After three days of nonstop drinking—day drinking and night drinking, then nightcap drinking followed by eye-openers—during the delirious fun that is ‘Tales of the Cocktail’ (an annual booze-a-palooza in New Orleans for the country’s foremost bartenders and spirits geeks), I was longing for a grownup, sit-down dinner. You know, the kind that includes food requiring utensils, real vegetables, and wine. A friend suggested a sleek, modern, lounge-ish place, located above a popular dessert shop in the French Quarter. I’d heard the food was excellent, so it seemed like a great idea. Once seated, I took a look at the wine list; brief but solid, it covered all of the bases—Old World and New World, greatest hits and undiscovered gems.
I asked our waiter for a bottle of Robert Sinskey Vineyards’s 2013 Abraxas, a juicy white blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer from the winery’s organically-farmed vineyards, at which point he squinted at me and said, “What bin?” Given the volume in the room and his distance from me across the table, I thought he said, “What vin?” I repeated the name of the wine. He said, “No, I’m asking for the bin number. On the left.” That’s when I said, “Seriously?” And one of my buddies kicked me under the table.
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To be fair, I’m always giving people advice about ordering wine at restaurants in an effort both to relax and empower them: “Ask questions!” “Ask for the wine list!” “Ask who wrote the list!” “Ask to see the sommelier or wine director!” One of my more contentious pieces of advice is: “Never, ever, ever, ever, ask a waiter for wine advice—it’s not their job!”
For the record, I was a waiter for a decade, long before I became a sommelier. And when I was one, I, too, didn’t know anything about wine, because…it wasn’t my job! My recommendations began and ended with, “You’ll really like the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.” And yet, I’ve had to endure the wrath of uppity restaurateurs who berate me for disqualifying waiters outright. “Well, in our restaurant,” they tell me, “we pride ourselves on teaching our waiters about wine.” That’s terrific, and I’m sure you do, I assure them. In fact, I know quite a few amazing wine directors who do exactly that. But restaurants like that are the One Percent of Restaurants.
Even so, is it too much to ask the managers of the other ninety-nine percent of restaurants to teach their waitstaffs what’s actually on their wine lists? Maybe it’s a minor quibble, but how hard would it be to figure out what I’m ordering without making me open the list again, skim my finger down the page to find the wine that I just stated out loud, and locate its accompanying “bin number?” If there were actually some vaulted cellar four floors below us lit by torches and filled with bins of wine, sure, I’d get it. Maybe I figure that a waiter able to memorize a list of daily specials and call them from memory so eloquently—“also, our pan roasted Weasel Harbor cod with sage brown butter sauce, cockles, asparagus tips and Papa Cacho potatoes”—ought to be able to remember the words “Anthill Farms Pinot Noir” without much trouble?
Or, maybe I should accept that the whole situation is my own fault for not following my own advice and just asking for the sommelier in the first place. OK—but where’s the fun in that?