SPEAKER 1: We've moved from Sparrow's Wine Shop in Ithaca to the Banfi's Restaurant, here at the Cornell Hotel School. In this section, we learn how to maximize the restaurant wine experience. Many, if not most, restaurants in the US screw up wine service in a variety of ways. What follows is my consumer guide on how to get restaurant staff to do what restaurant management can't, or won't, get it to do. We're going to cover ordering wine, pouring, wine temperature, wine by the glass, when to use ice buckets, sending wine back, bringing your own bottles, and more.
As an ex-restaurateur who always had moderate wine prices, I'm appalled at the wine pricing I encounter in the US, especially in big cities. I was in this business for six years. I know how difficult the business is and how high rents can be. The presence of moderate wine prices in some of the most successful big city operations, like the Union Square Cafe in New York City, shows it can be done. What are moderate prices? Wine shops and restaurants have the same wholesale cost, say $120 for a $12 case, or $10 a bottle. Most wine shops markup the wines 150% to yield the retail price of $14.99.
The restaurants are all over the map. Some take a moderate approach, basically doubling wholesale to $20, $25. Others mark up 400% or more. So that $15 wine shop bottle is $40 to $45. This is exorbitant. It deters guests from ordering more wine and it reinforces wine's unfortunate image as something elitist and expensive. The restaurant wine opening ritual. The guest who orders the wine first is shown the bottle to verify it is, indeed, what was ordered. The waiter removes the cork and shows it to the guest. Why? Actually, not much is accomplished by this ritual. Once in a while a flawed cork can be spotted by smelling or eyeballing it.
First, the person who ordered the wine is poured a small one to two ounce, or 30 to 55 milliliter taste. Server awaits get approval, then pours guest's glasses one third to one half full, counter-clockwise around the table-- females first then males, ending by refilling the host glass. The bottle should be gripped either this way or with the thumb in the punkt, like so. In either case, the label should show.
I find you can tell how much people have had to drink by how they hold the bottle. As they drink more, their hand travels further up the bottle, finally ending up gripping the neck. At this point, you need to strongly consider cutting yourself off. Wineglasses are set to the right and above the place setting. When several wines are served, arrange glasses in order of service from the edge of the table toward the center. Handle glassware by the stem, not the bowl. That's what it's there for.
Handling it by the bowl means you end up with bits of fried chicken grease, or what have you, and just doesn't look very good. Failure to handle glasses properly is a very common problem in restaurant and banquet service. Whenever I see this, it just makes me cringe, especially if they're setting down clean glasses. To chill or not to chill? Restaurants should ask the host if she or he wants white or sparkling wine left in an ice bucket. If left in an ice bucket, the wine is likely to get too cold. 40 or 45 degree Fahrenheit, or 47 degrees Celsius-- bottle left on the table will warm up slightly as it's consumed, so it will be an ideal serving temperature.
Red wines, however, are often served too warm. After rip off pricing, this is my major gripe with restaurant wine service. Those bottles of wine on display in the dining room look good, but they're too warm. Asked to chill a red wine, most servers will merely place the offending bottle in the fridge for five minutes, which will do virtually nothing. Better to chill warm bottles by briefly putting in the ice bucket for one to two minutes. In hot weather, lighter red wine should be kept over, not in the ice.
What about repouring? Wait staff should repour glasses before they're empty, but not so frequently their presence at table is interrupted. And they shouldn't more wine than needed. When main courses are more than half consumed, repouring should slow down, or cease altogether. Wine by the glass offering should be plentiful, at least five, with a variety of grapes, styles, and price points. Portions should be five to six ounces, or 140 to 170 millimeters. Smaller than that is too small, and larger is OK, but it raises a red flag, as I'll get to shortly.
Wine by the glass is something American restaurants have belatedly discovered. It's very popular in these times of drinking less, but better. Restaurateurs have been very swift to raise glass prices to shameless levels. It's no reason why they can't be offered for one quarter-- the wine list bottle price, which, hopefully, is reasonable. Instead, we rarely encounter glass prices less than the high single digits and up. Too often we're served something called house wines-- likely to be nameless plunk-- wine shopped solely on the basis of price.
You're probably in the wrong restaurant when you order wine by the glass and you get 8 to 10 ounces, or 220 to 280 milliliters, of wine in that class. If you're getting so much, it's probably not worth drinking. Or your wine by the glass portion fills the glass to the point where it can't be swirled. And very likely, it's not worth swirling. This leads to Abby's top 10 signs you're in the wrong restaurant.
You're in the wrong restaurant when the staff leaves those fake glass pitchers of ice water on the table. You're in the wrong restaurant when they have autographed celebrity pictures on the walls. You're in the wrong restaurant when they serve flavored butter with the bread. You're in the wrong restaurant when someone walks up to your table and says, my name is Aldo, and I'm your waiter tonight. You're in the wrong restaurant when the restaurant has a gift shop.
You're in the wrong restaurant when the menu was written in phony calligraphy, or the restaurant serves Veal Oscar, or there's grated cheese in a jar on the table. You're in the wrong restaurant if it's in Victor's, although I can't explain this. And last, but not least, you're in the wrong restaurant when there's a sign outside that says, buses welcome. Wine lists should have bin numbers so guests don't have to struggle with difficult pronunciations. This Banfi wine this here has bin numbers.
Wine lists should avoid the common practice of incomplete listings. Even at prestigious operations, many wine lists fail to list vintages, producers, et cetera, and are replete with misspellings. Another pet peeve-- restaurants shouldn't embalm those bottles in cloth. Some pretentious places do this. What are they hiding? In the Nixon White House years, our wine-loving president had bottles thus covered up so his guests wouldn't know they were being served Chilean wine, while our leader was drinking his beloved Chateau Margaux.
When is it OK to send wine back? Customers, especially young men attempting to impress on first dates, are notorious within the trade for returning perfectly good wines. But overall, far fewer wines are returned than should be, since most guests aren't confident enough to return wines they feel are flawed. The good, if infrequently, occurring reasons to return bottles are corked, oxidized, and flawed wines, most likely as an encounter with a corked-- or corky-- bottle. This happens when bacterially infected corks spoil the wine, giving wine mustier, moldy flavors. And you can't tell anything by looking at the cork in this instance, or even smelling it.
Often, cork is blamed for a similar problem caused by dirty barrels. Same bacteria afflict barrels as corks. Corkiness affects wines to different degrees, from just a whiff, to overwhelming. It's widely believed this problem afflicts 3% to 5% of genuine cork finished wines. It causes wines to taste nasty and dirty, but it's harmless. Next most frequent are oxidized wines. Usually white, they tastes like a dull sherry, and lack freshness.
Flaws due to wine making are now rare, due to the dramatic improvement in wine making worldwide over the last 20 years. The very occasional old bottle will be too old. Usually restaurants that offer mature bottles let customers know in advance. Their policy is let the buyer beware. In other words, if you bought it, you get to drink it and pay for it. If you must send the wine back, the restaurant should swiftly accommodate such guest requests, right or wrong. And guess should avoid reordering the same wine, just in case there was nothing wrong with it in the first place.
How much wine to drink? All of us are different. Only you know the answer to that question. On average, most of us can handle a half bottle per person, in most instances. One bottle may not be excessive when spread over several hours with lots of food. When I make a point of drinking lots of water and eating lots of starches, like bread, I can drink quite a bit and feel fine the next day. Italians have the saying, it's not that you drank too much, it's that you didn't eat enough.
In general, it's time to stop drinking before you get to the point where you spill as much wine on yourself as you're drinking. Restaurants don't like to hear this, but my advice is to bring wine into the restaurant whenever possible. The idea is not to beat the restaurant out of its beverage profit, so I don't bring wines to restaurant that's already likely to have on its list. I bring usual lines, especially older ones. I also make a point of ordering a bottle from their wine list. And I offer a glass of what I've brought to the manager or chef or wait person, which often results in waving of the corkage charge-- or what the restaurant charges guests to serve wines brought in.
Corkage charges tend to be $5 to $15 per bottle. A last point. I find most restaurant awards, including those for wine list, distinctly unhelpful. I personally consulted for a restaurant that mailed in fictitious lists and received awards. Rarely are restaurants visited by inspectors from the award givers. In too many cases, as awards pile up and reputations grow, service, quality, and value fall. Bigger is not better when it comes to wine lists.
Long wine lists require more dollars invested in inventory, resulting in higher prices. I'll take smaller, well-chosen lists with fair prices every time. Restaurants have a tough go of it. They traditionally soak guests on beverage to make up for thin margins on food. But wine becomes a crutch, reinforcing careless management of food and labor. The result is often guest-unfriendly wine list, exorbitant pricing, and mediocre wine service. So good luck in the restaurant, you're going to need.
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Join Abby Nash, lecturer in the Hotel School, for the basics of wine appreciation in a 'How To' format. Starting with your basic senses, you'll learn to discern flavor through smell and taste. Moving on, you'll learn the art of buying, serving and storing wines, how to open and preserve wines, manage the restaurant experience, and select wine and food pairings.
This video is part 9 of 10 in the Wine Appreciation series.