and passed the empty bottle on his way. Upon his return the guest remarked as to the great fortune of whoever was lucky enough to be drinking the grand cru burgundy, forcing the host to let the guest know that his cloudy, particulate-filled glass of wine was the very same La Tache.

The best restaurants in New York [and other urban centers, I imagine] can get away with many things I would like to emulate but could never pull off. I would like to serve whites from storage at cellar temp and then politley ask if the guests would like "a bit more chill". I would like to have an inventory so vast that I could serve only mature wines, without apology to those who "don't like smelly old wine". I would covet the chance to refuse to chill champagne glasses and jump at the opportunity to match wines to a nine-course tasting menu. Unfortunately, it ain't gonna happen for me unless I relocate. What I am not dying to do however is kidnap every bottle that deserves a crystal upgrade and hold them hostage till the are empty and useless--if you love your wine, set it free and let me drink it--let me watch it disappear before my very eyes and don't go too far with that list, I might need to make another choice.