The asbestos oven mitts and silicon-tipped tongs should have told me all that I needed to know about the wine I’d just ordered: this bottle was gonna be hot! Not hot as in popular or really exciting to taste, but hot as in too damn warm to even consider drinking. The problem, I realized, after the waiter had placed our bottle on the wooden wine caddy, already scarred with countless burn marks, was the restaurant’s fancy display rack, which was wedged between the open-flame grill and the floor-to-ceiling window. Hot? You betcha. Maybe I was imagining things, but I could have sworn that I heard a sigh when the bottle of cabernet finally settled into the ice bucket.
The above image, while exaggerated, is far too close to the truth for many restaurants here in California and around the country. And it just makes no sense. I have a small wine collection at home, with wines that run the gamut from affordable, everyday quaffers to high-end Bordeaux, Burgundy, and some of the best that Napa Valley can offer. The 200 or so bottles I have are worth several thousand dollars, and so restaurants that have five or ten times as many bottles, and in a similar value range, are carrying tens of thousands of dollars worth of inventory. And they treat that supply, all too often, like some bastard step-child, barely worth their attention. I don’t get it.
A few months back my wife and I, along with her siblings and their spouses, got together in downtown Oakland at the popular Cal-Med restaurant Caffé Verbena to celebrate their parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. Verbena is both smart-looking and comfortable, with high windows that provide appealing views of the surrounding neighborhood. But the windows face west and in the early evening the room heated up to the point where we had to ask our waiter to open the nearby emergency exit for some cool air. The room was hot, and, I found out, so was the wine. Verbena’s wine rack is a real beauty – dark, custom-crafted wood, mounted on the wall above the bar for all to see. And everybody in the restaurant could see it because it was mounted really high, high enough to require a tall ladder to reach the upper bins. These bins enjoy not only the intense western sun but the heat and vibrations of the refrigerators and other appliances behind and around the bar. When I asked the waiter if the wine I had just ordered was going to come from those same bins, he gave me an embarrassed smile and said, “I’m afraid so.” He offered to go into the basement, a purportedly cooler space, and fetch me a similar wine. Apparently, I found out, the basement wasn’t much cooler. What the hell are the owners of this place thinking?
Anybody with any knowledge of the restaurant world knows that food is a penny-margin business and the real money for any dining establishment is earned at the bar and through the wine service. So, why do so many restaurants treat their wine as an after-thought? Why do they take it for granted, in such short-sighted and, let’s face it, stupid ways? Do they want to encourage their diners to avoid the wine list altogether? Do they think all their customers are complete dupes, who don’t know good from bad? I don’t think any of that is the case. But what’s the point of having a wine service if you’re not going to make an effort to do it right?
How many of you avoid restaurants where the wine is always a bit too warm? Do you ever speak to the waiter or managers about the problem? What are some of the responses you’ve heard? I’d love to know. More on this soon.