Last year there was an incident in a French restaurant involving a notable wine-maker (I’m not allowed to mention his name for legal reasons), who sent back a bottle of wine saying that it was corked. The sommelier disagreed and refused to produce another bottle. Instead he offered the wine to other customers who pronounced it fine. The wine-maker’s table refused to pay and the police were called. But by the time the police arrived all the evidence had gone, drunk by the customers. I imagine that the French have specially trained wine detectives to deal with just such incidents.
I’ve had many terrible experiences with wine in restaurants, though thankfully none that required police involvement. The worst was at a Spanish place in Fitzrovia. I ordered a bottle of their cheapest Rioja. When it arrived I took a sip and it was hot. Not warm but mulled-wine hot. I asked the waitress to bring me an ice bucket — she refused, pointing out to me that it was red wine. I asked to speak to the sommelier. He came over oozing condescension. I repeated my demand for an ice bucket. His response was, ‘But sir, this is a red wine.’ ‘I know and it’s very warm so I want to make it colder.’ ‘But sir, this is red wine, Rioja.’ This circular argument went on for about five minutes until I said, ‘Listen! I don’t care that you think I am mad, just bring me an ice bucket!’ Eventually the ice came and I had to put up with pitying looks from the staff for the rest of the evening. I never went back.
No transaction has such potential for unpleasantness as ordering wine in a restaurant. Most people have no idea what they’re supposed to be looking for when given the wine to try. It also doesn’t help when sommeliers do ridiculous things like smell the cork. You won’t learn anything from smelling the cork; it smells of cork. The problem comes when the wine smells of cork, or mould, or nothing at all. Then it’s corked. This minefield of awkwardness has been complicated by the arrival of so-called ‘natural’ wines. These are wines made without the dose of sulphur dioxide normally used to stabilise them. Sommeliers love them because they’re rare, so sommeliers get to preserve their status as keepers of arcane knowledge. Where previously they would have memorised Bordeaux vintages, now it’s about obscure Sicilian natural wines.
Part of the fun of natural wines is that they are often a little wild; there might be some funky smells. But it also makes it harder to tell if there is something wrong. And it means unscrupulous or, more likely, ignorant sommeliers can get away with selling dodgy wine. I was told of an American who ordered wine in a restaurant, took a sniff and pronounced it faulty. The sommelier said, ‘No, it’s meant to be like that, it’s a natural wine.’ The American insisted it was faulty and asked for another bottle; the usual argument ensued. Eventually, the American said, ‘I’m Kermit Lynch and I’ve been importing this wine since before you were born.’ The sommelier looked at the back of the bottle and there it said ‘imported by Kermit Lynch’.
Until recently I’ve seen the sommelier as someone to be wary of, a barrier between me and a nice glass of wine. Recently, though, I’ve had a bit on an epiphany — well, two actually. Both took place in a posh pub in the Cotswolds called the Wheatsheaf. The first epiphany was called Angela. My wife and I were staying shortly after the birth of our first and so far only child. Angela, a young German, handled this prickly customer with such grace, warmth and expertise that it felt like I was choosing the wine and I really knew what I was talking about. On our next visit, I was disappointed to learn that Angela had moved on, instead we had Katie who if anything was even more convivial. My wife and I ended up at the bar with her trying some excellent Austrian reds.
What does this tell us apart from an early middle-aged man’s weakness for attractive women? The problem wasn’t all those previous sommeliers (apart from the Spanish one, of course). The problem was me. I knew too much about wine to put myself in someone else’s hands, but not enough to do without him entirely. It turned into a battle. Sommeliers are taught to get to know customers in order to do their jobs better, but the customer also needs to get to know the sommelier. It’s a very personal transaction. You do get some supercilious ones, but then you get difficult people in all walks of life. As a friend of mine once put it: ‘You never need to pack a wanker.’
So I’ve come up with some top tips on how to get the best out of even the snootiest of sommelier: talk about Austrian wine. All sommeliers are mad about Austrian wine, so showing an interest will automatically mark you down as someone worth spending time with. Listen, don’t just try to impress them with your knowledge of Austrian wine. Tell them exactly how much you want to spend. Beware natural wines, be very clear that you don’t want anything too wacky. Forget about exact wine and food matching, you’re never going to get something that goes with everything on the table. Finally, remember that it’s all about psychology — flatter your sommelier, make him or her feel important, and you never know, you might get a free glass out of it.