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Can Pour Service Get Worse?


Around the country, restaurants offering wine with their food seem to have a death wish. Most of them evidently think wine service is meaningless and they thus don't train their personnel in how to serve wine.

And when you're paying two to three times the retail price for a bottle of wine, good service should be part of the price.

Yet from the service I have seen, I get the impression that few restaurant people care about service. They also don't seem to care that their poor service is likely to make wine lovers so disgusted that they won't ever try to order wine in a restaurant again. Or dine there again.

I have more than a dozen stories of "bozo-ness" in wine service; a few will suffice. The following story is true, but only a fraction of the problems are listed here:

I was dining (I use the term loosely) recently at an inn in New Jersey, not a decision I made voluntarily, I might add. I noted on the wine list that one red wine by the glass was 1986 J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon, a fine wine that sells for about $7 a bottle. Despite the fact that at $4.50 a glass it was overpriced, I ordered it.

And what came to the table was clearly not Cabernet at all but a Beaujolais. I mentioned it to the waiter, who said, "You wanted the red wine, didn't you?"

"Yes, but I wanted the Cabernet," I replied, "and this is not Cabernet." He took the glass away with a diffident shrug.

He returned with another glass (and I won't tell you what the "glass" looked like). After taking a sniff and a sip, I determined that the wine inside was not J. Lohr Cabernet, but a much less expensive wine. I hailed the waiter and said, "This is not the wine on the wine list."

He said, "It's what the bartender poured."

I said, "But I wanted the J. Lohr Cabernet. Could I see the bottle this came from?"

Back came the bottle. It was a Cabernet all right, but it was one that sells for about $3.50 a bottle and I have seen it for $2.79. I said, "Your list showed the '86 J. Lohr. This is not J. Lohr."

He said, "The bartender tells me we're out of the J. Lohr, so he substituted this."

"A wine that sells for less than half the price of the J. Lohr, huh? And I assume the price of this glass is not going to be $4.50 this evening?"

He took the question to be rhetorical and left. There was no manager around that evening to whom I could squawk, so I paid the bill and went to my room, fuming.

A similar problem happened to a colleague two years ago. Dining at a San Francisco-area restaurant (also in a hotel, coincidentally) he ordered a glass of Korbel Natural, a dry sparkling wine. When the wine came, it was sweet.

"Could I see the bottle?" he asked of the waiter.

"Is something the matter, sir?" said the waiter.

"I don't think this is Korbel Natural," he said.

The waiter left, to be replaced by "a guy in a black suit," my friend said.

"Is something the matter, sir?" the man in the black suit asked. (This must be a phrase they teach you in restaurant school.)

My friend conveyed his concern; the manager said, "We are out of Korbel and we have substituted a very comparable wine." He mentioned the name. It sells for $22 a case, wholesale.

A discussion ensued. My friend was a little upset (understatement) that a wine that could, and does, sell for $2.50 a bottle at retail would be substituted for a wine that sells for $12 a bottle with the patron not informed of this switch. Things got pretty nasty at that point. (My friend is known to be feisty, particularly when he's right about something.)

Then there was the time a decade ago when we were sipping a bottle of Riesling. After the glasses at the table had been poured, four ounces remained in the bottle, which went back into the ice bucket.

Later our waitress returned, hoisted the bottle, glanced at it and, not seeing the wine remaining, turned the bottle upside down in the ice bucket, thereby pouring out what wine remained. (And what is this obsession that waiter staffs have with turning bottles upside down?)

Just a couple of weeks ago in a new downtown Los Angeles "chic-erie," our water poured five glasses and began walking away with what was left, about three ounces. Only after we shouted across the restaurant did he return with our last one-ninth of the bottle.

And in a fashionable Beverly Hills boite, we ordered three bottles of wine, each of which was "out of stock," and we were then offered a bottle that the restaurant had--but which was priced significantly higher than the ones I had been ordering.

Outside of price gouging, wine service in restaurants is one of the worst things we have to deal with. Ill-informed (or uninformed) servers make dining with wine a frustrating experience. And if my Cabernet episode and my compatriot's Korbel incident are any indication, some of what's going on is downright illegal.

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