Weirded Out by Wine
Ordering bottles of wine in restaurants leaves me weirded out every time: I feel like an idiot talking to a sommelier, especially when he asks me questions I don't know the answer to. (Do I like white Burgundy? Beats me. It's like asking me if I like a movie I've never seen.) But it's even worse when I have to order where there is no sommelier. What the heck am I supposed to do then? And, god forbid, if something's wrong with the wine, what then? I'm so out of my depth with this stuff that I don't feel confident making them take it back.... What then? Seriously: What then?
Perplexed in Kingfield
Let me tell you a true story. A horrible, true story that happened to little old me, right here in our own western suburbs. I frequently visit restaurants that I don't end up writing about. On the night in question, I was in an iffy-looking strip mall following up a reader tip. The restaurant was fairly pricy, but inside it looked like a diner. I persevered. Our server was 300 years old. She was the oldest working woman in North America, and still bore battle-gore from pulling the wounded off the field at Antietam. She creaked over to our table, and sat down in the booth next to me: "I don't know how much longer I can do this, my hip is giving out," she confided. We discussed her hip, and the inability of doctors to do anything worthwhile even with their fancy motor cars and electric whoozigigs. We eventually approached the subject of food, which she assured us was all good—though she hadn't tasted it, as it was foreign food and did not agree with her. Then we all settled in for a lengthy exegesis on foreigners and digestion. However, she confided, a lot of people did like the food, and the people who made it were so sweet, you wouldn't believe it. I came to believe it, as I heard about how the oldest sons of the family had taken it upon themselves to drive our server to the very ends of god's green earth, and also to Byerly's. "Do you know how much Ritz Crackers cost today?" she demanded.
Suffice it to say that my date and I decided to help minimize this woman's suffering, and put our order all in at once—appetizers, wine, dessert, everything. And then we helped her write it down on the pad, because she had arthritis. When the domestic Pinot Noir arrived, it was gruesomely corked—which is to say, contaminated with a funky-smelling compound called TCA. Specifically, it smelled like an old deck in the rain. And on this deck lay an old, wet dog, an old, wet dog who amused himself with his rotten mushroom collection, which he kept in a special folio of moldy cardboard.
My dinner date, who knew almost nothing about wine, observed: "Everyone likes Pinot Noir now because of Sideways, but I don't think I do." I ignored her, and pushed the glass far away. When one of the restaurateur's sons came to deliver our food, I tried to discuss the wine with him, but he didn't have the language, and sent for our old friend. "Do you like this?" demanded my friend, finally pushing her glass away. "I don't get wine, I guess." I explained to her that it was corked, after which point she brightened considerably: "Well, then, we're supposed to send it back!"
While I am well informed in all things wine—and, I like to think, completely unafraid of servers and sommeliers—I couldn't do it. I just couldn't face explaining to this woman and her supporting cast of gold-hearted immigrants what corked wine was, or that they could return it to their distributor, free of charge. Why do I tell you this? Only to say that social anxiety sometimes hits us all in the wine glass, Perplexed, even if we know way too much about wine. My mother always shrugged off parking tickets, saying: It's just a random fee you pay sometimes, for living in the city. I have adopted this philosophy, and now consider parking tickets to be as randomly undeserved and value-neutral as hail, which may or may not be entirely true, but keeps me peaceful.
I consider interactions like the one with the oldest living server and the corked Pinot Noir to be the parking tickets of restaurant-world: They're just a random fee you pay sometimes for living in a world with wine. But please know that people in wine-world regard it that way too: Wine shops should always take a corked bottle back free of hassle, because they simply return it to the distributor, and a distributor should always take it back, because they should have a cushion built into their profit margins to absorb corked wines. Corked wines account for somewhere between 1 and 15 percent of all wines—the higher percentage being the number promulgated by the screw-top makers, and the lower one being the one supplied by cork-makers. In any event, it happens. There's some thought that it's actually happening more now, because the compound can form when a naturally occurring fungus in the cork interacts with pesticide. And no, this is not a matter of some particular pesticide that is applied to the cork trees, just the average ambient pesticide that we all breathe every day from everyone overspraying pesticide everywhere. Is this enough of a canary in a coal mine for you? It is for me. So if you're reading this while spraying pesticide: Knock it off! Among other evils, you're also increasing social anxiety about wine. But I digress. In order to stop digressing. I phoned up two local sommelier types, and asked them your questions.
"Corked wine is no one's fault," Bill Summerville, the sommelier at one local white-tablecloth palace, told me. "It's not the guest's fault, not the waiter's, not the restaurant's. If it's corked, send it back. There's no reason to make a big deal of it, on either side. If anything, there's an opportunity for the staff to show either their ignorance and lack of caring, or their professionalism." What do they do at La Belle Vie in such instances? "We ask them if they'd like to try another of the same, or move on to something else. Sometimes a corked wine will smell more and more corked as it breathes," Summerville noted. "So if you don't get it right away, just bring it up when you notice it. The waiter will normally be able to get credit from the distributor. So, he can make an ass of himself, or open a new bottle. It happens to everyone: The other night someone brought in an '86 Margaux, and it was corked—flat, totally void of flavor." (This, by the way, is the wine-head equivalent of buying a Lamborghini, waiting several years to drive it, and then hopping in to discover it has no engine. Exceedingly displeasing.)
As to your question about how to ask a sommelier for a wine, Summerville said that if you don't feel comfortable with wine-speak, just name your price: Literally. Say: I want a $25 bottle, a $40 bottle, or what have you. It's just as embarrassing and awkward for the server to hunt and peck for your secret price as it is for you to endure being hunted and pecked at.
"People should be as blunt as possible with the staff," Summerville told me. "By all means say, 'I don't know a lot about wine.' No matter what restaurant I've worked at, the goal is to make people feel comfortable. If the environment is a little intimidating and the list a little intimidating, I tell my staff: Just step into the zone. Let them know one way or another this is Minnesota, and we're relaxed, we're nice. I love it when people say, 'I don't know a lot about wine,' because then I can turn them on to something cool." And what about the elephant on the wine list, the money? Don't sweat that either, advises Summerville: "Just tell the waiter: I want to spend 25 bucks. Speak as directly and bluntly with the waiter or wine person as you can. If you're on a date and want to look like a bigshot, point to something on the list and say: 'I was thinking of something like this,'" which should lead your server to suggest similarly priced bottles.
If you're anxious about shopping the lower-priced parts of the list, don't be. "It takes more skill to pick a good cheap wine" for a wine list, Summerville told me, "especially since all the expensive wines are right in front of you. It's definitely a point of pride with me to find cheaper things for the list, the same way you could spend 60 thousand dollars for a car but get something better at 30 thousand." Just as there are good cheap wines, Summerville emphasized, there are bad expensive ones. "There are so many overblown, overpriced wines that you see at all the steakhouses and corporate restaurants, it's ridiculous." As to no-brainer picks for the wine-list-wary, Summerville says that it's hard to go wrong with Cava, the sparkling Spanish wine, and that anything from Austria or Portugal is a pretty good bet right now, as the regions are so unpopular that no one is importing any of their second-tier wines. If price is no concern, blanc de blanc Champagne goes with everything, and is never a wrong choice, says Summerville.
Does that dull your anxiety to a nice, soothing background noise, Perplexed? If not, I also talked to Tim Niver, former general manager at Aquavit and current co-owner and server at his gastro-diner the Town Talk Diner, and he told me that if truth be told, most of the people who go on and on about wine are just blowhards anyway. "Put the big talker in a blind tasting and have him tell you which is a Cabernet, which is a Merlot, which is a Chianti—chances are 95 percent of the population can't do that, including me. Blind tasting is a hard game, and, that said, most people probably wouldn't know the difference between a really great bottle of wine and a good one. [With] a 1982 Chateau Petrus versus a Barossa Valley Shiraz, the subtle differences are lost on most people." Furthermore, Niver told me, when you look at your neighboring tables in a fancy white-tablecloth place, please know that all but a handful of your fellow diners are drinking in the $45 to $80 range—or at least they were at Aquavit. Those premium-price wines are on the list partly because if they're not, the restaurant becomes a less attractive destination for the 5 percent or so of expense-account diners and big-wine hunters. That $300 wine? No one's expecting you to order it, and if you haven't dedicated your life to the stuff by now, chances are it wouldn't make a $300 impression on you anyway. Does that feel insulting? Or anti-democratic? It doesn't bug me, but maybe that's just because I've gotten enough parking tickets to find inner peace.
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