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When Taste Is Dashed on the Rocks

June 02, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

The tuxedoed waiter never asked us if we wanted the silver ice bucket, he just jammed the bottle into it, sploosh , and hustled off to the recesses of the kitchen.

I was unconcerned until I sipped the wine. It was very cold. Arctic, in fact.

"I don't think we need the bucket," I said to my companion, and he agreed. So we pulled the bottle from the ice, wiped off the excess water and set it on the table.

A few minutes later our waiter bustled by, noted the bottle sitting on the table and, without asking, deftly scooped it up and in a motion a jai alai player would have admired, slapped that bottle, like a pelote, back in the bucket. Ploomp. And then he was off to some other recess.

Again we rescued the poor bottle, and in doing so I realized that the water in the bucket was salty. Someone had dumped a whole bunch of salt into the ice to speed the melting, ensuring that our wine would be well chilled throughout our encampment amid the flocked wallpaper and Muzak.

Farewell to the Bucket

Tense moments passed as both of us awaited the next appearance of the waiter. At last, he returned and before we could say anything, he had grabbed the bottle and had it back in the ice. As calmly as I could, I said we wouldn't need the bucket. The wine is cold enough, I said.

Momentarily, he looked hurt--and then, in a flash, irritated. He slapped the bottle back on the table, lifted the ice bucket, said curtly, "Very well, sir," and disappeared. We both knew we were destined never to see that bucket again.

This happened almost a decade ago in a San Francisco restaurant then considered one of the city's haute. It since has languished, just one of the good ones, clearly out of favor with upper-crust foodies. I believe its handling of the ice bucket is one important reason.

That was 1979, and it was the fashion then to freeze the heck out of white wine. "Serve chilled," the books said, and to many people that meant 40 degrees, refrigerator temperature. To others it meant 30 degrees, on the theory that if you don't want to have an ice bucket, start out with the wine near freezer temperature.

Stunned Into Submission

But over the years, little has changed. Americans still drink their white wine so cold that it is stunned into submission, yielding little of its fruity qualities. I recall ordering a glass of Fume Blanc at a Chicago hotel in 1986 and actually finding little shards of ice floating on top.

The glass had been washed and placed in a freezer without being dried, so the wine would be good and cold when it was served. When the wine was poured, it loosened the bits of ice along the side of the glass--and there they were, floating on top.

I have also had many experiences when red wines were served too warm.

Such as the time I ordered a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and it arrived at 75 degrees or so. I asked the waiter for an ice bucket and he looked shocked, advising me that red wine is not supposed to be served cold. I agreed, but pointed out that this wine was warm, and red wine is not supposed to be served warm, either.

He mumbled something about wine at "room temperature" (he must have read that somewhere) and went off to get the ice bucket.

The fact is that red wine ideally should be served at "room temperature" only in places like Scottish castles. The proper term is cellar temperature, which is about 60 or 65 degrees. I have had red wine at 55 and it's no worse for it, but at 75 the wine loses its crispness and starts tasting blowzy and clumsy.

In general, in this country white wine is served too cold, red wine too warm. This is particularly true in restaurants, where the myth of white wine well chilled and red wine at room temperature still survives.

I realize that some people don't mind having a Chardonnay Popsicle, but at very low temperatures any drink is harder to appreciate. Nuances get bludgeoned; subtlety is lost. And of all white wines, Chardonnay is the one hurt the most by freezing (although if the Chardonnay in question is poorly made, perhaps freezing it will be the one way to get it down). Chardonnay has few overt varietal characteristics of its own and is relatively delicate in aroma. The richness and texture we get out of it is part of what the wine maker does to make it expansive, and for us to freeze it hides the nuance the wine maker wants us to find.

A friend whose wine cellar stays at 64 degrees consumes both whites and reds at that level. When I have dined with him, the wines always show well. The whites, after a first round is poured, usually are placed in a terra-cotta cylinder, often called a wine brick. This keeps the bottle from warming up too quickly.

When a bottle of red wine is served too warm, an ice bucket is a quick fix. To be sure, in fancy restaurants the guy in the tux will be unnerved by the thought that a Chateau Latour is being "chilled," but he'll feel more at ease if you say you won't chill the wine, just bring it down a few degrees.

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