The Changing Style of the Sommelier

Americans are more savvy than ever about wine service, and we will not be intimidated, deceived or patronized.

It was a 1990 Barbaresco from the estate of Angelo Gaja, the famous Piedmont producer, and it disappeared from our table faster than you can say “tannin.” The young sommelier had whisked the decanter off our table with a sleight of hand worthy of Houdini, but I managed to get a glimpse: There had been at least an inch of delicious red wine remaining in the vessel. Not one to make a big deal over small details—and deep in conversation with my guests at the table, and in Italy no less—I let the faux pas slide.

A second bottle was ordered: a Barolo from Marchesi di Barolo, also from the superb 1990 vintage. Once again our sommelier provided us with a ceremonial decanting of the $200 bottle of delicious Nebbiolo-based wine. When the decanted wine and the bottle were placed on our table, it was obvious that at least 25 percent of the wine still remained in the bottle. Now, my experience of the decanting process has been that only one or two ounces of sediment-laden wine should remain in the bottle; the rest should be clear wine, suitable for drinking, and should have been in our decanter. But no sooner did I collect these thoughts than the sommelier once again quickly dashed away, bottle in tow.

This time, he didn’t get far. I demanded that he return the bottle to the table and decant clear wine from the large amount of liquid still remaining. Refusing to oblige my request (or faking ignorance of my English), he rudely poured the remaining eight ounces of sediment and wine into a large Riedel stem and sat it in front of me as if to say, “Drink this. I dare you.”

I called for the restaurant owner, who apologized for the sommelier’s behavior. He claimed that the lad had just started and was still learning his trade. I commented that a restaurant with as great a reputation as his should not require its customers to have to learn along with this rookie.

Some time later, as I was leaving the restaurant, I happened by the kitchen door just as it swung open. There I spotted our original decanter, and two glasses partially full of our Gaja; one was being enjoyed by the chef.

There is no doubt in my mind that I was in the right, in both instances. But should I have handled it differently? Is there a code of conduct that can guide us in the nuanced interplay between customer and sommelier?

As a matter of fact, there is. In this issue, Associate Editor Daryna McKeand delineates some of the finer points of dealing with restaurant wine service. How much do you tip the sommelier? How do you stop the servers from over-pouring? Can you bring a bottle from your own cellar to a restaurant? Which would have been the more correct implement for me to have used—a knife or a fork—to threaten that thieving sommelier?

The article is graced with illustrations by Bob Johnson, who also did our cover this issue. It’s pure, but happy, coincidence that Bob’s work appears in the same issue in which his partner of yore, Mike Lynch, submits his first Case Closed column…on the subject of sommeliers, and fear of same. We’re proud to have the work of the old LynchBob team in our magazine again.

Also in this issue, you’ll find the results of Michael Schachner’s trek through Chile’s Colchagua Valley. This is an extremely promising grape-growing and winemaking region, with climate and soil that is so ideal it is attracting the attention of some elite European houses. On the subject of American wine, three of our editors tackle the question that has arisen regarding California Zinfandel: As concentrated, high-alcohol Zins grab the spotlight in many tastings, reviews and awards programs, are leaner, more nuanced offerings being unfairly neglected? In our Pairings department this month, Eugenia Bone introduces us to the rich and lusty cuisine of Gascony, a far cry from the delicate classic French fare we’re accustomed to.

Let me close with a sommelier story that is more familiar to those who are privileged to dine out on a regular basis: Mere weeks after my trip to Italy, I was in New Orleans, dining at one of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, Delmonico. There I encountered a corked bottle of Burgundy. The sommelier quickly removed the bottle and replaced it without comment. It made me think about how far American wine service has come.


Published on March 1, 2002

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