HOME > Chowhound > Wine >

Discussion

Sommelier snobbery - why do 4 star restaurants refuse to list white zinfandel?

Last week, I was at a highly rated restaurant in San Francisco. An elderly woman asked the wine steward if they had white zinfandel.

In a snobbish tone, he said no, they don't have it on the list, but there were French and German whites that he could suggest. He then brought her tastes of a reisling and a chenin blanc, which she refused, and then ordered a mixed drink. Then she said to her husband quietly: "I just want a smooth, simple, fruity glass of wine...that reisling tasted a bit like oil!"

When I got up to go the the restroom later that night, I ran into the wine steward. I asked him about the white zin incident, to which he responded: "No doubt, white zin would sell well here, but I would rather be caught dead than to walk through my dining room and seeing Beringer White Zin all over the place. I don't want to work in that kind of restaurant. To which I said:

"So you want to work in a restaurant where there is a possibility that your guests aren't getting what they want because of YOUR preferences?"

He replied: "It's not just my preferences. It's my reputation. The wine industry is really close. Word will get out if I put white zin on my list. That is seen as a negative when I look for my next job."

To that response, I let out a painful laugh. Because I realized that this "Sommelier Snobbery" is the standard. And that there are probably tons of guests at the nicest restaurants around the world who are doing the same thing.

Aren't restaruants in the hospitality industry, after all?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
Delete
  1. Me think it's not the problem with the restaurant, but with the sommelier... but from what I understand of the wine, it's not that good a wine even compared to similar priced rosé or white wines.

    He could have offered a sweeter Riesling or Gewurztraminer. or a "real" rosé wine.

    But on the other hand, he did the right thing, bring a taste of two available wines for the client to taste, she did not like them, so be it, it happens.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Maximilien

      "Good" is so relative. What's a "real" rosé other than a wine that has some minimal skin contact? Is Tavel more real than white zin? If you say yes, you're being a snob too.

      I can't stand white zin, but I also can't stand debating with the legions who love it as to whether or not it's a better wine than something else. In the U.S. there are more of them than there are of me. :-)

      1. re: stalkingwine

        True "good" is a relative term. The funny thing is that of all "wine drinkers" only White Zinfandel drinkers appear to be incapable of enjoying other wines. Some wine drinkers may prefer red over white and many have a favorite varietal or may have gone on a Pinot or Syrah kick. But very few stick with one wine with such tenacity as the White Zinfandel drinker. My conclusion isn't that it's bad or good but that White Zinfandel is categorically different.

        1. re: Chinon00

          Very good observation, Chinon00. I have it on very good authority that, when wine marketers do focus groups for input, one of the basic premises has to do with people who state White ZInfandel as their preference. Those people are categorized separately because research shows that they are 'one wine' consumers in a way that no other consumers can be categorized.

          I guess my previous thought, that White Zin is good for the wine biz because it is a staring point toward a broader palate, can still stand.............. but it's a good thing that so many millions of cases of White Zin are sold. At least, it would seem, even a small percentage of that huge number expanding their palates is still a significant group. Or is that just rationalizing?

          1. re: Midlife

            Chinon and Midlife - are your opinions based on research you've seen, or just from observations while being in the business?

            This stuff is fascinating.

            1. re: kaysyrahsyrah

              Mine comes from a close relative who works in marketing for a large CA winery. I was fascinated to hear the White Zin thing just a few weeks ago.

              1. re: kaysyrahsyrah

                Mine is from personal observations and from reading books and journals related to wine and beer.

                Thanks,

      2. He brought her a riesling and a chenin blanc, which seem to me like possibly fine substitutes.

        Would you go into a highly rated restaurant and expect to be able to order a slab of spareribs? Would I walk into a "gastropub" and expect to be able to get a Miller Lite?

        There's nothing snobby at all about not wanting to work in a place that serves WZ.

        15 Replies
        1. re: jaykayen

          I don't expect slabs of ribs everywhere, nor do I expect all sommeliers to stock white zin. But I do expect restaurants to know their customer, and give them what they want.

          French Laundry serves white zinfandel. It's just not on the list...you have to ask...

          1. re: stalkingwine

            Wow! I know French Laundry is all about the customer, but that's really something. Not that it would totally surprise me, but are you sure?

            Lots of people started their wine odyssey with White Zin or, if you're older, Mateus Rose. Nothing wrong with it, but IS kindof like ordering a Ballpark Frank at Le Bernardin. I think the issue is that restaurants can't, and shouldn't be all things to all people.

            1. re: Midlife

              Midlife,

              Once again, you are going back to my "era." For me, it was Mateus and Lancers (both of their offerings), and this was before Sutter Home coined White Zin! Yes, the road must begin somewhere.

              I do agree that the choices are up to the sommelier, with tastings and strong considerations for the fare.

              With so very many wines to choose from, there has to be a limit someplace. Could a White Zin be placed into the cellar? Probably, but at the expense of deleting another wine. Space is finite in a restaurant's wine cellar - just as it is in mine. Include another wine, and I have to make room, at the expense of another.

              I still wonder what was wrong with the Chenin, other than the patron wanted a White Zin, which was not available.

              As you say, every restaurant cannot be everything to everyone - it'll never happen.

              Hunt

                1. re: PolarBear

                  i know this is an old thread/post - but Liebfraumilch was my gateway wine!

                2. re: Bill Hunt

                  On a similar note, when I used to bartend in a trendy restaurant/bar I'd often have guests who asked for "Brand X" Vodka, and would admonish us and the management for not carrying this obviously-superior spirit... Nevermind the 30 other vodkas on the backbar... no restaurant can be all things to all people. If you want white zin, go to Olive Garden.

                  1. re: orlwine

                    Well said. No restaurant can be all things to all possible patrons - translated: cannot have all possible wines. I've been handed leather-bound wine lists of 500+ pages, and have found that MY personal choice to pair with a certain dish was not represented. Still, I found others that worked, regardless of my predisposition.

                    One must go with the "flow."

                    Hunt

                  2. re: Bill Hunt

                    Bringing back the old days. Don't forget Blue Nun.

                    1. re: Akitist

                      Yes, that was a popular one, though early on, I was exposed to some other GR wines, and was never a fan - still, they sold millions of gallons, and might still do so.

                      Years ago, I posted my "wine chronology" on alt.food.wine. I charted my personal ups, and downs, over the decades, with annotations on my "progression." Maybe some of us need to "come clean," and start a thread on "How I Became Interested in Wines."

                      Hunt

                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        Hunt, I think almost every American of "our" era started with those wines... and likely "progressed" to Almaden Mountain "Chablis!"

                        1. re: ChefJune

                          Or beyond, as is my case. Actually, I came into things a bit earlier, but managed to survive the various Lancers and Mateus iterations. White Zin actually missed me by a bit, but that is because I am old.

                          Hunt

                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            ROFL...you guys have just charted my wine-drinking life. I hadn't thought about Blue Nun or Almaden Mountain Chablis in YEARS....but she and Sutter Home and the Bartles & James boys (I know...shudder) started me down the path to where I am now...so it's all good.

                            I absolutely love my Provencale roses, and drink them almost exclusively when it's dinner-in-the-garden weather, but I probably wouldn't expect to order them at a 4-star restaurant...and a truly 4-star is probably making the better choice to not have WZ on their list.

                            (and yes, Tavels are different than Sutter Home. Vastly so.)

                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              Bill, I suggest picking up a bottle of Mateus and revisiting your past. One sip and you will be amazed what weird memories come back...

                              1. re: Leper

                                I don't know that I am ready. Maybe some memories should stay that way - just memories? [Grin]

                                At least you survived to tell the tale.

                                Thanks,

                                Hunt

                3. re: jaykayen

                  very well said,thank you jaykayen

                4. I don't know -- why do 4-star restaurants refuse to serve frito pie?

                  Just because a restaurant is in the hospitality industry doesn't mean they need to cater to every whim of every person that might walk through the door. If every restaurant just served what the average person wanted to eat and drink, we'd have nothing but Chili's.

                  Besides, if the restaurant is so highly rated, then I'd venture to say that the owners do know quite a bit about their market.

                  37 Replies
                  1. re: oolah

                    I was going to say something similar. I don't expect Gary Danko to put fried chicken on the menu just because a few customers might prefer it.

                    This restaurant has a finite amount of space in their cellar. If they put a white Zin on the wine list, they would have to take off a vintage BdB, say.

                    Some Italian restaurants use a 100% Italian list. Would they sell CA Cabs if they were on the list? Sure. But lists reflect the restaurant.

                    1. re: oolah

                      One thing that I wonder is, what is a "Four Star Restaurant?" Whose "stars" are these, anyway? They cannot be Michelin's, even though they now award them to US restaurants, as well as those in Europe. Still, they top out with 3, and not 4.

                      Just which restaurant are we talking about here?

                      Hunt

                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        The number of celebrities that have visited, perhaps?

                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          Presumably Mobil Guide stars. So in SF we're talking about Aqua, Campton Place, Fleur de Lys, Gary Danko, La Folie, Masa's, Michael Mina, Silks, and Spruce.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            Alan,

                            Thank you for that clarification. I some times get confused by the various ratings, especially the other ones, that use stars. Guess that I am just too Euro-centric.

                            Appreciated,

                            Hunt

                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              I and I think most of the public don't think of the Mobile Guide for star ratings for restaurants.

                              "Four star restaurant" is a general term. In NYC, the NY Times gives a 4 (perfect) star rating to very very few restaurants. The SF Chronicle does the same.

                              Mobil goes to five stars, which the staff members at Gary Danko proclaim by wearing (forced) a pin on their lapels.

                              1. re: Cary

                                The only Mobil 5-star in SF is The Dining Room a the Ritz Carlton. Gary Danko gets 4 stars.

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  You're right of course. I haven't been to Gary Danko since 2006, which was when they did have a Mobil 5 star rating.

                                  1. re: Cary

                                    Makes you wonder if they issued new lapel pins, or just quietly did away with the old ones...

                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                      ...some guy in the back room with a Dremel tool....

                                  2. re: alanbarnes

                                    FWIW, Restaurant Gary Danko beat the Dining Room with us, and by a decent degree. I guess it all depends on who is dong the review?

                                    Hunt

                                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                                      Very much so. Mobil ranks Spruce higher than Incanto or Acquerello. The former I can understand - appetizers like "Pig's ears and apples" are not designed to appeal to the masses. But the latter? Unfathomable, when the comparison is to someplace where a major draw is the dubious claim of having the best burger in town.

                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                        Alan,

                                        I agree. When one relies on a review, they should be able to discern the tastes of the reviewer, or the full criteria of the review. Over time, I feel that I could rely pretty heavily on your review of a particular restaurant. It still might not be "my thing," but it would be unlikely that I would be surprised. We might disagree on some "fine points," but I doubt that we'd do so on the big ones.

                                        Hunt

                                        Hunt

                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                          To tie in to another thread that's going on, that's the difference between a discussion, a review, and a star rating. A bunch of well-informed people sussing out the pluses and minuses of a place (be it The French Laundry or the taco truck down the street) is what Chowhound is all about. IMO a discussion format gives the most complete possible picture of a place.

                                          A review is less informative, since it's only one person's opinion, but especially if you know the person's tastes, it's a good place to start. If I rave about the spaghettini with shaved tuna heart and the hay-braised rabbit at Incanto, you can decide for yourself whether it sounds like your glass of Barolo.

                                          But when a committee decides that a restaurant gets three stars (or worse yet, when a bunch of users' star ratings are averaged), the result is fairly meaningless.

                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                            Alan,

                                            Good points, as usual.

                                            Thanks for sharing,

                                            Hunt

                                  3. re: Cary

                                    Thank you for the clarification. I must just think in different "stars."

                                    Obviously, my frame of reference is flawed, or limited, at best.

                                    Appreciated,

                                    Hunt

                              2. re: Bill Hunt

                                there are two rating systems that seem to prevail in the US - AAA and Mobile (AAA using the diamond rating). official "star rating" comes from Mobile. Both AAA and Mobile have very strict and tight guidelines that tend to be objective so look for the plaques that are given to each restaurant in order to determine the validity of "stars" and "diamonds". there is some confusion as many Newspapers will rate restaurants with "stars" - the problem is that the restaurant reviews tend to be very subjective. But you have to imagine that if a restaurant were to get a 4 or 5 star review from a newspaper that it would make sense to latch on to that rating in order to position themselves better in the market.

                                Some other (less popular) ratings include DiRona, and James Beard which can both be somewhat political. Zagat is a user rated guide and is subjective on a much larger scale - Zagat can be grossly skewed in cities with smaller populations where a restaurant owner and the family can vote for their favorites.

                                Michelin does now rate in the US and while I am not familiar with how a US restaurant can get a Michelin rating it does happen rarely in the US. Michelin is known to have the most difficult rating system in the world.

                                As far as White Zinfandel in a 4 star restaurant - it is perfectly acceptable to have on a wine list - there is an entirely different rating system for wines of the most famous is Wine Spectator. according to Wine Specators Grand Award requirements:
                                "These restaurants typically offer 1,500 selections or more, and feature serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, large-format bottles, and superior organization, presentation and wine service." I have ran several kitchens with this distinguished award and all of them have offered white zinfandel on the list. Although White Zin is not a fav of sommelier's many take the world of wine seriously enough to understand the significance of the "varietal" (for lack of a better term). Note that a White Zin is just a Zinfindal that is produced without Grape Skin. A good sommelier will know about some amazing White Zin's that are complex and provide depth, intrigue, and compliments to great food.

                                If a Sommelier scoffs at the validity of one of the most popular wines (at one point several years ago) then he is on the road to not getting any good jobs down the road and is probably a self-proclaimed sommelier who doesn't truly respect the world of wine. And yes, there is an official designation and training program for Sommelier's as well.

                                hope this helps...

                                1. re: HamburgerToday

                                  Seems as if you have a rather 'focused' point of view on these subjects that reflects a narrow perspective. For me, at least, AAA and Mobil are travel guides and their restaurant reviews are not considered to be major indicators of fine quality food experiences (at any price level). They review a small number of restaurants in each city and not always the best ones by any means.

                                  It is pretty well known in the restaurant industry that the Wine Spectator Award is based on a submitted wine list that is reviewed for only breadth and depth, is paid for by the restaurants that qualify, and is not re-visited for re-qualification. No one from the restaurant actually checks to see if the list is real. At least that's what I've read in more than a few accounts. I have no personal problem with any list including White Zin or not............... but I really think that any serious somm would have difficulty recommending it as a pairing in any better restaurant unless it was simply what the guest likes to drink. That's perfectly fine. It's just not what a somm is there for.

                                  "A good sommelier will know about some amazing White Zin's that are complex and provide depth, intrigue, and compliments to great food." - Please name one. There used to be a number of 'better' White Zins produced but the mass volume and low price of Sutter Home and Beringer have pretty much driven others out of it. For whatever reason................ the White Zin drinker is now categorized, by the wine industry, as being in something of a separate category these days - pretty much die-hard loyal and much less likely to broaden their tastes to other wines. The most common reasoning is that they drink White Zin because they like a sweet taste with alcohol in it. Most wine varieties are too strong or dry or tannic for that palate.

                                  Just my $.02 of course.

                                  1. re: Midlife

                                    I've never heard of a good white zin, let alone an amazing one.

                                    1. re: invinotheresverde

                                      From memory and some Googling it appears that Ridge made dry White Zin in the 80's, for one. I found that in a piece where someone interviewed someone who worked there at the time. I erroneously recalled having one, back in the 70's from Robert Pecota, but recently had occasion to speak with Mr. Pecota about it and he said it was a Riesling. But he added that there WERE a few 'better' wineries who tried them before Trinchero exploded with Sutter Home.

                                      1. re: Midlife

                                        I was only a few years old in the 80s, ergo no Ridge for me.

                                        1. re: Midlife

                                          Wow, I thought that I had followed Paul Draper pretty closely, lived in the '80s, and do not recall these.

                                          Also, Trinchero is the family name running Sutter Home (origin of White Zinfandel), since 1948, and are credited with the "creation," of what we know as White Zin. However great a move that was, it has taken some decades for others to explore variations on Blush Wnes, more closely aligned with, say a Tavel, than a White Zin

                                          Hunt.

                                          OTOH, White Zin did allow both wineries to stay in business and allow wine sales in the US to expand, plus they allowed many old vines to stay, when the bankers and investment folk were saying to rip 'em out, and plant something else - French Columbard in those days?

                                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                                            Ridge only made White Zin for 2-3 vintages, IIRC, and that was really the only time that the then-new owners (Otsuka Pharmaceuticals) interfered with Ridge's winemaking . . .

                                            As far as "great" White Zins are concerned, Wiliiam Wheeler and Robert Pecota both made fine examples of White Zin in the 1980s. (Ridge's were never all that good, IMHO.) And Pedroncelli had, for years, a great Zin Rosé. But I haven't had what I would consider to be a "great" White Zin in 20-25 years . . . .

                                            The good news is that rosés are definitely improving.

                                            Cheers,
                                            Jason

                                            1. re: zin1953

                                              Jason,

                                              Haven't seen you here much lately................ good to have you around.

                                              As I mentioned a few posts above, I was positive that Pecota had done White Zin back then, so I actually called him a few weeks ago. Just as he did back when I called him (in the 80's) to find out where I could buy what I had experienced at the old Blue Boar in San Francisco, he answered the phone himself. He said it was a Riesling he'd made then. I'd think he'd be the ultimate authority, but I sure thought it was Zin too.

                                              1. re: Midlife

                                                Pecota certainly did a varietal blush wine of some sort, but I don't remember if it was specifically a White Zin . . . I'll see if I can find out what it was.

                                              2. re: zin1953

                                                Interesting. Was Paul Draper at the winemaking helm at that point?

                                                I've never had any of those, but have had some recent Rosés of Zinfandel, that were nice wines, and more than a half-dozen steps above what I see as "White Zin."

                                                Personally, I like more of the domestic Rosés of Grenache, or even Syrah, to many examples of the same with Zinfandel.

                                                Thanks for the info,

                                                Hunt

                                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                  Bill, as you know, Paul has been "at the helm" since Dave Bennion. But he's had winemakers working "under" him. So Paul was "in charge" at the time, but I don't know if he was the "hands-on" winemaker of the Whtie Zin. Certainly the notes on the side of the bottle were signed "PD."

                                                  1. re: zin1953

                                                    Thanks for the clarification. I did not have all of the historical info in front of me, until now.

                                                    Appreciated,

                                                    Hunt

                                            2. re: Midlife

                                              Many wineries made white zins in the early 80s because there was not a huge market for Zinfandel like there is now. Old Zin vineyards were being torn out and replaced with housing because the land was just too valuable. When White Zin came along, it was a godsend to the wine business because it enabled many of those vineyards to stay viable. Remember that the market for higher priced, well made, small production single vineyard Zinfandels had not taken off yet.

                                              That said, as many noted earlier White Zin was the "starter wine" for many people. There were articles on how to tell a "good" white zin from an "ordinary" one (the pinker the better, the oranger the more ordinary.) It was a marketing gimick to enable CA wineries to compete with Lancers , Matuse, etc. Of course in those days, Lancers was a "classy" wine compared to things like Boone's Farm etc.

                                              1. re: dinwiddie

                                                As mentioned elsewhere in this thread, I rather missed the White Zin craze, but do agree that it saved many vines. Some of those turned out to be golden, decades later, so I have to pay homage to the forces behind that. Due to my advanced age, I was in the Lancers group, and recall those days with some fondness. By the time that White Zin had become popular, I had moved on, and soon discovered "red" Zins. I have never looked back!

                                                Still, I owe a lot to the White Zin fans and producers, as many did benefit from that marketing ploy, and in great ways.

                                                Some years ago, I had the pleasure to dine with Michael DeLoch, and he recounted his father (Cecil?) buying some properties, when he retired from the SF fire department. His father was planning on planting some other varietals, but with two vineyards, the owners asked that the ancient Zin vines be spared. Mr. DeLoch, the senior, gave a handshake on that part of the deal, and worried about what he had done, seeing as how other varietals were selling and the bankers were at his throat to plant Merlot. He resisted, and apologized to the family about those two handshake deals. He kept those ancient vines, not knowing what the heck to do with them. He decided to make a Zinfandel wine instead, and soon was selling more of those wines, than most of his "more popular" varietals. Glad that he was a man of his word, though he struggled (and the family struggled later too), with that decision. Great, old vines were saved, and could not be replaced in my lifetime. Many similar stories, at least the end result.

                                                Hunt

                                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                  I remember years ago holding up a bottle of DeLoch White Zin next to a bottle of Beringer. The difference was night and day. The Beringer was orangish and very pale while the DeLoch was a deep pink and looked like a classic Rose. I have to admit, I bought the DeLoch and probably enjoyed it, but that was a very, very long time ago.

                                                  1. re: dinwiddie

                                                    I recall DeLoach as being pleasant as well for the simple fact that unlike all the other White Zins I'd had it tasted much more serious.

                                                    1. re: dinwiddie

                                                      Though I have had a fair amount of Cecil's wines, I do not recall ever having their White Zin. Considering some of their property, they DID have some good vines.

                                                      Hunt

                                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                        Actually, the only reason I tried it was I had just read an article on "How to tell a good White Zin" and saw both the DeLoch and Beringer in a store so I held both up to the light side by side. I decided to try the DeLoch and was pleasently surprised. Simple, yes, but pleasent. Not something I'd go out of my way for, even then, but it was definitely a cut above the typical White Zin.

                                                        1. re: dinwiddie

                                                          I've seen a few people on this thread mention De Loch. Is that just a misspelling of De Loach or is it a winery I've never heard of.
                                                          Thanks in advance for the clarification.

                                                          1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                            I would anticipate so. Cecil and his son, Michael, were in the business, from shortly after Cecil retired from the SF Fire Department (SF?) and moved up state a bit.

                                                            Never had their White Zin, but did have plenty of their regular Zins, and sought out the single vineyard offerings, after I heard the story of their acquisition - very worthwhile offerings!

                                                            Hunt

                                      2. No problem with what the restaurant or sommelier did here. The restaurant's food, wine, ambience, price, etc, are all targeting a specific market or customer profile. That is their choice. Our choice as consumers is to decide whether or not a particular place is for us.

                                        The sommelier acted professionally trying to find a substitute. And gave a plausible reason for not carrying white zin.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. The original comment has been removed