Food & Wine Pros | What bugs restaurant critics about wine service

Food & Wine Pros

What bugs restaurant critics about wine service

To kick off my coverage of the first Wine & Culinary International Forum in Barcelona last weekend (and while I disentangle the many complex threads on food and wine pairing) here are some highly practical points which were made by a high level panel of restaurant and wine critics including Jancis Robinson, Victor de la Serna of El Mundo and Nick Lander, restaurant critic for the Financial Times and author of the recently published The Art of the Restaurateur. (My comments in italics)

* Reds are too often served too warm. One critic said 'you should never serve a great red above 16°'. And make sure you have an ice bucket available if the customer asks for one. VLS

* Restaurants tend to be too in thrall to fashion. A few years ago it was stocking too many heavily extracted, powerful wines that don’t go well with food. Now it’s wines that taste of cider or beer [i.e. natural wines] VLS

* Chefs should make more of an effort to understand wine. “Even Ferran Adria told me he never thinks of wine when designing a dish. The younger generation of chefs think the same way. They just leave the sommelier to solve the riddle.” VLS

* Never mind climate change, restaurants need to think about customer change and the fact that far more restaurant-goers are women. It used to be that you never went to restaurants until you were 35. Now 20-35 year olds eat out regularly and it’s the young women who decide where to eat. Women are much more adventurous eaters and drinkers than their male counterparts. NL

Sommelier vanity
* If you’re matching wines to the menu are you making it absolutely clear to the customer what you’re doing - and are you doing enough to show them how easy it is to pair a glass of wine? You need to manage your sommelier’s vanity. NL [In other words don’t let them shroud the subject in mystique]

Josep Roca of El Celler de Can Roca touched on this in his presentation too.

“You have to learn, you have to listen, you have to feel.”

"You have to be sensitive to the occasion and the reason which has brought your guests to the restaurant. If people come to celebrate you cannot interrupt with 14 different drinks as we normally do. If you have someone who is elderly pouring them too many glasses of wine may leave them fatigued. You need to give them something cool and something light."

"The best pairing is not always perfect for our customers. Better a pairing that evokes a perfect moment than a perfect harmony."

Jancis also commented on this:

"I worry that the more celebrated sommeliers become there's a danger they become so famous and so successful they don’t work the floor.

And I'm concerned about how much the average consumer worries about ‘getting it right’. Would something go wrong it you ate what you wanted and drank what you wanted? You can scare people off talking about the perfect match. Wine pairing should be about options. It’s not consumer-friendly to insist on a by-the-glass pairing if what they want is to share a bottle.

(Not sure I’d go all the way with Jancis here. I think many people are looking for confident reassurance. They’re often happy to go along with a pairing the sommelier suggests in order to have a new experience. But obviously they shouldn’t be pushy about it.)

Greedy wine mark-ups
As a wineloving consumer I get weary of the extent to which wine is expected to bankroll restaurants. It’s worked for grand restaurants in the past but now people can check on their phones in an instant to see what the retail price is. And fewer and fewer customers are on generous expense accounts. JR

Don’t turn down the lights to such an extent that your customers can’t read the wine list. This recently happened to us at a celebratory meal where we were ordering good wines and resulted in the restaurant losing the opportunity to sell us a dessert wine. Poor lighting shows a lack of respect for wine. NL

Update your list regularly There’s no excuse for presenting lists with wines crossed out. Nowadays it’s easy to update and print out a new list. JR

Give everyone a wine list. Restaurants typically give them to only one person at the table but it can cause awkwardness and confusion if only one person knows the price. The easiest way to get round this is to combine the menu and the wine list. NL (Good point and so simple to do!)

How far can you go with BYO?
And a tip for for customers in response to the question “can you take your own wine to a restaurant that doesn’t do BYO? Jancis reckons you can:

“It’s obviously rude to take along wine for the whole meal but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take along a special red for the main course, for example, if you telephone first and agree corkage. And it would be courteous to offer the owner/chef/sommelier a taste."

I was invited to attend the Wine & Culinary Forum by the main sponsor, Bodegas Torres.

Is there anything that annoys you about wine service. Have our critics got it right or is it the chef's ego that's the problem not the sommelier's?!


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Comments: 2 (Add)

Mike Tommasi on October 3 2012 at 17:18

Excellent post, touches on some very often ignored points. Sommelier adapting to situation is essential - another example: some groups of Americans will feel happy if they get the haughty snobby sommelier, will be disappointed if he is reasonable and polite :-)

Another point: give women the same menu as the men. Some places, even recently opened, still do the stupid thing of giving women one with no prices. When that happens, I usually politely ask how she is supposed to decide, given that SHE is paying :-)

Most chefs do not care about wine. VLS is right, even Ferran Adria: 20 surprise dishes with wild combinations of taste and flavour, and the sommelier comes along and stupidly asks which wine we want to go with that! He had no idea (understandably) and neither did we (less understandably). Why did he not bring a wooden test-tube holder with 20 test tubes of various liquids, some of them wines, that could accompany the 20 dishes? Seems obvious. I will go further and say that Ferran lost it towards the end, and his dishes (independently of wines) were sometimes sublime and sometimes plain wrong (some unbalanced, also some series of 6-7 dishes all of the same mushy consistency, I needed bread just to prevent my teeth from getting atrophied).

Another point: adapt to the level of wine knowledge of your guest (easy to detect if one listens...). Don't explain that Chablis Les Clos is a great terroir, the expert customer knows it, and the customer who cares little about wine, well, cares little.

Andrea Maunder on October 3 2012 at 14:11

Regarding BYO, it has to do with laws, licences and regulations. In our province in Canada, it a contrvention of our liquor licence. In other words, we would lose our licence if we allowed a customer to bring their own. BSimilarly, we cannot allow a customer to take their partially consumed bottle with them.

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