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.

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Bordeaux 2011: The Year of Restaurant Wines

Following the highly successful rich 2009 and more classic 2010, the 2011 vintage was bound to be a bit of a let down. Differences between appellations are especially clear this year, a consequence perhaps of more marginal conditions. There are few great wines, some that will find it difficult to achieve balance, but the best should be appropriate for drinking in restaurants from two to eight years from now if the prices aren’t too unreasonable, which unfortunately may not be the case.

Pauillac may be the most consistent of the appellations, with fruits that are distinctly more concentrated than St. Julien or Margaux, making a classic demonstration of appellation character. Tannins are usually obvious, but refined, and should come into balance over the next two to three years. Some wines seem a palpable throwback to the period when years were needed for tannins to resolve after release, but the fruits are concentrated enough to hold out. Not only the most even appellation, this is the one truest to its reputation. Particularly honorable mention goes to Pichon Baron, which shows as powerful and almost opulent, and to Pichon Lalande, which shows as more elegant and refined.

The style is also relatively even for St. Julien, with better rounded fruits than Margaux, if less concentrated than Pauillac. Acidity is usually balanced and many wines show attractive nutty overtones, with enough fruit concentration to develop nicely for the short to mid term as tannins resolve. Léoville Poyferré showed is round, modern style, Léoville Barton its usual elegance, and Saint Pierre gets an award for its refined, classy impression.

Margaux is by far the most variable appellation. Wines tend to have tight tannins that are emphasized by high acidity. Fruits tend to be light so there may be only a relatively brief period to enjoy the wines between the resolution of the tannins and the drying out of the fruits. The most successful have mastered the acidity and tannins, but are soft and approachable in a modern style that isn’t easy to recognize as Margaux. It seems the choice was between short lived elegance and approachability this year. No single chateau really stands out.

The Haut Médoc is more even than Margaux but the wines are almost uniformly light, although acidity and tannins are rarely obtrusive—but nor are the fruits. They tend to be a bit characterless, although La Lagune and La Tour Carnet stand  out for maintaining their usual styles.

The individual chateaus in Graves have stayed true to their characters, with each showing very much its usual style. The best are Haut Bailly for its combination of fruit and structure true to its classic style, Domaine de Chevalier for its elegance, Smith Haut Lafitte in more modern style but backtracking a bit from the overt modernity of 2010 and 2009, and Pape Clément the most evidently modern of all, but a definite success in this vintage. Tannins are no more of a problem than they should be at this stage.

2011 is not a success in St. Emilion. Although there are not the same problems in managing acidity and tannins as the left bank, the problematic character is a common impression of an edge of saccharine on the finish, a sense of an unbalanced sweetness. Will this become sickly as the wines evolve or disappear as they shed the puppy fat? No St. Emilion really stands out from the crowd this year, although Canon shows its typically precise style.

Pomerol does not have the problems of St. Emilion and is quite consistent—and quite superficial. There’s nothing to excess this year, the wines are approachable, but they offer no sense of the stuffing needed to support further development. You have the impression that already they are as good as they will get, and I am doubtful that they will become more complex with time. The closest to a real success is La Conseillante.

The top whites from Pessac are very fine and should drink well over the next five years. At opposite poles are the freshness of Smith Haut Lafitte, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and the roundness of Pape Clément, half Sémillon; and then Domaine de Chevalier shows its usual elegance. I would be happy to have any of them for dinner.

Sauternes generally seem a little rustic, with fairly viscous bodies lacking the aromatic uplift that’s needed to relieve the sweetness. Notable exceptions are Suduiraut, with a classic impression of botrytic piquancy, and de Fargues, as always the top of the show.

It’s a sign of the times that no wines have overt signs of herbaceousness. They vary somewhat in whether the fruits are forward or reserved, whether the acidity is too high or the tannins too bitter, but the emphasis is very definitely on fruit in a relatively modern idiom. As a rough working rule, the modernists, who have been focusing for years on softening the tannins, came off better than the traditionalists in this particular vintage. However, there is no wine (at least in the UGCB tasting) that I would give more than 90 points, and this is not a vintage to buy for the cellar, but if prices come down, could be  useful for enjoying in the short term, especially at restaurants.

Wines were tasted at the New York visit of the UGCB tour, which presented more than 100 wines from the 2011 vintage.