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Some UK Wine Issues

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Along with the "TCA" wine issue, that I just posted of, I encountered some "oddities," in London last week.

We hosted four dinners, and two were also at Michelin starred restaurants (as was the one with the TCA incident, and each figures into the posting below), and things were not quite what I had anticipated. I had dined at one, a few years back, and things were totally different, regarding the wine service.

I'm going to rather lump things together, to get some thoughts on what I encountered, as the exact details should not make much difference.

There were two of the dinners, that were for groups of about 8 - 10 diners, and the menus were open, and I was then charged with choosing the wines for the table for each course. Before any orders had been placed, and even before the first amuse bouche offerings, I ordered a Chassagne-Montrachet and a Puligny-Montrachet (1er Cru each), and asked for Burgundy "balloon" glasses. No problem. The wines were presented to me, and I accepted each bottle (one per each of two restaurants). At that point, the sommelier disappeared! No wine was poured, either for me to taste, or for the guests to have. Though I had commented that the temps were excellent, and that no ice buckets were required, the bottles were placed in an ice bucket. As the amuse bouches were presented, I asked for the sommelier. He/she did not appear. With a second amuse bouche, I requested again, and in the other case, requested the sommelier from a passing server. In each restaurant, when the sommelier finally arrived, I asked about the wine. In each restaurant, the response was "Oh, you want me to serve the wines now?" I am sorry, and maybe this comes from being a "Yank," but "DUH! That IS what I want, or I would not have ordered the wine to begin with." With a look of abject surprise, the sommeliers did offer me a taste, which I approved, and finally, my guests were given wines.

In both cases, the sommelier flatly insisted that the wines be chilled, though I assured each that the cellar temp was quit good. The wines were now quite cold (guessing about 48F), so the wines were not showing well. One sommelier DID finally place the bottle onto the table, but the other refused to take it out of the ice. It was not until the second (in one case, and third in the other) bottle, that they finally eschewed the ice bucket. At least each restaurant had adequate glasses, and did not hesitate to use them, per my request.

I did not want to cause any sort of a "scene," as I was hosting, but this was just flat unacceptable. It also seemed somewhat universal, and I am worried about what looks to be some sort of a trend.

In one case, I had also ordered a Gevrey-Chambertin PN, and asked that it be poured along with the Chard for the first courses (many mushroom dishes around the table), but I could not get the wine, until the second courses were served - absent sommelier, and no server would touch the accepted bottles.

Also, in one restaurant, the chosen Puligny-Montrachet ran out, and I accepted a substitute, but the sommelier refused to give each guest a new, clean glass, and just poured the second wine atop any of the previous wine, saying "They are the same wines, just from different vineyards and producers/négociant and different vintage. Now, as we had requested larger bowl glasses, maybe the restaurant had run out of them, but that was not mentioned.

What did I miss? What has changed in the restaurant business? Why can't the host get what he/she requests, especially as I had guests relying on MY choices, with not only the wines, but the timing? Has the role of "sommelier" been elevated to the status of executive chef, where only what they want, will be honored?

Thanks for the comments and thoughts,

Hunt

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  1. Bill

    I don't drink alcohol but my partner does - usually wanting a couple of glasses of wine with a meal. Means there's usually a discussion with the sommelier about what's going to be drunk and when it's going to arrive. I cannot recall any experiences such as you describe at any level of UK dining and, particularly not at the five Michelin starred places we've eaten at this year (Baslow Hall, La Becasse, Martin Wishart, Sat Bains, Walnut Tree)

    1 Reply
    1. re: Harters

      Thanks for your input.

      In the past decades, I had never encountered such, and actually at one of those restaurants, but some years back.

      I found the whole thing very odd, and totally unlike anything that I have encountered in Europe, UK or the US.

      In one case, there was one Michelin star, and at the other two. On this same trip, we did two other one-star restaurants, with nothing like this. Matter-of-fact, the sommelier at one even recalled the Montrachet that my wife and I had ordered in April, and commented that this was from a different producer. He also recalled the table that we had used, two nights later for a board dinner, and ran down my wine list for that night! Impressive - just totally impressive!

      Appreciated, and hope that others can help me "fill in the blanks," as I have never encountered such. Still, you gotta' remember that this is a "daft Yank" posting, so I am NOT the sharpest pencil in the box.

      Thanks,

      Hunt

    2. Egads, what a couple of horrible experiences!!! Maybe a little googling into the backgrounds of these "sommeliers" might shed some light on why they behaved the way they did. Neither sounded particularly professional or well-trained.......

      1. I came across a very mild verson of this recently at a new and lauded place in London, where I had a minor disagreement with the sommelier about the timing of a wine. I can't remember it exactly but I think the sommelier wanted to bring me another glass of white wine while I was only halfway through my aperitif, and there was barely any room on the table. He argued once but then did as he was told! This was after he'd made a sarcastic comment about prosecco being far too common to make it onto their menu and that they only served a cremant. Idiot.

        Anyway I was surprised enough at being disagreed with that I think it's safe to say it's not a widespread trend. Though to make sure it doesn't become one, it could be worth you following up with your restaurants and letting them know you were disappointed in their service.

        1 Reply
        1. re: gembellina

          Had we not have had several great "wine experiences" on this trip, and even another at one of the same restaurants, I would think that it was a "trend." However, several restaurants, and their sommeliers, came through with flying colors.

          Still, with two in a row, and from high-end restaurants, I was a bit put-off. They were totally different restaurants, and in different areas of the city, with no ties, that I know of, but the service was so very similar, that it got me to wondering.

          Thank you for the input,

          Hunt

        2. A question about your wine choices. I assume these are high end wines that you are familiar with. Is the price much different in England, the continent or the US? If you were to order the same at the equivilent starred places, would there be a bargin somewhere or a rip somwhere else? Is the price of high end French wine pretty consistant?

          3 Replies
          1. re: budnball

            Factoring in the exchange rates (and then a little London mark-up - it is NOT the cheapest city on Earth), the prices were pretty similar. London was a tad more expensive, where the same wines have been imported into the US, but not totally out of line. I have had the same Vincent Giardin Montrachet in London and in the US. Here (US) it's US $ 120, and in London £ 92. Higher, but not THAT much higher considering that the exchange rate was 1.72 between the $ and the £, at the time. Also, as we were dining in Michelin starred restaurants, in an expensive city, to compare the UK prices to the US, and a general high-end restaurant, might not be apples to apples.

            Hunt

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Thanx for the response. It seems the variations in price is greater in the middle and lower end of the market.

              1. re: budnball

                I often see the largest variations between retail and restaurant fares, at the lower end (though there have been some exceptions - major exceptions).

                I am not sure what the thinking is, but have a few speculations. It has not been uncommon to see lower-end wines at +600% markup, where mid-level wines are at ~ +200%.

                My speculation is that the owners feel that the overhead to pour a bottle of US$6.00 wine (wholesale) is the same, as for a US$120.00 bottle. Now, some do use lower-end stemware, but the cost to present, open and then pour, is fairly common, with the exception of maybe caraffing/decanting a higher-end bottle.

                Along those markup lines, when we moved to Phoenix, there was a wine bar, that had just opened in a high-end shopping center. They were offering a Penfolds Chard, that was US$5.00/btl. retail, at US$25/glass, as their special. I'd guess that they were paying about US$2.00 - 3.00/btl. Shoppers were fighting for tables and ordering that wine in droves. While that markup was at the extreme end, I see markups, not that far off, and especially at the lower-end.

                Hunt