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July 16, 2009

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great article Evan - sorry you got snubbed by the waitress - and if this is a hotspot restaurant your service should have been stellar regardless of what you were returning! Would she have been the same way if you had ordered filet mignon and she brought you the ribeye?? BOth steak but vastly different!
Oh well, chalk it up to experience I guess. I have refused different vintages only twice and haven't been met with opposition either time, since the bottle wasn't opened I felt it was no harm no foul but obviously this waitress didn't have the same opinion.
Cheers!

John,

You work with wine - service is hugely important, right? It's impossible to have all of your staff become experts on the vast world of wine, but that doesn't mean that they can't be trained to handle situations properly. I think this was a pretty basic one. How hard is it to train people about wine? I'm asking honestly; I'm sure it's a challenge, but this was a fail.

That's a discouraging experience. I'm not a wine drinker but I'm a craft beer geek who asks for cellar lists wherever they are available. I'm afraid it's not uncommon for half the list to be sold out - resulting in the waiter going back and forth multiple times returning empty handed. You'd also be shocked the number of times the wait staff has asked something along the lines of, 'What makes a beer worth all that money?' With a sneer. They don't need to share our love of good wine or beer, but if we're going to fork over money to them, a little respect would be a good start.

Kyle,

Interesting that you bring up the "sold out" portion of the list. That night we followed up by attempting to order a right-bank Bordeaux off their list but were told it was also sold out. A friend then wondered if some restaurants might toss some items on the list to make it appeal to the true wine lovers, thinking that even if they have to tell the customer that bottle is sold out, the customer thinks the restaurant has good taste in wine. I guess I could believe it, but I'd never allege it without reason.

Regarding beer, I have a lot of friends and family who brew their own and love beer like I love wine. And while my love of beer is somewhat less than theirs or yours, I can't imagine going out to a restaurant, asking for a special beer, and being brought a Bud Light. "What's the problem? In the end it's all beer, right?"

I think it's difficult for those of us who were not there to focus on the server's behavior in that context, although my general opinion is that if a restaurant wants to serve expensive wine at an exorbitant mark-up (which is almost a given) they should defer to any wine "nerdiness" that walks through the door, whether it be rude or not. Isn't that the clintelle they are after?

In short, even if you happened to be acting like a boorish jerk, I think the server should have happily returned the bottle, taken another wine order, and went on about her job without sweating it. What loss is it to her? A bill with wine ordered means a bigger tip and a profit for the restaurant--even the most intense "nerdiness" should be tolerated in that respect.

Even people in tasting rooms in Napa sometimes seem oblivious to the differences between vintages.
Your experience surprises me not as mostly wait staff are part-timers just interested in a ton of accumulated tips at the end of their shift.

Evan -
Service is hugely important to our wine business, both at my wine shop and my families winery. I think at any restaurant with a wine list other than a TGIFridays, the servers should be trained to handle bottles that are corked, wrong vintage, and are otherwise faulted. It is impossible to train employees on the vast world of wine if they aren't interested in geeking out about wine, but having simple standards/training/policy as to how to handle situations with customers wine or otherwise is a simple recipe for happy clientele and return visitors.
Cheers

John, Jason, Vinogirl,

Perfectly said, John. I wonder if I'm over-reacting to the wine list disclaimer about vintages, but it rubs me the wrong way. How often do you guys see wine lists with this kind of disclaimer? I can't help but feels it's lazy and leads to awkward situations.

In my personal opinion, service is WHY we pay the ridiculous mark-ups! That and, for lack of a better term, "ambience." I don't mind paying the mark-up if I'm receiving something for my extra investment, i.e. knowledeable and professional service, interesting and quality wines, well-paired with fine food, in a lovely establishment. Sure I'll pay a mark-up; that's why I'm going out instead of staying home. I want something more. But if the service is poor, the wine list uninteresting, and the pairing recommendations feeble, then what exactly is that mark-up supposed to subsidize?

Hi Evan...

Just now happened upon this blog page of yours and as a 12 year veteran of the restaurant industry working every front of house role from busboy to manager and everything in between including wine steward & many years as a server, I feel compelled to comment....

First of all, I am in complete agreement that the server's reaction to your polite request for the actual vintage you ordered was reprehensible by even the most casual of diners' standards. Truly excellent wine service is a bit of an art form, requiring a high degree of elegance, a steady hand, and a polished presence, not to mention at least a cursory knowledge of the wines on your list and some basic wine concepts. When any of these elements are missing it can leave a very sour taste in a diner's mouth and can throw the whole experience off from that point forward.

All that being said, I don't really agree with your criticism of the "Due to our extensive wine list, vintages are subject to change." comment you found in their wine list. Unless you've managed an extensive wine list, you may not realize that it is by no means a small task as easy as just updating a vintage on a piece of paper. Keep in mind that most restaurants with an extensive list have a dozen or more servers and bartenders working throughout the week, each pulling wine from the cellar, each with their own level of commitment and dedication and each with their own level of wine knowledge. Most restaurants can't afford a full time sommellier or wine steward, so often it is the restaurant manager or bar manager's job to also manage the wine program on top of their already 60 hour work week and enormous responsibilities. Also, it would be unreasonable to expect a restaurant to perform a full inventory of their wines every day - most perform such an inventory monthly. Add to that the fact that wine deliveries come as often as three or four times a week from multiple distributors or vendors and often you still have a few bottles left of one vintage when you receive the new one in and you want to sell the old vintage before you put the new vintage on the list. Now, certainly some computer POS systems and inventory tracking systems these days are sophisticated enough to handle some of the organizational and tracking tasks, but many restaurants don't have such expensive computer systems and even if they did, it is never 100% accurate when you have humans involved (wrong bottles are served, new vintages are pulled too early, wines are rung into the computer wrong, servers don't communicate to the wine director that they just sold the last bottle of something, etc...).

I think that you can get the point I am making that it is far more complicated than you are making it out to be and it is horribly unfair to make assumptions that they are lazy if you haven't done the job yourself. The same applies to when wine sells out - even the most skilled of wine list managers will have situations occur where they must regrettably inform the guest that they are out of a particular bottle (or even two or three)... I think you can see that with so many gears in the machinery of a "perfect" wine list, if any one of those gears breaks down, such perfection is missed. The restaurant printing "Due to our extensive wine list, vintages are subject to change." on their wine list is merely their attempt at preventing a confrontation from an unhappy and unreasonable guest whose world collapses and falls apart when they can't get what they want at the exact moment they want it (and believe me, there are plenty of those types out there!)...it is the restaurant's way of saying "Although we work really hard at keeping up with our ever-changing and extensive wine list in an effort to bring you the best wines we can, there may be times when something has slipped through the cracks and escaped our attention. We therefore ask for your patience if we are out of a particular vintage you were looking for and certainly don't expect you to accept what vintage we have, but rather hope that we can be of assistance in helping you find something else that you would like" Compare that to your crass interpretation of "Our wine list is long enough that we feel it's an excuse to be lazy and not update the vintages when they change. So don't blame us." See the difference. I suspect that what happened was that the server's obviously inexcusable behavior soured your experience enough that it clouded your ability to interpret that comment in the wine list in a much more understanding way...

Don't get me wrong...I am by no means excusing either the waitress or the restaurant...they obviously have some service issues to work out and they should certainly strive for the perfection that diners hope for...but to expect such perfection as a diner, even at the finest of restaurants, is unrealistic and unfair to the hardworking people often trying their best to achieve as close to that level of perfection as possible...fortunately, the restaurant industry is still run by humans...and humans are beautifully and marvelously imperfect after all...

(hopping off my soapbox now)

Chris,

Awesome stuff, and I'm really glad you took the time. Thanks for doing so. I don't agree on all points, and I'll address our differences, but first and foremost it's great to get feedback from someone in the industry.

I am absurdly fatigued, so I'm going to ramble in a kind of non-sequitur fashion here.

1) I concede that because the waitress treatment was so poor, it's possible that I was more amped up about the overall wine experience. But while it's possible, I don't think it's the case. This is a restaurant that is trying very hard to frame itself as a high-end, knowledgeable wine joint. When you start with the fact that the list sucks to begin with, and then you find out that the most interesting wines are all out of stock, and then you see their disclaimer about vintage... it's hard to take the place seriously as a wine establishment.

2) I've worked only briefly in the restaurant industry, but I have some very close friends who own and work in restaurants. They don't feature disclaimers about vintage variation.

3) If the restaurant needs a disclaimer about vintage variation, there is a much better way to train your staff. If a customer orders a wine, and you don't have that wine, but you have the same producer and varietal in a different year... ask the customer is this is a reasonable substitution. When you train your staff to bring out the bottle from the different year AS IF IT'S THE SAME WINE THAT WAS ORDERED, you're doing two things. First, you're telling your customer that you don't understand wine very well at all. Second, you're encouraging your customer to believe that you might be willing to scam them.

3) I appreciate the information about how often wine stocks are checked. I'm curious now to hear from other establishments regarding how often they perform inventory analysis. I don't doubt it's a challenge, but I go back to my original point that this place is trying to pass itself off as a wise wine establishment. If you need to spend extra time getting the wine menu correct, I think it's a valuable investment. If you don't care to make the investment, no problem, but don't try to convince your clientele that you're at the top of the wine heap among restaurants.

4) You and I agree that ornery, recalcitrant customers are annoying and unfair to staff. Yes, as a customer I'm paying you for good service, but that doesn't give me the right to act like an ass.

5) I much prefer your interpretation of the wine list disclaimer and, while it's longer copy, I'd prefer to see it on my menu rather than what they have.

I hope I didn't come off as a snob; I'll say again that I enjoy this restaurant, I intend to go back, and I hope this one experience came down to a server on a bad night. The more we discuss wine service, the better it will be, I hope. Cheers and thanks again.

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