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!”

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

The Revival of Haute Cuisine in France (Was it Ever Dead?)

Ever since Michael Steinberger wrote Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, I’ve been on the qui vive for signs of moribundness (is that a word? if not maybe it should be) or liveliness in restaurants in France. In four days in Paris last month, I had a series of innovative meals; Michael’s argument stands insofar as none of them were really classic; a common feature was an emphasis on Asiatic spicing (see New Paris Cuisine is a Challenge for Wine). (In fact, I had some difficulty in finding restaurants that I thought would give an impression of the present state of classic cuisine, as many seemed to have gone overboard for foreign influences.) Those I went to had a subtle interplay of classicism and new influences that I would regard more as reinvigorating their style than abandoning tradition, so in that respect I would take issue with Michael’s conclusions.

In the south of France this month, near Nice, experiences have been mixed, but two restaurants in Nice stand out for modern, innovative style, although the influences are entirely different from those I saw in Paris. They share the feature that a key factor in quality is that there’s only a single tasting menu, with no separate à la carte. Both have styles that are crisp and modern with a wonderful lightness of being. In both, you can watch the chef assembling every dish through a window into the kitchen.

L’Aromate is an amazing jewel of a restaurant, occupying a tiny space in a shop front in the center of Nice. It has a staff of only two: Mickaël Gracieux is the chef; his wife is the front of house. (There’ve been some complaints about slow service on the web, but don’t worry about it: this is not at all a problem). Crab with ginger influences was a terrific starter. The main course of sea bass with a sauce based on basil and truffles was as good as it comes. A tube of chocolate with caramelized hazelnuts was a brilliant finish. Every dish is presented with a challenge to the imagination. The menu changes every quarter.

Restaurant Jan is a little larger, as South African chef Jan Hendrik has an assistant or two in the kitchen, and maintains a style of coruscating brilliance. Salmon marinated with beets was a brilliant starter. Angus beef with beetroot combined a new set of flavors for me. Finally fruits with a sauce of red fruits and roses gave a brilliant combination between influences of fruits and perfume. Two courses on the menu change every fortnight.

Wine is a bit of a challenge at both restaurants, as lists are fairly short (but reasonably priced) and courses are so varied, but at both we settled on a red Sancerre, light enough to go with the starters, but enough weight to match the main courses. If you haven’t had a red Sancerre in the era of global warming, you should try one, as they are light years away from the old image of the near-rosé.

Outside of Nice, my best experience by far was at the Table of Patrick Raingeard at Éze-Bord-de-Mer (a few miles to the East), where one evening à la carte (which is quite extensive), and another with a tasting menu (which changes each week), both showed wonderful precision of cuisine. Cucumber and half-smoked salmon returned to the theme of Asian spices I found in Paris, and a cassoulet of lobster with spices was the most acclaimed main course. Perched in a garden a few yards from the beach, the restaurant has a positively romantic setting.

Classic cuisine, if by that we mean overt use of butter and cream, may have largely died, but new cuisine is alive and well in France. Of course, you can now eat equally well in other countries, and the level of innovation is just as great in, say, London or New York, so France no longer has a monopoly on innovation..

New Paris Cuisine Is A Challenge for Wine

Four days in Paris last week refuted the idea that haute cuisine in France has run out of steam. Every dinner was different and innovative, but a theme that seemed to run through the evenings was the introduction of Asian spices. This leaves me wondering whether the traditional matches of wine and food still stand up in France or we need to rethink.

This question has struck some producers. François Milo of the producers’ association in Provence says that, “The mondialization of cuisine has benefited rosé. In France there has always been a fixed idea of which wines (red or white) accompany certain stages of the meal. But it’s difficult to pair red wines with international foods. I think that for the future, rosé is a vin de liberté.” I did not go so far as to try rosé – for one thing there aren’t that many rosés with enough flavor interest at this level, and for another choices on restaurant lists are very limited – but I did vary my usual thinking on suitable combinations.

Turbot in coconut sauce was a definite challenge the first evening at restaurant Auguste. In fact, I found the coconut influence a bit too strong for the delicacy of turbot. Overall this seemed to offer a similar challenge to dishes of stronger fishes prepared with vanillin a few years back. Then we had gone for a white Côte de Beaune to match: this time we went for Louis Michel’s Montée de Tonnerre 2012 from Chablis to find a bit more contrast. The Chablis didn’t have quite enough minerality to cut through the coconut, but it resisted well. Actually I liked it better than the Valourent of the same vintage, tasted a few days earlier, which seemed to have a surprising amount of forward fruit: the Montée de Tonnerre at least had intimations of minerality, although I’m not sure how far they will develop with time.

There were two fish dishes at l’Arôme: légine australe on asparagus, and turbot on rhubarb. (The first was unknown to me but tuned out on investigation to be the same as Chilean sea bass, a.k.a. the Patagonian toothfish, except that it apparently comes from waters off Africa.) These were quite strongly flavored dishes, too strong I felt to match white Burgundy, but Jonathan Pabiot’s Pouilly-Fumé Predilection from 2012 provided a brilliant contrast. This is very much the New Pouilly-Fumé, all delicacy and elegance: in fact, the Anima Figure (my companion) described it as ethereal. (The antithesis of New World Sauvignon Blanc, demonstrating wonderful range for the variety, if raising the question of its true typicity.) A course of chicken oysters and gambas was less successful.

Friends in Paris had managed to obtain a table at l’Astrance for the next evening. (This had required 35 phone calls on the day booking opened.) Choosing wine is a little tricky since the menu is a surprise, but on the basis of some hints from the sommelier, we decided that a light red would be most appropriate, and went for Domaine Dujac’s Morey St. Denis 2002. (The wine list at l’Astrance is extraordinarily fairly priced, a big contrast with most other restaurants in Paris, although you can usually find some wine where the sommelier has a special connection and price is more reasonable.) The red proved extremely versatile, going well with the famous cake of fois gras, langoustine with Asiatic influences, and légine australis again. (They were a little put out at l’Astrance to discover we had had the same fish the evening before at l’Arôme: apparently there are only five boats fishing for it, one from France, which presumably supplies both restaurants). Curiously, the final lamb dish which should have been the best match for the wine didn’t quite come to life, although the wine showed a wonderful combination of crystalline brilliance reminiscent of Volnay and femininity of Chambolle Musigny. Fighting well above its communal level, you might say.

Finally abandoning restaurants with names starting with “A”, our last evening was at Jean-François Piégé. The main courses were hommard bleu (cooked in blackcurrant leaves) and turbot in a curry sauce. One of the preceding dishes was asparagus in a sauce in which I thought I also detected curry, but which turned out to be saffron pistils. The wine was a no-brainer as there was a strong selection of Raveneau premier cru Chablis at reasonable prices. We had a Vaillons 2005, which turned out to be noticeably richer than usual for Raveneau, but still showing that characteristic anise and minerality on the back palate. Possibly a leaner year would have been an even better match for the food.

I can hear a cry going up: why no Riesling? It’s a wonderfully versatile grape that matches a wide variety of foods, especially good against Asiatic spicing, and is undervalued. I would concede the principle immediately, but my problem with Riesling is that nowhere – Alsace or Germany or anywhere else in Europe – is the principle accepted that there is an international standard for dry wine: less than 4 g/l of residual sugar. So I am almost never certain enough that a wine will be dry. Producers may argue that it tastes dry if acidity is sufficiently high, but that’s a matter of subjective judgment, and I prefer not to take a risk in a restaurant. (And asking the sommelier has resulted in too many wines which were stated to be dry but on which residual sugar could be tasted.)

I believe l’Astrance started the move in Paris to surprise menus. I was struck by the fact that three evenings out of four we had a surprise in at least some courses. At both l’Arôme and Piégé, you choose your main course(s) – you can choose either one or two from a short list – but the starters and desserts are a surprise from the chef. It’s a neat solution to the difficulties of providing many choices at every course which must simplify issues like food wastage and buying-in for the restaurant. Of course, you have to be a top-line chef to pull this off. A consequence is that it does make it more difficult to find an appropriate wine. Wines by the glass chosen to match the food are offered by most of the restaurants, but my past experience is that this can be a bit erratic in providing interest in the wine.

On the last evening at Piégé, I said to the maitre d’ that a series of interesting dinners seemed to put paid to the idea bruited a few years ago in the Anglo-Saxon press that haute cuisine in France had died a lingering death. “I would have agreed with the idea five years ago,” he said, explaining that the rush of innovation is a revival of the past few years. Granted that there are similar influences, each interpretation is different: I wonder where it will go next.

Should there be corkage on bottled water?

In the era when restaurants customarily doubled the price of wine, I felt more or less free to order any wine on the list that I could afford.  As prices slowly crept up to three times retail, I began to feel restricted, and if I could not find a (relative) bargain, somewhat confined to less interesting wines than I would usually drink. As prices routinely increased over a three-fold markup (and remember that this is really probably closer to four-fold since restaurants pay trade rather than retail prices), I reached the point of gritting my teeth and saying to the sommelier, bring me the cheapest bottle of red on the list. Now I have decided that ordering off the list is a mug’s game and I have been looking for restaurants that allow corkage.

Even in New York City, there is a surprising number. By and large, at any quality level there are some restaurants that allow corkage and some (more?) that do not, and it’s only a rare exception when a restaurant offers something so unique that I feel it is worth patronizing in spite of the absence of the corkage. The most common range is $35-$45, going up higher at some grander restaurants. The case I always make to restaurants that do not have corkage is: why don’t you charge the price of your cheapest bottle, or the average profit on a bottle, for corkage: then it will be revenue-neutral and everyone wins. Some restaurants accept it, some don’t.

I will at a pinch accept the argument that a restaurant is putting thought into providing a wine list that suits its food and that they want diners to focus attention on it. But I really find in infuriating when the list is simply put together by a distributor, it has no particular interest, and it’s just another profit center. Sometimes the wines are simply so inappropriate (and expensive) that I feel, absent corkage, I must vote with my feet. In the course of research into  corkage, I have had some interesting exchanges with sommeliers or wine directors. The Atlantic Grill informed me that they do not allow corkage but have an appropriate list with well trained staff to help diners. When I replied that I did not actually like their white Burgundy selection and found the New World whites overbearing, but I thought there might be a place for Riesling in a fish restaurant, the response came with a distinct sense of “gotcha” that there were many German Rieslings on the list, perfect for someone with my taste. Sadly, the accompanying copy of the list showed that not a single one of those Rieslings was dry. I don’t know who is going to drink off-dry or sweet Riesling with their fish, but it ain’t me.

I have started  compiling a list of restaurants that do or do not allow corkage, attached at the end here: additions and corrections are welcome. In the meantime, that brings me to water. I happen to like sparkling water with meals, but everything seems to have changed with the introduction of equipment that allows restaurants to introduce their own bubbles into tap water. This may be good for the environment because the bottling is done at source, as it were, but the stuff has a lethal taste: it is not like  mineral water, it tastes like chlorinated water with bubbles. I think it is absolutely the ruination of a good meal: it gives no refreshing uplift to counterpoise the food. Now some restaurants that have the equipment also have real mineral water for those who ask for it, but some have switched over completely and there is no alternative. My question to them is: can I bring my own Pellegrino and will you charge me corkage (screwage?) on it?

Restaurants with corkage in Manhattan:

l’Absinthe $45

Antonucci $20

Casa Lever $65

Dovetail $35

David Burke $45

Eleven Madison $75

Gramercy Tavern

Jean Georges $85

La Mangeoire $30

Marea $75

The Mark $75

The Modern $45

Picholine $50

Sette Mezzo $35

Spigolo $35

Tocqueville $45

Union Square Cafe $20

Restaurants that do not allow corkage:

Atlantic Grill

Cafe Boulud

Crown

Daniel

Le Bernardin

Veritas

Vico

When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.