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Upselling wines

Fintastic May 23, 2012 11:23 AM

The following is a long-winded rant, so if you'd prefer not to read someone complain then please back out now.
In Montreal I find that 'upselling' by servers is relatively rare (or at least I rarely fall into these traps). This is always something I've found more common in Toronto, NYC, etc. In fact, I've noticed that sommeliers in places like Lawrence have actually down-sold me from pricier wines to more affordable ones. However, I've had a few instances in the past few weeks that makes me wonder what's going on.

What turned out to be a lovely, celebrity-filled night in the Joe Beef garden yesterday was somewhat marred by the waiter bringing us several wine options when a particular bottle was requested. One bottle was a magnum of what he repeatedly insisted was the very same wine we had ordered. Given our group size this seemed a reasonable option (we even discussed in front of him that the price would be similar to buying 2 individual bottles). Although I expect to pay something of a premium for a magnum relative to two regular-sized bottles, ours seemed somewhat excessive ($55 for the 750ml vs. $150 for the 1.5L). As I made the final order for our table, I felt responsible for having picked a pricey bottle and ended up footing much of the wine bill, walking out of JB paying $175 myself. Shame on me, perhaps, for not asking the price, but with the list only written inside I put too much trust in this server who was otherwise very good. This is an establishment who's owners preach, in their Art of Living, that one should spend less than 3 minutes picking a wine instead of extensively debating the options with a server. With Dave McMillan sitting to my immediate left I felt compelled to obey this tenet - an unfortunate choice.

At Smoking Vallee there was not so much of an up-sell as a bait-and-switch. With the restaurant having run out of all fishy options, my primarily pescatarian dining companion had no suitable mains to order. Upon inquiring the restaurant offered her a vegetarian spin on a foie gras and duck gizzard risotto. The kitchen replaced these meaty ingredients with raw radishes and some sort of salad green (radicchio?) yet ended up charging the same price. Given their accommodation this was not totally unexpected, but it seems a bit chintzy to charge the foie gras price for radishes.

The first recent instance was at Communion. One unusually humid spring day, my cousin and I stopped in for a quick drink before our dinner at DNA. My cousin asked the bartender about getting a cocktail, and the barman told him that this was not his usual gig and he didn't really know how to mix. Gesturing at the wine specials on the board to my left (noting prices that ranged between $6 and $9) I asked if he instead had a light red wine that would go well with the heat. Stating an ideal option, he fetched a bottle and - without providing us a taste - poured two glasses. Although I agree that it was indeed light-bodied, the only flavour comparison I can make is to some $9 fait au Quebec dep wine I bought in a recent emergency. Once we finished the swill I requested the bill, which revealed each glass to be $15.

Am I imagining some sort of shift in town or have I just been unfortunate recently? I hate to complain, but I also hate having to ask servers the prices of their suggestions - especially when my price preference should be implicitly clear. In each case I was with out-of-towners who do not speak French well or at all, so often we conducted our business primarily in English. I'm not saying that this is a Franco-Anglo issue, but rather these places perhaps treated us as tourists by giving us a one-time visitor tax..
Thanks for putting up with my complaining - I feel better now. Let me know if I'm being irrational..

  1. r
    RCC May 23, 2012 11:43 AM

    First, rarely have I felt that I’ve been up-sold wines in NYC establishment that I go to. I usually describe to the sommelier what I need/want to drink or ask for recommendation(s) considering my ordered dishes, plus I ALWAYS provide the ballpark price that I’m willing to pay for the bottle(s) or a glass. I would say that 75% of the time, I was actually down-sold to the low or less than low end, of my stated budget. Plus, the sommeliers in NYC restaurant will always provide a sample taste, mandatory if a bottle is purchased, or just so I can approve the by-the-glass choice or recommendation.

    I’m sorry that you had to fork over more money due to your wines, but I think asking for the price beforehand is fundamental. My wine ordering process, be here in my hometown of NYC or somewhere abroad, is to ask for the producer’s name, region, varietal and vintage, and I MAKE SURE that I’m told the price(s) of the stuff that I’m about to quaff on before they pour it into my glass. Last thing that I would like to happen after a meal is being left holding the bag after being unknowingly poured a glass of a 1947 Cheval Blanc and suffering the consequences when the bill is presented.

    1 Reply
    1. re: RCC
      Fintastic May 23, 2012 12:09 PM

      I think my NYC inclusion was just a recency effect: on my last trip I asked for a more reasonably priced recommendation at Locanda Verde and mis-hearing the waiter due to the noise I agreed to a bottle. Fortunately I confirmed the price before he opened it as it turned out to be very steep. I did not intend to suggest that this is commonplace in New York, so I shouldn't have mentioned it at all.

      Anyways, thanks for your opinion - you make good points. Its not as though I absolutely won't ask a price, but I think that a good server should note the price if a wine he/she is suggesting is considerably more expensive. At places like Joe Beef I maybe let my guard down because they tend to be upfront about everything.

    2. e
      eat2much May 23, 2012 12:51 PM

      I learned a valuable lesson several years ago after unfortunate events at both Primo e Secondo and Il Mulino. I now know that when you order a bottle of "X" and the waiter returns to your table to inform you that they just sold the last bottle but they have something very similar, ALWAYS ask the price (yes, even if you have guests and don't want to look cheap). To me "something very similar" means give or take a couple of bucks, not $20-$30 more per bottle (especially painful if you go through two bottles before finding out that you've been screwed). Funny how a good bottle of wine can leave a bitter taste!

      1 Reply
      1. re: eat2much
        Fintastic May 23, 2012 07:59 PM

        You're right! Admittedly the Magnum was very good (perhaps $40 better than the original choice??), but it might have been nicer if I had consciously chosen to splurge.

      2. s
        Shattered Jun 19, 2012 03:47 AM

        My 2c's as a former cook: At Joe Beef, he probably looked at your group size and figured it would work out to, what, an extra $5 at most per person. Also a big group means more running around, and he was already well into service, so it may have slipped his mind. Lastly, especially in a pricier place, the lines are a bit grey on whether they are obligated to tell you something is pricier. Some customers could be offended by that - like the famous and/or wealthy as you imply you ate with. (Although I think they always should gently inform the client, even for a $3 side upgrade, if they do it the right way: said almost to themselves (the servers) matter-of-factly, rather than asking if the more expensive item is okay.)

        Smoking Vallee: They made an off-menu dish, so it's entirely reasonable for them to charge the same. Especially for risotto, a time-consuming, attention-requiring dish. Remember, restaurants make pisspoor food margins - you're not paying for that, but for people to prepare your meal and serve you. Having said that, they should've told you they'd charge the same when you made the request.

        So 2/3 you have minor cases, but not worth fussing or badmouthing a place over, imo.

        Communion: Okay, here you were outright screwed over. You can't point at a board with $6-9/per then pour a $15 glass. Especially without tasting - that's the red flag that he screwed you deliberately.

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