The Wall Street Journal carries a piece on restaurant wine pairings that suggests they don’t always offer the best thoughtfulness or creativity… and even use the pairing option as a way to push off bottles that have been open awhile and might otherwise go to waste.
When the idea of wine pairings with each course was new, it seemed sommeliers were genuinely excited. Not only that, it seemed the only people who would order it — and pay the sometimes high freight — were wine lovers, so there was a certain connection between diner and server. Now that pairings have become routine, some restaurants see it simply as a way to move some wine and move along the diners. The romance is largely gone.
We have found that when we order wines by the bottle, we slow a restaurant to our pace. We take a few minutes ordering the wine, then we drink some while we chat, then we order dinner and continue to sip, then maybe we order another bottle or glass. Our research has shown, unfortunately, that when we order the tasting menu, the restaurant puts us on its schedule, which is generally too rushed.
Le Bernardin fares especially poorly in the piece, which is sad to me because it’s one of my all-time emotional favorites. It’s the very first truly fine dining experience I ever had as the paying customer. I had been to nice dinners with family, or for work, but dining here years ago represented a first for me on my own; almost announcing my adulthood. And it was a real treat — the service, especially, was utterly intuitive. The wait staff never interrupted a conversation, they were always there at just the right moment. They were always unnoticed in the background, there at just the moment I returned from the restroom to assist with my chair but never obvious or hovering. Alas, that was years ago, and of course this is just one review and a wine-focused one at that. Still, it pains the heart.
A wine pairing should be a pleasant experience, putting yourself in the hands of an experienced sommelier who has already spent time thinking about the particulars of a dish and how it will interact with a particular wine in a specific glass. But in spite of all the work that should have gone into a pairing, it’s not an excuse for the evening going on auto-pilot either. I’ve had lovely experiences where, if I slow down on a particular glass I’m asked what I think about it… and they’re happy to go off-script and try something else.
Speaking up and trying to make a mid-course correction can be intimidating when it comes to wine. It’s hardly a level playing field, with most diners feeling inferior to a knowledgeable sommerlier.
To counteract this phenomenon, I highly recommend a very short, fun book: The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery. It’s out of print but widely available and not expensive. It both pokes fun at and teaches the basics of the rituals of wine. I can’t even count the number of copies I’ve given as gifts, it’s universally appreciated, and many folks I give it to then begin giving it as gifts themselves.