Is wine service in American restaurants going to the dogs?

sommeliersmall Bad news comes in threes, allegedly. After a third high-profile, stinging rebuke, can America’s wine servers now breathe a sigh of relief? The main issue in all these critiques is tempo and how diners feel rushed. Polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who last attacked God and now brings his wrath down on America’s wait staff, is the most recent critic of wine service calling it “cruel abuse” (um, yikes) in Slate. To the tape:

The vile practice of butting in and pouring wine without being asked is the very height of the second kind of bad manners. Not only is it a breathtaking act of rudeness in itself, but it conveys a none-too-subtle and mercenary message: Hurry up and order another bottle.

The same thing bothered Roger Cohen who took his complaints to the unlikely location of the op-ed page of the New York Times:

I was dining the other night with a colleague, enjoying a respectable Russian River Pinot Noir, when he said with a steely firmness: “We’ll pour our own wine, thank you.” This declaration of independence was prompted by that quintessential New York restaurant phenomenon: a server reducing a bottle of wine to a seven-minute, four-glass experience through overfilling and topping-up of a fanaticism found rarely outside the Middle East.

Finally, the generally sunny John and Dottie dropped the hammer on wine pairing menus in the WSJ in February saying that at Le Bernardin “the wines came and went as a blur” and that, in general, ordering the wine pairing menu “can mean being treated like a rube.” Although tempo was their biggest gripe, they also criticized other aspects of the service including glassware and wine freshness.

So is wine service in American restaurants going to the dogs? Eric Asimov did note a labor shortage two years ago in skilled staff. But Mike Steinberger argued convincingly that American sommeliers were better than their French counterparts.

One thing is for sure: markups are high and a recession is nigh. Gallo, not a name one usually thinks of in restaurants, recently admitted that a weakening in dining out was crimping their overall sales. If diners start staying home then maybe wait staff will be able to linger longer.

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20 Responses to “Is wine service in American restaurants going to the dogs?”


  1. Good question.

    I don’t think the situation is markedly different than it has been in the last several years. And I would describe that situation as “inconsistent.”

    Higher-end restaurants usually have more skilled staff who are better trained in wine service, and so take it a bit more seriously. Others… not so much…


  2. No doubt the constant pouring can be annoying and intrusive, but no more so than “Hi, I’m ____, I’ll be your server tonight”, “How is everything?” and long recitations of specials that require feats of memory.

    Having experienced the continual topping-off even in BYO restaurants where there’s no finacial incentive for pushing more wine (unless tipsy patrons tip more), I don’t think it’s purely mercenary. I think it’s an attempt at good service, which most people wouldn’t object to.

    I’m more troubled by wine served either too warm (reds) or too cold (whites). Just this past weekend, we were served an interesting red at what felt like 75 degrees (no thermometer handy). I requested a miniscule pour for all after I tasted it, and then that the bottle be slightly chilled before pouring more. The waiter, though visibly surprised, accommodated this request gracefully, although, when he came back to pour the second round, he told me in a very concerned voice that he thought it was cool enough.


  3. We so rarely order a full bottle of wine, but the waiter pouring it has never really bothered me. They did that for us in Argentina too, where the mark-ups are nearly so rapacious (everyone drinks wine with every meal it seems) and there’s no such thing as “turning tables.” I would imagine most people just see this as part of the service, though “Would you like more wine?” would be a nice gesture.

    The mark-ups are the main reason people don’t drink more wine in restaurants though. I love wine, but when I see something I pay $7 for in my local store on a wine list at $30 a bottle, $7.50 a glass, it drives me crazy. A $25 bottle of bubbly for $90? No thanks. I’ll have an excellent microbrew instead.


  4. Having worked as a server and manager at various Las Vegas and Seattle restaurants I believe that it is good service to allways keep the glass filled to the proper level. It was never about getting them to buy another bottle.

    If you would like to pour your own wine just let the server know, they will be more than happy to oblige as it in one less thing they need to worry about.

    In my opinion the key to good service is to have things done without having to ask for them and that would include keeping the glass at the proper level.


  5. The issue is training. I have been in the Hospitality industry for over 30 years; both restaurant owner, chef, manager and waiter & bartender. The industry does not / can not spend money on training and this has resulted in a staff that rock hops to every hot place to fill a resume with impressive names.

    We were once a fine profession. Now we are reduced to an industry that is filled with cookie cutter restaurants that rely on jr managers who are under paid and over worked to train a crew they themselves have not the experience or ability to train. so we then employ our vendors for a 15 – 20 minute pre-shift class on wine 101. The crew is more concerned with, “how much money can I make on how many turns will i get tonight.”
    It is up to the patron to instruct the server as to the rate of speed and attention they will need. Tell a server not to hover and relax and they will. Pour the wine yourself. Take control of the experience and tempo and you may enjoy the moments as if you were dining at home…only with no dishes to wash.

    as for the high mark-up of restaurant wine? consider the dishwasher, the soap and water, the busboy, the barback, and all the behind the scenes support that is important to a restaurants success. The freight, in my opinion, is worth it, after-all it is the experience that should consume you not the cost. Otherwise stay home and do the work yourself.


  6. I wholeheartedly disagree with george’s comments. In the US we are generally being ripped off for purchasing wine at restaurants with mark-ups between 4-5x the retail cost of the bottle (you know the restaurant is getting it for less than that). My wife and I try to go as much as possible to BYOB restaurants even when the corking fee is $25-35 since bringing my own still represents a real value over buying from the wine list. Most fine dining restaurants have terrible wine lists to begin with anyway and I am not shelling out $40 for an $9 bottle of bunk or I’ve seen a bottle of Bordeaux which retails for $18 being sold for over $68/bottle. Here in Chicago where I have been to restaurants recently which were listed as the “best new restaurants” my experience has been horrible. Not only do wait staff have no knowledge of the wines, and are rushing through bottles (I usually tell them I’ll pour myself), but they do not even know how to open the wine or pour it in a decanter. It’s a disgrace!!! Dining out is for the experience, but most of the time the experience is lacking and there has to be a balance between cost and experience. The restaurants are happy to have the profit, but do not want to provide the service. They are lucky that most people have no knowledge of wine or food and aren’t into pairing and enhancing the experience. When people bring “2 buck chuck” to a “Best of Chicago” restaurant where the entrees average $24 says it all!!!).


  7. It’s amusing and not amusing to read this. But I have to agree with the lack of tact on the part of waiters these days. I went to one restaurant twice, and no more, in Boulder, Colorado, called Brassiere Ten Ten and the waitress poured the wine the way a busboy would pour a glass of water. No finesse, no respect (for either me or the wine). Wine is not a soft drink. When you visit the vineyards and wineries you get an appreciation of what goes into wine making. This lack of respect is an insult to all the people involved.


  8. I currently work as a server in a fine dining restaurant. Let me tell you that if any of our managers, or former sommelier, caught us over pouring a glass, not presenting a bottle to the guest before opening it, not repeating the vintage of the specific bottle in our hand, or not pouring a taste we would be reamed out and threatened with being taken off the floor until we can show that we know how to serve wine properly.
    I believe that if your getting bad service its a reflection upon that certain restaurant. The company I work for has extensive training and in order to become a trainer you must step up and basically become a manager, which isolates you from the rest of the employees but comes with perks. And we currently have over 100 restaurants world wide all with basically the same service, wine or otherwise.


  9. The problem with wine service in most USA (and many European, truth be told) restaurants is that the server is doing something (s)he has been taught to do, by rote, with no real understanding or appreciation of wine and no understanding of why (s)he has been taught to do those particular things. The result is a very nervous server who makes small but potentially significant mistakes through lack of understanding of “why” as well as “what” to do.

    Servers who overpour in hopes of selling an extra bottle, although rare, deserve to be rewarded with stingy tips and “never again” patronage.


  10. I have grown tired of wait staffs that are not educated in wine etiquette.

    Examples:

    1. Opening the bottle and not removing the top of the foil before pouring.

    2. Having to ask for the “good” glasses when ordering.

    3. The pour being made to with in a inch of the top of the glass. I have actually had to grab the servers arm to stop them. The more the better I guess??!!

    4. Pouring or topping off without asking.

    5. Red wine being served at too warm a temperature. I usually ask for the bottle to be chilled and was once told that red wine needed to be served at room temperature and only white was to be chilled. I replied that I was used to drinking my reds at cellar temperature not “next to the oven” temperature.

    6. Opening the bottle before delivering it to the table.

    7. Wrong vintage listed on the wine list.

    All of these incidents have happened to me when dining. Granted, not all at the same restaurant and also at varying price point establishments. No matter, when it’s my money I want to served correctly.

    And at times I am left to feel like it’s my fault or I’m a wine snob if I politely mention the error.


  11. Consider this too: Uneducated servers are not helping to propagate future wine loves and connoisseurs either.

    I don’t know jack about wine – other than abstaining from low cost reds to save myself a headache.

    But I would like to think the times I treat myself to a $100 plus dinner I would have a waiter/server that’s educated in what wine goes with my steak, the proper way to pour, and the overall methods of serving.

    I may not have a cellar full of vintage Argentineans, but I love going to nice restaurants not only for the food but the experience as well. I also listen and always hope to gain insight about food and wines – and hopefully the person accompanying my tableside bottle knows what the hell they’re doing

    - thus making me appreciate the wine experience as well.


  12. I think Hitchen’s column should be sent to every restaurant in NYC for starters. If anyone wants to start a foundation dedicated to distributing the column, I’d be glad to contribute.


  13. Not too many problems with sommeliers at finer restaurants in CA. There can be a problem with some non-sommeliers and topping off, but haven’t encountered too much of that lately. I must BMOB to use the cellar up since my adult children don’t seem to be a whole lot interested in wine and I can’t bring it with me even if some of the wine is nectar of the GODS. My bringing an older red obviates ANYBODY from touching my bottle, from cork removal to decanting into my decanter to tasting and hence, sommeliers tend not to pour for me and that’s the way I like it. In fact, I pour them some since the wine is usually of interest to them. All this is a carryover from days when finer restauants didn’t have decanters. I especially don’t want sommeliers handling my older, expensive bottles since they can’t decant,for sanitary reasons, like I do with Tygon tubing which tends to siphon every precious drop off the sediment while the bottle stands upright. So you with cellars, bring your own and take charge of the whole process.


  14. All points here are valid. I’ve ran restaurants, trained staff, been to the best on both coasts. The problem is not the server, it’s the ownership.

    That’s right. If an owner REALLY cares then management will properly train because their jobs rely on their floor soldiers.

    But how about this? Next time you’re at a restaurant and your server is charming and professional but is giving you bad wine service… ask them one simple question:

    “Do YOU like wine?” If they appear enthused by
    the grape give them a few tips on how to improve.

    I know it’s not your job and if you’re not that kind of person then this doesn’t apply to you.

    But I must say, I’ve actually scored points on many dates by doing this in a polite and friendly way.


  15. Not sure whether I agreee with the harsh sentiments of the critics. They probably have a more knowledgble opinion on the topic, but in my very limited wine experience, I found multiple terrific places to have wine in NYC. Not only because of the wine they serve but more beacuse of the service. Just last week I visited ‘Pure Food and Wine’ and the place was an absolute delight. It was the hot saturday and the white wine bottle we ordered was unfortunately NOT cold. We were poured from another (alread-opened) bottle of the same wine (on-the-house) till our bottle got chilled. We must have spent 3-4 hrs. sipping various wines and never felt rushed. Great food and terrific service and definitely recommended. Ambience is amazing. If going, try to get a place in the garden.

    Actually, i did read that article from John and Dorothy. Recently, I went to the indian-fusion restaurant ‘Tabla’ in NYC. It had a fantastic wine-pairing tasting menu and it helped my cause that someone on the table knew the head chef Floyd Cardoz. Even though we had a fantastic time, I do recall been “rushed” through my wines. It did take away the charm of the evening slightly away for me as I, personally, don’t enjoy that as I like to take my time when I go out to dine. That could just be a one-off as otherwise the place is great and definitely recommended.


  16. Good restaurant service includes good wine service. It is that simple. Here are two restaurant examples from last week in Lisbon.
    The first was Terreiro do Paco. It is highly recommended but our host had never been there before (his first choice, the terrific Bica do Sapato, was closed that day).
    The food service was correct but rushed all the way through (no reason, we were among the first to be seated, it was never more than half full, and we were there to relax with enjoyable conversation. The wine service was the typical overpour, the first glass of white was very warm (both the white and the red were warm, we stuck the red in the ice bucket that eventually arrived for the white), the fish was overcooked, and there was a sewer odor. Our host was embarrassed and chose not to say anything during the meal; therefore, nor could we. Everyone wanted Port at the end of the meal so the host discretely decided to move the party elsewhere.
    The second, tiny Clube do Peixe(the fish club), was simply a wonderful accidental find near the Holiday Inn Continental. The fish was fresh and fabulous. And the server, Bruno, was a joy (he knew everything about the fish, the wine list, and good service). We had a great time and will return—that’s what happens with good service.
    As an aside, while corkscrews are now ok onboard for TSA, it doesn’t apply in France. Mine was confiscated at CDG.


  17. Thanks for the travel update, Kathy. Did your corkscrew have one of those half-inch knife-like foil cutters? That’s been the TSA’s problem with them to date. But ironic that the French took it!


  18. Yes, both had the knivettes though TSA allows scissors etc with longer blades (Go to tsa website). Actually, in Bordeaux, they saw them on x-ray but we couldnt find them so they let us go on. In Paris, I realized where they were, presented them after x-ray saw them and guy took one and gave live example of why they were “killers”and confiscated both. We borrowed a corkscrew from the bar.
    Luckily we have plenty of corkscrews. makes one want to travel with an ah-so, there are few screw tops in Portugal.
    I’ve asked Air France for an update. Should they reply, I will post.
    Another issue arose: AF says you cannot ship (baggage, not carry on) more than 2 bottles of 14.5+ ABV wines. This means many Rhones, all Cognac, Armagnac and rhum. If one is shipping this, be sure the box is in a garbage bag or luggage. Think lands end bags.


  19. Knivettes–great term!

    I would love to see a video of what that “live” example consisted of! But since photography is a non-non, I’d settle for a description.

    That’s interesting and sad re: AF and checked wine. Have you seen the thread on bringing back wine from France? Seems like an important addendum. And, of course, checked baggage fees.


  20. Sorry, no video.
    He took the corkscrew and pulled out the screw, Then, with his hand around it, showed me how he/one might use it as a weapon. He did it more than once (we were speaking French so I needed coaxing). Yes, it could be a weapon in a novel though my Singapore Airline captain friend says that is stupid.
    But, frankly, so could a shoe (we were traveling across the Atlantic two hours behind the shoe bomber and couldn’t understand why we had to take our shoes off..upon landing…to get out of the airport!).
    As to shipping, at first the agent wasn’t going to let us take more than 2 bottles (regardless of ABV; we had 2 cases). So we asked for the regulation. Always do that in France, they live by regulation and everyone expects a conflict.
    You can bring back lots of wine, no problem (as you say in the link).
    Customs does not coordinate with the state ABC. However, there is a small but potential problem with some felony states once you leave the airport.
    Call it alcohol grey matter.


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