Monday, November 5, 2012

Is "Order something different" bad advice?

Which is better: To have a second glass of a drink you enjoy, or experiment and drink something you like less?

Last weekend a friend visited San Francisco from rural swing-state America.* We went to Bar Tartine, as famous for its beer list as its wine. I'm a wine guy, but fermented and spicy food (we had sauerkraut with hot chile paste as an app) is a great beer pairing. Doug is from my previous life as a sportswriter; he likes a cold one and amiably takes what's on offer. He took a recommendation from the server for a wet hopped ale, Ruhstaller Blue Heron Yard Hop Sac, and loved it. I had a glass of Massican Annia 2011, a Tocai Friulano-based blend from Napa Valley, and we were both happy.

*(California residents: my election endorsements are here.) 

When Doug's glass ran dry, the server came over and asked if he wanted another. "Sure," Doug said, "I'll have the same."

"Order something different," I said. So he did: a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA.

He doesn't know me as a wine geek. When we worked together, I may have had a reputation for knowing the one good country restaurant in every town with a high-school football team one might have to cover (when in Eustis, Florida, check out King's Taste barbecue). I wish that was the only reputation I had, but that's another story. (Calling the NFL a Communist-style enterprise in print stays with you.)

But he knows that I'm now a wine and food guy, so he deferred to my judgment. He got the IPA, and it was bitter, and he didn't like it as well.

He said the server properly described it, so he couldn't send it back. He would just have to, in the words of proto-NFL commissioner Chairman Mao, "eat bitterness."

We got into a conversation about which is more important for a drink: to be delicious, or interesting. Naturally both is better. But neither is binary: is it better to drink something delicious but expected, or something interesting that isn't quite as delicious?

This is a danger in fixating on wine, as a writer, sommelier, or anyone else who tastes and drinks every day. I'll bet that most people in the world would order the delicious-but-expected drink every time. I changed that description from "delicious but boring" because with wine or beer, I don't think that's really possible: if the drink was actually boring, it would probably be lacking freshness, and that's a flaw. But that's the underlying interpretation, for a wine geek: having the same wine every day, even if I like it, would be boring. Even having a second glass of the same wine from a good wine list is boring.

I do occasionally order a second glass of the same wine, but only when there's nothing else on the list I want to drink, which usually says more about the list than about me. Or does it? If Doug had had a second glass of the wet hopped ale while I moved on to the Terzolo Teran red wine from Istria, Croatia, we would have both been happy. Instead, we were both mildly unhappy: Doug with his beer, me for having given bad advice. I bought him a bourbon and basil cocktail at the Orbit Room later while we compared notes on former colleagues who'd been to prison, and that hopefully made up for it.

What do you think: if you're out with "civilian" friends, do you try to convince them to try something different? And is it actually good advice?

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Anonymous said...


With wine I almost always order something different. With beer, I tend to order a second of the same thing (assuming I liked the first). I tend to seek comfort and familiarity in beer, but adventure in wine. Not sure why I am that way...but I am.

When you drink spirits do you drink different ones each time as well? What about coffee/tea?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: With cocktails, I always order something different if I believe the bartender is capable of making two different good cocktails. I rarely order straight spirits in a bar, but if I do I sometimes stick to the same thing because I've determined that's the one single malt I want.

I never order back-to-back teas; I'd get a water refill. For coffee, I'm an espresso drink guy, so it depends on how milky I'm feeling.

Anonymous said...


Next time, have your friend ask for a taste first, assuming you have options on tap. It's easier to appreciate a beer as "interesting" when you can sample a little, rather than being forced to drink a whole pint. Plus, SF bartenders are, by and large, happy to oblige with a taste or two (at least I've found this to be the case, especially with most bars in Lower Haight).


Patrick Frank said...

The NFL is indeed a Communist organization; you were correct.