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.
Why does so much food writing neglect wine? A lot of restaurant reviewers gladly discuss the decor but don’t discuss the wine program even though wine can easily account for a third or more of the diners’ final bill. Most food blogs don’t look to include a discussion about wine either even when they are writing for home cooks who can escape the exorbitant mark-ups of wine in restaurants. Many wine blogs, by contrast, have shifted the discussion about wine away from simply tasting notes of berries and leather and the concomitant scores to talk about pairing food and wine. Why no wine love from the foodies?
I put the question to Ed Levine who runs the food juggernaut SeriousEats.com. Ed is friends with such wine luminaries as Josh Wesson of Best Cellars and Daniel Johnnes of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants who have poured him many great wines, trying to convert him to wine’s pleasures. To no avail. With good humor, Ed told me “I’ve never had a wine that takes food to the next level. I’ve never had a wine that impresses me like a great hamburger.” He also cited cutting wine as a good way to cut calories.
While Ed just doesn’t like wine, which is fair enough, he suggested that other food writers might be intimidated by it. That may be true since there are a lot of details about wine, from the producer name, to the vintage, to the grapes and where they were grown. But that shouldn’t stop an thumbs up or thumbs down for a certain wine and why it did or didn’t work with a certain dish. A lot of food writers are all too happy to have an opinion about a hamburger and if they don’t like it, then it’s a bad hamburger. By contrast, if they don’t like a wine, I fear they think it reflects badly on them as if they should know more about it. That’s too bad.
At least food writers aren’t alone: wine is woefully underrepresented in food TV shows, and, as we’ve discussed before, it’s not likely to change on the Food Network. How about the Travel Channel? When Tony Bourdain advises his viewers about which wine goes with still-beating snake heart, then we’ll know a page has been turned in the way foodies think about wine.
What makes food writers neglect the cork in favor of the fork: a lack of interest? Price? Intimidation/lack of confidence? Rampant teetotalerism?
Chicago’s foie gras ban has been repealed in a 37 – 6 vote by the City Council, overturning the 48 – 1 vote that put the ban into effect two years ago. The prices of Sauternes, the unctuous sweet wine often served as an accompaniment, just went up an additional ten percent. [Sun Times, thanks Stephen!]
SIPPED: Cork back for an encork
When a member of the Culinary Institute of American saw my cork iPhone case in February, she exclaimed that it would be the perfect product for recycling their corks! But apparently someone had other plans as the 900 corks pulled there a day will now be recycled in a new program called ReCORK America, sponsored by a cork producer to underscore the “natural” qualities of cork. But what is the carbon footprint of sending all that cork into be recycled into floor tile (and sidebars for wine blogs). Wouldn’t the CIA be better reusing them as festive holiday wreaths–or those iPhone covers?!?
SPIT: Critter labels
On the heels of our worst wine label contest comes more advice, this time from Wines & Vines. One item: a label designer Down Under has a “no critters” policy after seeing the kangaroo reinvented some “50,000 times.” [Wines & Vines] Related: ”
SPIT: Brunello di Montalcino
Not content with the FAA’s Global War On Toiletries, US federal authorities are now turning their eyes on another liquid: Brunello di Montalcino! A recent scandal has revealed blending of grapes other than sangiovese, the only one permissible under the local DOC rules in the wine. Now, as a result, the feds are threatening to block US imports of the pricey Italian wine as of June 9. “Part of our mandate is to make sure all labels are truthful, accurate and not misleading to the American consumer,’’ Mr. Resnick of the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau told Eric Asimov. Um, OK, how about starting with Korbel “California Champagne”? [NYT]
SPIT: asparagus in December
In a piece that, oddly, has not received much attention here in the US of A, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay–known for his high-end restaurants in several countries as well as cursing like, well, a chef–lays into out-of season like nobody’s bidness calling for it to be outlawed in the UK. While absolutely laudable in principal, the legislative angle may be the wrong way to achieve this policy goal. And let’s hope eating local in his case doesn’t mean eating any more horse! [BBC]
SIPPED: Wine into water
Wine & Spirits magazine will be holding two public tastings in Los Angeles and Seattle that sound like fun with good people and good wines. Since I gave up bottled water for thirty days and lived to tell the tale, I like the secondary cause too: $5 of each ticket will go to local water conservation organizations. [Wine & Spirits Hotpicks]
SPIT: Wine tasting menus!
John and Dottie, WSJ wine columnists known for their sunny outlook, go negative on NYC wine pairing menus. Le Bernardin takes it the hardest. To the tape: “”Very little went right. The sommelier didn’t hear a word we said…Each white wine was served in the same kind of glass…not one of the seven wines we were served was poured from a full bottle…Most important to us, the pairings themselves were uninspired….We felt very much like we had been treated as hayseed tourists who ordered the tasting and wine-pairing menus only because we didn’t know how to pronounce the names of any of the dishes or wines.” Price: $280–for the wine only. And a parting shot on the phenom: “when we order the tasting menu, the restaurant puts us on its schedule, which is generally too rushed.” [WSJ]
SIPPED: Amazon swirls and sniffs
Move over Manuka honey: Amazon may soon sell wine along with its growing non-perishable grocery line according to the Financial Times today. This would be a welcome entrant into the brier patch of online wine retail. The more retailers, the merrier the wine consumer! The story has a mention of fellow wine blogger Tom Wark. [FT.com]
SIPPED: foreign owners in Bordeaux
Properties producing mid-range wines on the periphery of Bordeaux have been squeezed in recent years. But they may find relief from foreign buyers as evidenced by Haiyan Cheng, 28-year-old daughter of “vastly wealthy Chinese businessman,” Zuochang Cheng. She bought a property–a first for a Chinese buyer in the region–for $3 million and plans to renovate it and expand the vineyards. [NYT]
SPIT: Merlot (again), this time for headaches?
Merlot can’t get no lovin’. Malolactic fermentation may improve the taste of red wines but it also fills them with tyramines and histamines, which cause allergic reactions in many people. “Merlots seem to be particularly high,” UC Berkeley Professor of Chemistry Richard Mathies said although his research is inconclusive. [Red orbit]
SIPPED: Amen to that!
Taking Communion may soon help Chilean farmers get a fair price for grapes. The clergy and parishioners at Manchester Cathedral evaluate the wine today for potential introduction as possibly the world’s first “Fairtrade” Communion wine. Seventy percent of the churches in the Diocese serve Fairtrade tea and coffee. [BBC]
SIPPED: Drink for causes, part II
“For each bottle of wine you purchase as futures from his Lookout Ridge Winery, [Sonoma vintner Gordon Holmes (and former Wall Street publisher)] donates a wheelchair in your name to one of the world’s 100 million needy people desperate for mobility.” Andy Erikson of Screaming Eagle fame is one of the winemakers. (find this wine) [Bloomberg]
Terroir, the new 500 sq ft wine bar in the East Village opens “at the end of February.” I caught up with Paul Grieco and talked about what the plan is for the new place. Here are some key words and phrases: edgy, Riesling, sense of place, gonna piss people off, Riesling, terroir, uber-terroir, open their minds, and…Riesling! Sounds like great stuff!
For those who don’t know him, the Paulster won a James Beard award for wine service when he was a Gramercy Tavern in 2002, then he and Marco Canora started Hearth in the East Village and later Insieme on 51st and 7th. Both the restaurants have great wine programs but this is their first wine bar! Read on for my Q&A with Paul! Or map Terroir at 413 E. 12th St. Read more…
Belinda Chang, 34, has been a sommelier at leading restaurants in three cities including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Rick Tramonto’s Cenitare, and the Fifth Floor (Laurent Gras) in San Francisco where she was nominated for a James Beard award for excellence in wine service. In November last year, she started as the wine director at The Modern in New York City.
I asked her eight questions via email and discovered how she plans to change the wine list and what’s the best value wine, whether you can pair wine with art, what differentiates diners in those three cities, and find out why she has no wine in her wine cellar.
How did you get into wine? Read more…
“Choosing one Vino Volo wine flight has a sneaky way of begetting another,” wrote Pete Hellman in the NY Sun in September. He was doing some recon at the new wine bar at inside Terminal 8, on the right side of security. He tried the “Taste of New York” flight for $9 and mentions talking with a Finnish traveler who was taking his wine education seriously and on his third flight already. Good man.
Wine bars around America have been warming up to flights, a series of three or four small pours around a certain theme, say, a region or a grape variety. I like flights. If you’re going to order wine by the glass, which is generally an enormous rip-off, I figure why not use it to experiment. Who doesn’t love having multiple glasses in front of them? Well, it does matter what they contain, of course. And, to a certain extant, once you’ve had the flight once, you can move on to your faves.
One of the oddities about the vibrant NYC wine bar scene is that there are so few flights available. Wines by the glass, yes, with some places offering over 100 selections. Why not make some of those into flights? Comments are open for your theories on why flights have crashed and burned in NYC. And feel free to post the names of places that do have flights. Here, I’ll get the ball rolling: I Trulli, The Monday Room, Vino Volo…
See my map of NYC wine bars.
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The hipsters at NY mag asked for help. Their reporter, Emma Rosenblum, went to eight different wine shops and asked the clerks for their wine pick under $25 for a steak dinner. (Steak? Come on, in this day and age of extracted fruit bombs, that’s no impossible food-wine pairing!) Then she poured the eight wines for three of NYC’s top sommeliers who gave them raspberries–and were not just talking “hints” of raspberry, these were full-on, nasty and slobbery. It’s a fascinating story that raises lots of issues. Among them:
1. Lame clerks. The clerks in the story were lame. That can happen, particularly this time of year as stores add temporary help. If you’re not convinced you’re getting great service, talk to another clerk, possibly the wine buyer for that department since you’re sure that he or she will be there to throttle come January, if necessary.
2. Shelf-talkers. Could the reporter have gotten better wines by keeping mum and letting those flaps of paper do the talking? I have an ongoing discussion with a cranky friend who says that store clerks are more reliable than wine magazines because: (a) magazines have compromised their ethics and (b) wine stores have their skin in the game because they want you to come back. Judging by this line-up though, not many stores in NYC are likely to have repeat business!
3. Sommeliers. It was an interesting idea to have restaurant wine sales people (sommeliers) judging the picks of store wine sales people. Is the sommelier more likely to steer you right be cause he or she is around to fear your immediate wrath or bask in your lavish praise after you drink the wine? (Btw, I hope NY mag does an encore edition, pouring sommelier selections back for wine buyers at stores. And with seasonal food this time!)
4. Friends. NY mag didn’t talk about them. But let’s add them to our poll for laffs.
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