The Grape Belt recently celebrated (quietly and with much-deserved humility) its two-year anniversary. Amid the raft of telegrams, state visits, and grand public encomiums that never arrived or took place, a friend suggested I ought to let my blog do what many two-year-olds are so good at doing: throw a temper tantrum. Well, the staff of The Grape Belt is a bit too polished to create such a scene, thank you very much, but we certainly don’t mind a good old-fashioned bitch session when the need arises.
The timing could not be better. I just returned from a week in NYC, where, for the umpteenth time, I was reminded of how much work the wine industry, at all points, needs to do to raise its game. While I enjoyed a number of good wines and plenty of friendly, professional service, the trip was marked by way too many negatives, way too many “You’ve got to be kidding me” moments.
Service: Waiters and wine semi-professionals, can we please drop the kindergarten teacher cum flight attendant tone of voice, the condescending “I’m sorry you have a brain injury” way of addressing diners, especially when it comes to wine service? Stop thinking that every time somebody sits down at one of your tables that they’re about to lose their wine list virginity. Maybe instead of assuming ignorance, you might ask a few gentle questions to suss out just what the diner’s wine comfort level is. Instead of pointing at the list of cabernets with your finger as you tell your customer, “these are red wines,” you might want to have a quick conversation about their likes and dislikes, what they drink at home, what they’ve had lately that’s interesting. If they’re not wine folks, you’ll know it right away. If they’re real aficionados, you’ve given them the opening they need. And, you will probably sell a decent bottle or two, maybe even pick up a generous tip. The self-infatuated expert act is a complete turn-off. What’s happening in the dining room is not about you; it’s about the customer. Get it straight.
Wine lists: I’m starting to wonder if federal guidelines need to be enacted to guarantee at least a minimum level of quality with these simple but essential tools. I don’t mean we should legislate that restaurants can’t serve gallons of overpriced plonk, which would be nice, but that wine lists should have a certain level of functionality, that they should convey useful information. Recent adventures with wine lists include sending a waiter to the celler not once but four times before he found one of the wines we wanted. Update inventory and lists much? Twenty minutes gone and we’re left with selection number four. Thanks. At least it’s overpriced. Then there was the restaurant that had Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District, Maipo Valley, Chile as one of their offerings. When I pointed out this error to the waitress, she was surprised and a bit embarrassed. Said it had been that way for a long time and nobody had mentioned it. Quality control of any interest? Read your own lists? Ever? How about the upscale restaurant that, when I asked for a list of wines by the glass at lunch one day, gave me a small piece of cardboard on which was printed the names of eight grape varieties. No mention of label, price, vintage, red or white. Nothing. The manager came over, I asked about this odd presentation, and he said, “let me take care of you.” Happily, he did and I had my first glass of grillo, a delicious white wine from Sicily. But, seriously, a list of grapes? That’s a bit of a power play and a precious one, to boot.
Glassware: I’ve bitched about this before (see “Glasses, Rhymes with …”, November 10, 2010) so I’ll keep things simple this time: give me a clean glass. Just give me a clean glass. How hard can that be? And maybe even a glass that’s not 98 degrees and wet before you pour the wine into it. If a restaurant or bar cannot pull off this mind-numbingly simple task, they’re in the wrong business.
Prices: Stop gouging. Stop pouring cheap wine and charging insultingly high prices for it. Stop treating your customer like some red-headed bastard ATM machine. I know you’ve probably got an expensive lease; it’s midtown after all. But a 400-500% markup on Liberty School? You want me to pay for a small glass more than double what you pay wholesale for the entire bottle? A glass that costs even more than I’d pay retail for a bottle? Seriously? If you’re gonna screw people over, at least make it interesting. And stop letting your distributor control your wine selections. Yes, it’s that obvious. Oh, don’t even get me started on that one.
Anyway, not everything wine-related during my NYC trip was an abomination. In my next piece, I’ll talk about some of the good things that happened. I’ll even use my happy voice. I promise.