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!”

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.