Encounters of the Strange Kind with Sommeliers in France

I admit that sometimes I have issues with sommeliers. I respect sommeliers who try to help diners to match a wine they will enjoy (at a price they are prepared to pay) with a meal, I respect sommeliers who try to find unusual wines or unexpected matches with food, I respect sommeliers who are highly opinionated even if their opinions clash with my own views. But I do have a quarrel with sommeliers who decide I should not be allowed to drink a particular wine with my meal.

Some years ago I went to dinner in a famous restaurant in Strasbourg with a group of scientists from a conference I was attending. We ended up ordering a mixture of fish and poultry, so I looked for a white wine and settled on a Domaine Leflaive premier cru from Puligny Montrachet that was at a price point I thought the group would be comfortable with. “Oh no, you don’t want to have that,” the sommelier said. “It is not ready yet. You want the Puligny village wine (from the same vintage).” This wasn’t completely unreasonable as a view, but I felt that the premier cru would have more interest and would on balance go better with the variety of dishes we had ordered, so I said we would stick to it. The sommelier went off grumbling. He returned in due course with a bottle of Leflaive from the right vintage—but it was the Puligny Montrachet village wine. “This isn’t what we ordered,” I said. “Oh no, you don’t want the premier cru,” he said, and went through the whole litany all over again. At that point I gave up and we had the Puligny. Very nice it was too—but the premier cru would have been better!

Last week in Haut Savoie, a sommelier once again told me I had got it all wrong. I was eating with my wife at a restaurant where the only choice is how many courses to have on a tasting menu. The dishes are exclusively fish or vegetables, and the style is very modern (no cream sauces). It’s always a bit tricky to choose a wine when you haven’t been able to choose the specific dishes, but I thought the Clos Rougeard Brézé 2009 from Saumur would be very suitable. “Oh no,” said the sommelier, “you don’t want to order that. It is much too powerful to go with the food.” I demurred politely by saying I thought it should be more or less ready now (I had the 2011 a few months ago and it wasn’t quite ready). The sommelier then looked for other arguments. “Anyway, it is much too oaky now, it will clash with the food.” This seemed a surprising, not to say deceptive, argument, as the Foucault brothers never used much new oak on Brézé, and I imagine they would instantly have taken away his allocation if they had heard this. And why was it on the list anyway, if it’s unsuitable for the cuisine? With an increasing air of desperation, the sommelier proposed various alternatives in the form of a series of white Burgundy premier crus from 2015 or 2016. Talk about new oak! I stuck to my guns, and there was something of a delay before the wine was disgorged, but it arrived in time for the meal. With which it was absolutely brilliant!

What’s the common pattern here? I am very much afraid it is that in these (and other similar cases) the restaurant has been able to obtain a scarce wine at a reasonable price and has not taken advantage by marking it up, but the sommelier cannot bear to share it. It’s greatly to the credit of the restaurants that they don’t go in for price-gouging, but it’s somewhat presumptuous to assume that they can tell who deserves to enjoy the wine. I feel a bit suspicious about this, and am inclined to wonder if the same attitude is shown to all diners.

Sometimes you do wonder how a wine comes to be on the list. At a restaurant in Beaune, I ordered a Pommard premier cru from a good vintage from a producer I did not know, because the price was fair and I assumed that in Beaune they would certainly know their producers. My tasting note starts “This gives a whole new meaning to rusticity in Pommard.” The wine was truly terrible, over-ripe and raisiny, fruits steadily deteriorating in the glass, and a heaviness suggesting over-chaptalization. I hesitated as to what to do, as my impression was that this was the style, and unexpected though that might be, I wasn’t sure there was a single flaw that would be a reason for sending it back. So I said to the sommelier, “Would you taste this wine and tell me what you think.” He grimaced, and said, “We did wonder why you ordered it. Would you like to choose something else?” I asked why it was on the list. “The proprietor comes here often for dinner and likes to see her wine on the list.”

Most sommeliers are pretty quick to whisk a flawed wine away, or to replace a bottle if a diner points out a defect, but the bane of my life is the sommelier who won’t admit to a fault. This happens to me more often in France than anywhere else, and once again I am left with the sneaking question as to whether the sommeliers are equally patronizing to all their customers. In the mid nineties, at a restaurant in Provence, I ordered a 1989 white Burgundy. When offered for tasting, it was slightly oxidized, enough that you couldn’t really see typicité. (This might be a common enough event today, but this was years before the premox problem first appeared.) When I said that I thought the wine was not in top condition, the sommelier drew himself up to his full height and intoned, “Ce sont des arômes de quatre-vingt neuf.” (That’s the bouquet of 1989.) I said as politely as I could that I did not agree, because I was currently drinking 1989s from my cellar and none of them had any oxidized aromas. Grudgingly he brought back the wine list, but advised me not to choose another 1989 because all his wines of that vintage had this aroma. A whole cellar of oxidized wines at a Michelin-starred restaurant!

Sometimes the restaurant redeems itself. Dining at a small restaurant near Nice, we ordered a Chablis that turned out to be corked. The waiter seemed a bit dubious (the restaurant did not run to a sommelier). At the next table was a gentleman dining alone of whom the staff were all making a great fuss. The waiter took our bottle off to him to taste a sample. “Nothing wrong with it that I can see, most enjoyable,” I heard him say. The waiter returned to say that they didn’t think there was anything wrong with the bottle, but of course I could choose something else. (It turned out the gentleman at the next table was a well known local food and wine critic; I hope his taste for food is better than his taste for wine.) Ten minutes later the chef came out from the kitchen. “I am so embarrassed,” he said, “that bottle is so corked I can’t even cook with it!”

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Playing Russian Roulette with the First Growths

At a wine dinner with Bordeaux first growths from 1985 to 1996, the big surprise was not the quality of the wines, but the huge variation between different bottles of the same wine. Although in each case the wines had been acquired from the same source and stored together, there was not a single instance in which two bottles of the same wine tasted the same.

The 1985 Haut Brion was the greatest puzzle. The first bottle showed a funky, quasi-medicinal nose, which seemed to suggest the possibility of Brett (unlikely though that might seem for this château), although the palate cleared a bit in the glass. It was actually subtle enough that I quite liked it. The second bottle went completely in the opposite direction, showing elegant fruits, but a squeaky-clean character with  that came close to eviscerating the character of Haut Brion.

Next came Angelus 2003. (Yes, I know this was not a first growth at the time, but the organizers evidently took a broad view of the term. Anyway, you wouldn’t balk at including Mouton Rothschild pre-1973 in a first growth tasting.) First bottle was fairly restrained, with rather flat aromatics, and the character of Cabernet Franc pushed a bit into the background. It never came to life. A second bottle showed more aromatic lift with a greater sense of structure at the end. A third bottle showed a more exotic impression, more sense of the precision of Cabernet Franc, with heightened sense of elegance; the very antithesis of any thought that the heat of 2003 might have given a jammy wine, it was one of the more elegant wines of the evening, while the first bottle was one of the most disappointing.On to Mission Haut Brion 1990, where the first bottle was absolutely true to the typicity of the chateau and appellation, with elegant fruits and faint sense of cigar box in the background. The next bottle showed flattened aromatics to the point at which all the life seemed to go out of the wine. While the first bottle was fabulous, the second was merely ordinary.

We went into high gear with Ausone 1996, where the aromatics of the first bottle seemed to point more to the elegance of the left bank than the richness of the right bank. Beautifully integrated, with a sense of seamless layers of flavor, the wine showed something of the ethereal quality of a great vintage of Lafite. A second bottle had a slightly sweaty nose, a faint sense of gunflint, and gave an overall impression of reduction. A third bottle was between the first two, with a flattened profile but not obviously reduced, and a fourth was almost as good as the first.

The first bottle of Lafite 1986 was a bit flat aromatically; although showing the precision and elegance of Lafite, a sense of austerity on the finish made it seem almost stern. I took the sense of a somewhat hard edge to the wine to be the character of the vintage and was uncertain whether it would dissipate with further aging. But a second example showed that this was the character of the bottle rather than the vintage: it really sung, with that ethereal quality of Lafite showing as a seamless impression of precise, elegant fruits, all lightness of being.

With Mouton Rothschild 1989 there was another sort of surprise. The first pour (from a decanter) showed the plush power of Pauillac, very much Cabernet-driven, with black, plumy fruits. A second pour (from another decanter) showed just a little more aromatic lift. The difference between these two was much slighter than between any of the preceding pairs. Here’s the rub: the Mouton came from a single Imperial. The fact that there was any difference at all is surprising, although I have had this experience before, when some pours from an Imperial seemed to be corked while others were pure (I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial). Interestingly this was also from a Mouton 1989.

The notion there can be differences within a single (large) bottle is disturbing. I think this warrants a proper investigation. I will undertake a thorough experiment if given a supply of Imperials of first growth claret (Mouton from 1989 would be preferred). We will extract the cork and take samples from the top and bottom using a very long pipette, without stirring up the wine at all. Then we will know if proximity to the cork and oxygen on the one hand, or to the sediment on the other, makes any difference within the bottle.

It is not so surprising there should be differences between bottles. After all, if you buy a case of wine and store it for ten or twenty years, you can see at a glance that every bottle has a different level. Differences in ullage imply differences in exposure to oxygen that might well affect the flavor spectrum. But the comparisons in this tasting went well beyond minor differences, to the point at which in each flight there was one bottle that was unquestionably first growth, and one bottle that was disappointing enough to cast doubt on that status.

One moral is that if you are at a tasting where there are second pours from a different bottle, always get a fresh glass for the second pour. Another is to ask whether there is really any point at all in tasting notes, projections of aging, or recommendations, if every single bottle is going to be different. Certainly this is not what the punter expects when he buys a bottle. The culprit must be the cork (inter alia, the sommelier reported that he had never rejected so many corked bottles in preparing for a tasting, so the worst cases had already been removed).

Is there any alternative? Experience with New World wines suggests that using screwcaps might cause the wines to age more slowly and a little differently, but with greater consistency. I’m sure the argument in Bordeaux would be that it’s a bad idea to risk damaging the product of one of the most successful wine regions in the world, but is it so successful if there is no predictability after twenty years?

Cuisine is Alive and Well in France: A New Gastronomic Destination in the Beaujolais

The death of cuisine in France has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps nowhere but France could there be a tiny village with two restaurants as innovative as those in Saint Amour Bellevue, in deepest Beaujolais.

Established by chef Cyril Laugier and his wife Valérie in 1996, Auberge du Paradis in Saint Amour has been my watering hole in the Beaujolais for several years. The hotel has a great atmosphere; Cyril and Valérie are what the French would call très sympa. A boutique hotel, the building gives the impression of having been constructed over time from several different buildings, so there all sorts of unexpected turns as you find your way to your room. Decoration is very stylish, if somewhat idiosyncratic; I suppose I would describe it as French/Italian modern. Breakfasts give the most fantastic send-off before spending a day tasting: I use the plural because they are different every day—even the jams, uniquely spiced, are different every morning. Cyril serves the breakfast himself.

The restaurant obtained a much deserved Michelin star in 2014. The current menu starts with a sorbet of aubergine, with a curry vinegar, and basil herbs. The subtle Asiatic influences made this the killer dish for me. It was followed by tuna, marinated with herbs, confit peppers, and Kashmiri influences. Then there was pork that had been marinated in soy, before being cooked in the oven, together with a spaghetti of cucumber. The desert was equally innovative, raspberries with cream of roses. Overall, the style of cuisine seems to have become more forceful over the years I have been coming here.

The restaurant at Auberge du Paradis was redecorated in 2014 and is elegant and spacious.

Within a hundred yards across the street is a more recent arrival, 14 Fevrier (named for Valentine’s day) by Japanese chef Masafumi Hamano, who came to France in 2004 after working at a French restaurant in Tokyo. He started the restaurant in 2013 and obtained a star from Michelin immediately. The elegant restaurant shows a Japanese aesthetic and the cuisine is modern French with a Japanese twist. Amuse bouches included a hibiscus macaroon, a verbena macaroon, and vichyssoise with a watermelon sorbet. The first course was described as a pana cotta, but at first sight had nothing to do with it. It turned out the pana cotta was underneath a gelée of turnips. The surprise combination of flavors made this the killer dish for me. The next course was cobia (a meaty white fish) in a lobster sauce. The combinations of unexpected flavors can be a bit tricky to match with wine, but all worked brilliantly.

14 Fevrier is stylish and spacious with a Japanese aesthetic.

A feature of these restaurants, as well as many others visited on this trip, has been the treatment of vegetables. I remember that when l’Arpège, the three star in Paris, changed to a vegetarian menu some years ago, it was regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. But now treating vegetables as an important component in their own right, not merely an accompaniment, has become common. I might go so far as to say that this month in France has been an education in vegetables, coming both from the exceptional quality of the produce to innovative treatments.

Being in Beaujolais, both restaurants have excellent wine lists with many reasonable choices. At Auberge du Paradis, we had a top Pouilly Fuissé, the 2009 Instarts from Château Beauregard. The richness of the year is beginning to overtake Beauregard’s classic style, but the wine is at its peak now. At 14 Fevrier, we tried a white Nuits St. Georges, les Terres Blanches from Daniel Rion, also 2009, which was interesting as we had tasted the range of reds at the domain a couple of days earlier; it showed the same sense of textured power.

Both restaurants essentially have a single menu, which changes periodically. (At 14 Fevrier there is an alternative choice for the fish course.) I do not know what criteria Michelin has for awarding stars—I am not sure that anyone knows, including the Michelin inspectors—but both restaurants have one star. The food at both shows a level of innovation and complexity that would suggests two star, so I suspect the holdback is the fact that each presents only a single menu, with little or no choice. But Saint Amour is the place to go in the Beaujolais.

A Bad Experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune

I wish restaurants would adopt rational policies on corkage (as I argued in my previous blog). Alas, rationality in wine policy has not reached France, where I am spending July. I had a particularly bad experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune. Since Beaune is the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, you might expect some sympathy towards people who want to drink special bottles of wine for one reason or another. While there are some restaurants with a good attitude, the Hotel de Beaune is particularly hostile.

One of my visits on the Côte de Beaune was to Albert Grivault, where after a tasting of Meursault and its premier crus, M. Bardet opened an old bottle to illustrate its aging potential. “If Meursault had a Grand Cru, it would be the Clos des Perrières,” he said, as he opened a bottle of the 1985 from his monopole. It was splendid: mature but not too tertiary, with a faint trace of minerality. (What a counterpoise to the problems of aging whites in the Age of Premox!) After the tasting, he very kindly gave us the bottle to finish off with dinner.

We were staying at the Hotel de Beaune, which I have regarded as my watering hole in Beaune more or less ever since it opened, and we eat at the bistro once or twice on every visit. We always order a bottle from the list, but this time I took the Clos des Perrières along and asked if as a favor we could drink it with our meal. The waiter went off to ask his boss, who went off to ask the owner, and then came back to say “Pas Possible.” I explained that this was an unusual situation, and that we had to drink the bottle that evening because it had been opened and would not keep, I offered to buy a bottle from the list but drink the Clos des Perrières instead, but “Pas Possible.”

The bistro at the Hotel de Beaune where the attitude has become “pas possible”.

So we took our bottle and went round the corner to L’Ecrit Vin, where the reception could not have been more different. “You have a special bottle, we have special glasses,” said the owner cheerfully, producing some Riedel Burgundy glasses. The staff all showed interest in the wine, which was magnificent: I had been concerned that over some hours since opening it might have become too tertiary, but it went the other way, with its innate minerality really coming to the fore. It seemed younger six hours after opening than in the initial tasting.

I recognize that restaurants can establish whatever policy they like with regards to corkage (and obviously they don’t want people to bring cheap bottles they bought in the town), but as I pointed out in my previous blog, an inflexible policy seems economically against their own interests. The Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune was not full that evening, so all their policy accomplished was the loss of two covers. In case it seems that my description of the Hotel as hostile seems exaggerated, I can only describe our departure. I had not met the owner of the Hotel de Beaune, Johan Björklund, on our previous visits, but he made a point of coming to speak to us when we checked out of the hotel: “I hope you never come back,” he said. Indeed we will not.

A Win-Win Proposal for Wine in Restaurants

For people who believe that enjoying a meal requires a fine bottle of wine to match the food, dining out is becoming problematic. When I started eating out, markups on wines in restaurants usually brought the wine to about double the retail price. (Yes, I realize that makes me sound like Methuselah.) At that level, I certainly felt free to experiment and to try new wines that might interest me. In fact, I often made discoveries from restaurant lists.

With markups now usually bringing wine to three or even four times retail, this is a completely different game. Couple this with sharp increases in retail prices from classic wine regions, and this means that it becomes more or less prohibitive to order Bordeaux or Burgundy from a restaurant list.

Enter corkage. While once it was all but impossible to find restaurants that would let you bring your own wine, this has now become much easier in London and New York, to the point at which there are enough choices that I feel able simply  to avoid restaurants that do not have a corkage policy. It’s especially noticeable that new restaurants, for whom the cost of establishing a good wine list is significant, seem more reasonable about corkage than longer established restaurants.

Offering the sommelier a taste when you take a wine to restaurant sometimes leads to an interesting discussion. I was enormously impressed by one restaurant in London which not only has a reasonable corkage policy, but where the sommelier reacted to my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Provence by saying, “I like your wine, it is very interesting, and I will investigate getting some for our list.”

It is noticeable (perhaps counter intuitively) that it’s the restaurants that have an interest in wine, and which really try to have interesting wine lists, that are more receptive to corkage than those who simply buy their list from a distributor and regard it as no more than a profit center. Whatever the quality of the list, I think the restaurant is acting against its own economic interests by refusing to allow corkage. Unless the food is basically sold at break-even, and all the profits come from selling wine, what purpose does it serve in effect to tell winelovers to go somewhere else. Unless the restaurant is always full, all that has been accomplished is to keep a table empty.

A rationale way to handle corkage would be to charge the average profit on a bottle of wine. That way it would make no difference to the restaurant whether you brought a bottle and paid corkage or bought from the list. Another would be simply to charge the cost of the cheapest wine on the list (and the restaurant comes out ahead because they get to keep the bottle). Is it too much to ask that restaurateurs should realize it’s a win-win situation to have a corkage policy that is financially neutral for their bottom line?

Tales of Superlative and Other Wine Service

I have a test for attentive wine service in a restaurant. I stretch out my hand to pick up the bottle from the table or from an ice bucket close by, but before I can grasp it, the sommelier is there. (You might argue that we should never get to the stage at which I feel the need to refill the glass, of course, but sometimes it might not be immediately obvious.) If the sommelier arrives after I have poured the wine and says reproachfully, allow me, as he puts the bottle back, he has failed the test.

I agree with Frank Prial, who wrote some wonderful articles in the New York Times years ago, arguing that he felt proprietary towards a bottle he had ordered in a restaurant and would prefer to be allowed to pour his own—my particular beef is when too much wine is poured; my companion, the Anima Figure, does not like to drink too much, but I find it embarrassing to continually stop sommeliers from over filling her glass—but I view having complete control of the bottle as a lost cause. (Frank Prial said, “The days of wine rituals are coming to an end. And as Ko-Ko says in ‘The Mikado’: ‘And they’ll none of ’em be missed; they’ll none of ’em be missed’,” but I think he was overly optimistic.)

The situation is usually more easily controlled with red wine, which is most often left on the table, than with white, when the ice bucket is not necessarily within reach. But whether the wine is red or white, I believe that if a sommelier is going to put the bottle somewhere out of my reach, he has created an obligation absolutely to be there the moment my glass is empty. Alas this does not always happen.

At one famous restaurant not a million miles from Mâcon, I had two contradictory experiences of brilliant wine service and falling down on the job. I ordered a bottle of Leflaive’s Puligny Montrachet, Clavoillons premier cru. The sommelier came back to say they had run out—but offered the Les Pucelles premier cru from the same vintage at the same price. This was an extremely handsome offer as the price of Pucelles on the list was double that of Clavoillons. This is really harking back to old values, I thought, these days they would more often come back and say, sorry, you’ll have to choose something else. But then during the dinner, my glass ran out, without a sommelier in sight. Against the protestations of my companion, I walked over to the ice bucket a few feet away, collected the bottle and poured us both wine, and then returned the bottle. No one noticed, even when I repeated the performance a little while later.

It’s an affectation to put the bottle where the customer can’t reach it. An equal affectation is not to put any salt on the table. Since individual tastes for salt vary so widely, it is impossible to predict who will or will not want it. Just as with wine, if the salt isn’t within reach, the restaurant has created a burden for itself, but I can’t count how often a hot course has been put on the table, lovingly described by the waiter to the point of listing all the ingredients—but then the moment you actually come to taste it, all the waiters have disappeared, and where is the salt? I feel like the King and the Dairymaid: “All I want is a little bit of butter with my bread.”

So make up your minds, restaurateurs. Either  make sure the wine is always in reach and put salt on the table, or train your staff to be absolutely sure that someone is watching every table every single second.

European Union Bans Restaurant Workers from Working at Meal Times

Dateline Brussels, April 1, 2017

The declaration that restaurant workers must have time off in the middle of the day and cannot be required to work in the evenings came as a joint announcement from the Commissioner for Health & Food Safety and the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labor Mobility. While this was unexpected, it was presented as following directly in the line of previous regulations intended to protect workers from unsocial conditions.

Background

Conditions for workers are governed by E.U. Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC. An Impact Assessment of the evolution of working time organisation concluded in December 2010 that: Working at hours which are normatively devoted to social interaction, such as on evenings and weekends, should lead to severe impairments to social well-being as well as to a reduction of time for social commitments.”[1]

The Impact Assessment was especially concerned about the results of working unusual hours: “Workers are also subjected to a desynchronization from the social rhythm of a society.” Indeeed, there was specific concern about people who had to work at interrupted periods: “Those working in rotating shifts have to work during valuable times for social interaction and participation and thus are restricted from social participation and interaction leading to substantial social impairments.”

The assessment was part of a continuing process of review of the Directive that involved consultations with interested parties. However, the Commission subsequently reported that: “Extensive talks were held throughout 2012, but no agreement was reached. Since workers’ and employers’ organisations have been unable to reach agreement, it is now up to the Commission to decide on the review of the Working Time Directive.”[2]

Today’s Directive

The E.U. has now taken the bull by the horns. It was only a small step to move from concern about working at unsocial shift times or on evenings or weekends to conclude that requiring restaurant workers to work during meal times prevents them from having social interactions over lunch or dinner. But what about disruption to the industry? “The EU has concluded that its mandate to protect workers takes precedence over concerns about any disruption to the industry.”

   
Marianne Thyssen, E.U. Commissioner, Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Vytenis Andriukaitis, E.U. Commissioner for Health & Food Safety

The new regulations come into immediate effect, but with a transitional period during which workers may work either at lunch or at dinner but not both. When they take full effect, however, restaurants will have to find other means to prepare and serve food at unsocial times (defined as between noon and 2 p.m. and between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.). Restauranteurs have reserved comment so far, but there is concern in the drinks industry about collateral damage.


Sources

[1] European Commission DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Annex 1 – Study on health and safety aspects of working time, 21 December 2010.

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=706&langId=en&intPageId=205