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Don't Touch My Bottle

I am the sommelier’s and wine waiter’s best buddy until the cork is pulled or the cap unscrewed.

Whether it’s just two of us dining, or a small dinner party of two or three couples, I am often the one asked to order wine.  If we’re not having cocktails, I try to get a starter bottle to the table as soon as possible.  Once people start discussing what they plan to order, I usually tell the sommelier what our thoughts are about food, and what I’m looking at on the list in both a white and a red, if appropriate.  That way, we will have wine on the table before any food arrives – an imperative.  Then I ask, “What would you recommend?”  By this time, the somm knows what food the table will be having, the kinds of wines we have in mind and the price range.  Since she knows her cellar and her menu a hell of a lot better than I do, I usually go with her recommendation, and am almost always happy I have.

But there the collegiality ends.  Once I have sniffed and perhaps sipped the wine for soundness, I politely say, “You can just leave the bottle, and we’ll pour.”  If she is good at her job of reading customers, the somm will say, “Certainly,” and only reappear when and if we need more wine. 

Too often, though, the somm or waiter will want to argue or act offended.  Once in Napa, I had to wrest my bottle away from a waiter who appeared twice to pour for us in spite of instructions.  Years ago at Charlie Trotter’s, a somm who wanted to take my bottle to a far-away staging spot told me he would be yelled at by his captain if I kept it.  After talking with his captain, the wine stayed on my table.

It’s not a power play on my part, simply that I know my table better than any sommelier.  For example, I hate ice buckets and drippy bottles.  If the sparkling or white has been stored properly, it doesn’t need one.  Then the somm may want to decant – generally fine, but I want to be asked first.  If the wine is of an intermediate age, there are those of us at the table who may want to see in the glass how it’s evolving.

And no matter how good the restaurant, the first pour is almost always too large for proper appreciation.  Second, someone might not care for the wine or just want a taste or prefer to drink what’s in another bottle.  Their wine is wasted and has to be disposed of.  The same is true of refills.  Plus I know my wife loves to “nurse” the last few sips of whatever she has has been served with her entrée.  If her glass is refilled, that’s wine that I could be drinking.  Worse yet, if the bottle is stored elsewhere and I am at the bottom of my glass, it’s embarrassing for me to have to walk across the room to retrieve it while the sommelier is being held captive by a fascinating story being told by another quest.

Of course, I have to be aware of the pour levels in everyone’s glass as we’re talking and eating.  I ask or make eye contact to see if they want more.  And the people I eat with also pass around bottles a lot, as someone always wants to read the back label or to switch wines if there is more than one.

The point is, a confident sommelier shouldn’t sulk or argue if politely asked to step aside after the selections have been made and the bottles open.  I value them as consultants, but don’t need them as servers.  Most guests will want both functions – or think they should utilize both functions. 

Besides, if I pour at my table, it gives the somm more time to listen to those fascinating stories at the other tables.

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