The wine world is a complex place, not often open to Manichaenistic compartmentalizing. You cannot look at things wine-related and say, necessarily, this is good, that is bad. So, it comes as no surprise that the places that gave me fits on my recent trip to NYC were some of the same places where I had my most enjoyable wine moments.
Once the waiter at The National, Geoffrey Zakarian’s bistro in the Benjamin Hotel, realized that my wife and I had actually ordered wine in a restaurant before, he flew down from his Himalayan perch and engaged us in a friendly, curious, and helpful way. We had been leaning towards a bottle from the Rhone and so the three of us had a great chat about our favorite appellations and producers, what we liked and why. Later that night I headed to the restaurant’s bar, the hotel’s de facto watering hole, and, had a similarly personable dialogue with the bartender. She admitted she was still very much a wine neophyte but was hell-bent on learning. So we talked about some of the wines she offered, what she liked and didn’t like, and she poured me a nice vin gris from Bonny Doon and a funky ’02 Chateau Gueyrosse that begged to be decanted. But I walked away from The National a few days later feeling optimistic about wine in America. There are interesting, thoughtful lists. You can find intelligent, modest, personable wine servers who treat you as a paying customer should be treated, and not as some intruder in the sanctum sanctorum. Maybe this whole wine thing might catch on.
Similarly, once the waiter at Peter Luger Steakhouse found us a bottle from the wine list that the restaurant actually had, he could not have been more professional. What I liked about our evening there, and, happily, I’m finding this more often, is that he did not insist on topping off our glass every time he happened by. I understand attentive service, but I also understand the drive to sell more wine. Diners will be happier, and more generous at that point and in the future, if they don’t feel as though they’re being handled. Served? Good. Managed? Bad. But we were treated well, and now look forward to returning to Luger’s. A nice recovery on their part.
At Hoboken’s 3 Forty Grill I had begun to feel like a real pest as I pointed out our dirty wine glasses and the erroneous wine list that put the folks at Chimney Rock deeply into the southern hemisphere. Our server could have given up on us as a lost cause, but to her credit she did exactly the opposite. She dialed up the charm and the professionalism. She brought clean glasses, she conversed with us, and she admitted her own insecurity when it came to wine but willingly dove into chatting about it. She turned a rocky beginning into a winning evening for us and for herself. What could have been one of worst nights out ended up being the best.
There were several other moments that went from the ridiculous to the sublime – okay, maybe not sublime but they really improved, okay? – but this one exchange, literally, reinforces my belief that the wine world is for everybody, that it is not a gated community open only to the precious and the privileged. One night in Hoboken my wife and I decided to hit a local wine shop for a bottle to bring to the restaurant where we were about to eat. Sparrow Wine & Liquor is an upscale shop, the kind that can paralyze the uninitiated, a place where those new to wine expect to be intimidated and condescended to. The shop’s inventory is global, with plenty of high-end labels. After some poking around we decided on a bottle of Walter Hansel pinot noir; we were tired and needed something we could count on. When we got to the restaurant and pulled out the bottle to hand to our waitress, we saw that Mr. Wine Professional had grabbed from the wrong bin and was now holding a Walter Hansel chardonnay. Ugh. May I please see your wine list? Idiot. Anyway, off I trudge the next morning to the gentlemen at Sparrow Wine & Liquor. They didn’t bat an eye; no snide comments, no push back. Instead, they went out of their way to find out what would be most convenient for me: another bottle, a store credit, cash, remove the charge from the card? What did I want?
In each of these situations, the temptation is to say, “so what?” Everybody did what you’d expect a professional to do, everyone acted in the customer’s best interest. Well, that’s the big deal. The wine world is riddled with error in both attitude and performance. These folks got it right. These singular moments give me hope.