Friday, December 21, 2012

A Wine Service Pet Peeve, and Perhaps, a Solution

Ready for a little complaining? It's the holidays, I know. But indulge me.

I was in Stockholm recently and ate dinner at two different restaurants. In both cases I found the wine service to be excellent. I remarked to my dining companions, who also are wine lovers, that I appreciated the service, in particular the fact that the servers were in no hurry whatsoever to pour our wine. Instead they would open a bottle, offer a taste, and then pour a small glass to each person. Then, they would walk away.

This might not sound terribly special to you, but I very much appreciated it. I find that in many restaurants, servers are in a rush to pour wine and they pour very large glasses, filling the vessel more than halfway. Filling the glass that high is just annoying - it's hard to handle the glass when it's so top-heavy. And I find it hard to enjoy the aromas when there is so much liquid in the glass sloshing around, and so little room left within the glass for air.

If I order wine at a restaurant I want to let it unfold and change in the glass, and I want to experience and enjoy those changes. It's hard to do that if before I've even come close to finishing what's in my glass, the server pounces and re-fills me. 

That said, I can understand why servers do this. It comes down to tips. When people sit down and order a bottle of wine, the server anticipates selling a second bottle, so pouring high and quickly should lead to a higher bill and a bigger tip. Maybe this works some of the time, and some customers don't mind the quick and high pour. But I think it's a misguided strategy, even from the server's point of view. Here is why:

1) Happy customers leave bigger tips.

2) Two people dining together rarely order two bottles of wine. Sometimes they do, but I'm guessing very rarely. So when there are two people at the table, pouring fast and high typically results in the sale of 1 bottle of wine, the same number of bottles that sell when the server pours at a relaxed and leisurely pace. But those two diners will feel happier when they are allowed to enjoy their wine at a leisurely pace, their experience will be better. They are likely to tip more.

3) If a table of four or more people is inclined to order multiple bottles, they will do so because they want to drink wine, not because the server rushes them. Okay, sometimes people will say "what the hell" and order another bottle when the first disappears quickly. But the table that orders another bottle because they are rushed is probably not ordering expensive wine anyway, so the impact on the tip won't be huge. Allowing a table of four to be relaxed about enjoying their good wine encourages them to order more wine.

Here is an example of how a restaurant and a server lose revenue when they pour high and fast: I was with a friend at a popular Manhattan wine bar not long ago. We decided to splurge and ordered a bottle of Champagne. It was a wine I'd never tasted before and I wanted to take my time, to explore the wine. Our server essentially poured the whole bottle into our two glasses within minutes. We couldn't take a sip without having our glasses refilled, and poured way too high. We drank our wine, paid, and left. We might have ordered more wine, but the experience of drinking the Champagne was not so pleasant.

Here is an example of a relaxed pour leading to a good experience: A restaurant in Stockholm called Rolfs Kök ('Rolf's Kitchen' in English, I believe. Get your mind out of the gutter). There were four of us, and as we looked at the dinner menu I selected a bottle of 2002 Hirsch Riesling Heiligenstein from the wine list. The server tasted it and decanted the bottle at a side station, returned to the table, poured me a taste, and then each of us a small glass. He left the decanter at the table and went off to do other work. We talked, chose our dinner, enjoyed our wine. The few Austrian wines I've had from the 2002 vintage have been weird, and this one was too, but it opened nicely and was lovely to follow over an hour. Yes, we drank that wine over the course of about an hour. But by then we had decided upon our dinner, which would include Elk, and we ordered a bottle of 2007 Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin. The server decanted that too, and left the bottle at our table. He returned to pour small glasses as our main courses arrived. We refilled sometimes, he refilled sometimes, and it was relaxed. The wine was very good, strikingly pure and crackling with energy. One friend thought it needed another two or three years in the bottle, I thought it was lovely as is. We enjoyed having the opportunity to see how it changed in the glass. We left a very nice tip.

One of my dining companions in Stockholm commiserated with me on this pet peeve of mine, the high and fast pour. His wife laughed and agreed that the high and fast pour drives him crazy. My friend is an economist, however, and he often finds simple and efficient solutions to life's little problems.

"You know what I do about this now," he said to me. "If I order wine at a restaurant, when the server brings the wine I smile and very politely say to them 'If you don't mind, we will pour our own wine.'"

Wow. Simple and polite, perfectly reasonable. Can it really be that easy? I've thought about this now since my friend suggested it and maybe it is that easy. Sure, there will be times when I'll miss out on good wine service if I preempt the server and say that I'd like to pour my own wine. But more often, I think I will have a better experience (and leave a better tip because of it). I'll try this in early 2013 and let you know how it goes, because I know you are waiting with bated breath.

If this is a pet peeve of yours, how do you deal with it?


Do Bianchi said...

I loved the post about dinner in Stockholm. It looked great...

I share your pet peeve (for the exact same reasons) and I do the exact same thing as your colleague: I politely ask the server if it's okay for me to pour my own wine.

But having worked for many years on the other side of the table, I also recognize that most young people who become professional waiters in our country grew up in a super size culture where pouring everything to the brim — soda, beer, coffee — was always considered a form of consumerist expression.

A good analogy is beer. Until I lived in Europe, I thought — as a 19 year college student — that drafting a head on my beer was a way a bartender shortchanged me. In England, for example, beer is always poured to the brim (lest we not be able to indulge in that 2 minutes to 10 pint).

But then I learned that the head (like the nose of the wine?) was half of the enjoyment... a facile and perhaps overly simplified analogy, but nonetheless...

So I always try to be gentle on that aspiring actor who pours my Nebbiolo to the brim in Brooklyn or West LA... knowing that in the economy of their vision of enjoyment, more is more...

Brooklyn Guy, I'm so glad to be able to take a break from work right now and catch up on my blog reading.

Great post, as always... Hopefully I'll get to see you in January when "the band is getting back together"...

Weston said...

I mean you can tell the server/somm that you would like to pour your own wine once you ordered it this way there is no over pouring and I think that would be acceptable, its like when I order a white and sometimes I ask for it to be decanted I think it falls into your own preference


Unknown said...

I was just telling a friend this is a huge pet peeve of mine. I've started stopping servers when they come back to re-fill my still-full wine glass.

Scott McCulloch said...

Brooklyn Guy, as always, thanks for the post. This reminds me of a column from a few years ago when the late writer/talker/drinker Christopher Hitchens took a break from writing about politics for a week to write about wine service:

--Scott McCulloch

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, this is an extremely annoying tendency in restaurants, especially the few of them whose wine lists actually offer things I'm excited to drink. I've found that there's usually no problem with asking to pour for myself; I will just say "If you don't mind, I prefer to pour at my own pace, plus it's just one less thing for you to have to worry about." This usually goes over well, and I'm left to drink whatever I've chosen in peace. That said, there are definitely certain types of restaurants where the exceptional service, including the beverage program, is part of the complete experience; in those cases, I'll usually just go with the flow (literally), and I'm rarely disappointed.

Anonymous said...

I hate waiters who do that and I tell them off in a polite way especially when it is a restaurant (pretending to be) serious about wine. When you order a bottle you can have some control in the end but what about if you order a glass? I have most glasses (in the USA) served filled to the brim. What I do in those cases is ask for another glass and pour half in there. Most of the time waiters/bar personal look at you like you are from Mars..

Anonymous said...

BG, remarkably, this is one (and only?) time you've been one-upped. Thank you so much Scott for the Christopher Hitchens link. Wow. What a genius...what a loss. But of course, what everyone else says: tell the server simply to bugger off and pour it oneself. Happy New Year all!

Alessia said...

Have you seen the Seinfeld episode in which everyone starts eating chocolate snack bars with utensil? I see this getting as viral: I did it last night and couldn't help giggling (waitress saw it as a confirmation that I'm nuts)

JSK said...

I'm a server in a very wine focused restaurant, and I'll tell you a lot of times it's not the servers fault but management's. If a table orders a bottle, and the glasses don't 'look full' then the server is not 'doing their job.' In the management's view full glasses make it look to other people in the restaurant, that we are giving good service. Low pours look like empty glasses and makes the restaurant seem lazy, or incompetent.

Needless to say this short sighted and simplistic view drives my Somme completely up the wall as his cry's of "short pours only!" are politely ignored.

Also another reason short pours are better for the server: people don't notice they are drinking as much. Tend to order another bottle.

marcus stanley said...

I just flat out put my hand over the glass and tell the server to let me pour. I almost got kicked out of a European restaurant for this once, but at all but the most formal places servers are generally good with it.