Ordering wine in restaurants is still much too hard. Although wine lists are becoming better organized and more descriptive all the time, most restaurants don't have a sommelier on staff. The sommelier's job is to know every wine on the list, every dish the chef is preparing and every combination of wine and food that will make the journey to a great meal as smooth as a bechamel. But without a sommelier to help, choosing the right wine can be a guessing game for most diners.
Without guidance from an expert, diners are often forced to face the awkwardness of the "moment of truth." That moment occurs when the waiter materializes beside your table with the wine you have selected, holds the bottle a few inches from your nose for you to inspect the label, pops the cork and splashes a bit of wine in your glass. As he towers over you, you are put in the unenviable spot of publicly having to give an instant thumbs up or thumbs down on the wine. You do the best you can, but unless a wine is grotesquely flawed or obviously corked you'll probably accept it rather than confront the waiter. Unfortunately, even though you may later discover that it has a serious defect, according to the rules of restaurant etiquette, you're pretty much stuck once you accept the wine.
I find this state of affairs unacceptable. The risk of assessing the soundness of a wine should fall first on the restaurant, before the wine ever hits your glass. This used to be a key part of the sommelier's job. Traditionally, the sommelier appears at your table with the wine you ordered and pours a small amount of wine for evaluation into the silver tastevinage (tahst-vee-NAHJ) cup that hangs around his neck. Because he is an expert, the sniffing and swirling he does in his cup is far more likely to identify corkiness or other defects in the wine. This puts the pressure where it belongs, on a professional, rather than on the diner.
It's time to redress the balance. My solution is a protocol that I call "make them pay." It would work this way: When a diner identifies a flawed or corked bottle of wine, he is not charged for the flawed bottle. This is the current practice. Plus, under my system, he is not charged for the replacement bottle, either. In short, if a customer has to bring a bad bottle to the house's attention, the wine is on the house.
At first this may seem a little too harsh on the restaurants. After all, they didn't intentionally serve a bad bottle. In a sense, they are victims, too. My answer? The restaurant made money on each of the bad bottles. And diners have endured enough. If restaurants want to save money by dispensing with professional sommeliers, whose job it is to protect diners from bad wines, they should have to pay up when their customers do the job for them.
Although I expect howls of protest from restaurants initially, they are ultimately the beneficiaries. When the unpleasant taste of a bad wine sours a meal, the diner will not necessarily blame the wine. He is more likely to blame the restaurant, the kitchen and the chef, and he almost certainly won't be a return customer. For the price of a bottle of wine, the restaurant has lost a client. This is in no one's interest.
A policy that offers a replacement bottle for free sends an important message to the customer -- you are a valued patron; we want to know if there is a problem, and we don't want to lose your loyalty over a bad bottle of wine. It's also an important acknowledgment that assessing the condition of a wine is primarily the restaurant's responsibility. In the days when sommeliers were de rigueur at better restaurants, no one questioned this standard. As far as I'm concerned, it's still the standard.
I also have a word for consumers: My hope is that the incentive of a "free" bottle will encourage you to educate yourself about pleasure-robbing flaws in wine and help you get past the anxiety of sending back a bad bottle. But it also imposes a responsibility. Don't abuse the privilege. If you have ordered poorly, or simply don't like the wine you of ordered, that's just tough. The restaurant is responsible only for defective bottles. It can't afford to be the guarantor that you have ordered wisely.
Finally, if you want to experience the luxury of anxiety-free wine ordering, patronize restaurants that employ full-time, professional sommeliers ( some examples around the Washington are Michel Richard Citronelle, Charlie Palmer Steak, Kinkead's, Taberna del Alabardero and Maestro (in the Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner).
For restaurateurs: If your establishment employs a full-time, professional sommelier, or if you adopt a replacement-bottle policy, let me know (via e-mail to email@example.com). I'll be printing a list in an upcoming column.
Wine of the Week
Sebastiani Vineyards 2001 "Secolo" ($30; Sonoma): Saying that Sebastiani's Mark Lyon has emerged as the best winemaker in Sonoma County may be a bit too bold, but there surely can't be many who are better. What better example than the newly released 2001 Secolo ($30), a seductive Bordeaux-style blend that competes with the top-tier Cabernets of Sonoma and Napa at about one-third the price.
If it lacks the sheer weight and authority of wines such as Phelps Insignia, Opus One or Pahlmeyer, its extraordinary nose of fresh black cherry and Chateau Palmer-like toasted oak, and its intricate layers of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec are no less captivating. Only about 850 cases of 2001 Secolo were made, but the wine is well worth tracking down. It is available for purchase from the winery and in a limited number of retail shops.
For information on having the wine shipped, or on local availability, call the winery at 800-888-5532, ext. 3230, or go to www.sebastiani.com.
Ask the Wine Guys
Recently, you wrote that "all White Burgundy is made from Chardonnay grapes." I have read that Pinot Blanc is an acceptable grape for White Burgundy and was frequently added to great Burgundies.
-- JER, via e-mail
What I meant is that what I consider to be true White Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. Legally, however, I don't have a leg to stand on. Pinot Blanc is permitted by the appellation controlee laws, though it is now little more than a curiosity. Most famously, Comte de Vogue's rare Musigny Blanc was made from an old plot of 100 percent Pinot Blanc until recently, when the vineyard was replanted with Chardonnay due to a decline in the vines. Ironically, even in its heyday, Pinot Blanc was not often bottled as white wine or blended with Chardonnay. Rather, it was added to Pinot Noir for aroma and delicacy. The practice is now prohibited, probably for the better.