Tuesday, December 4, 2012

True "At the Table" stories from Rent-a-Sommie Peter Palmer

Peter Palmer
Me: "Sir, may I pour you a little more Champagne?"
Him: "No, I'll wait for the wine."

Before becoming Rent-a-Sommie, Peter Palmer was wine director at Farallon in San Francisco for 14 years. He likes Farallon and still fills in there, but he wanted to do something different, so now he does one-night stands all over San Francisco.

About three years ago Palmer began occasionally posting "At the Table" -- true sommelier stories and thoughts -- on Facebook. After reading the snippet above, I asked permission to run a bunch of his anecdotes on my blog. These are my favorites.

I ran the tray full of cocktails to table #67, and as I set them down one of the guys said: "Finally. Why did these take so long? Is it because we're black?" I was caught off guard and not sure what to say, because everyone at the table was Caucasian.

Overheard as I was opening a bottle of wine: "Mmm...Honey I love this Pinot! (Takes another sip) It's so good, it tastes like Cabernet! Delicious."

Me, after pouring him a taste of the 2nd bottle and sensing his hesitation: "Is it a flawed bottle?" Him: "You know, I think it's corked, but only like 4% or so. If I was at home it would be fine. At home I need like 20% corked before I can't drink it." Me, thinking: What?

I find it odd that when I ask people if the white wine is cold enough, the temperature to their liking, they invariably reach for the bottle to touch it. This moments after they just tasted the darned thing.

Woman, looking at the label of the wine her friend ordered as I poured her some: "Ooh...It's from Napa. It's must be good!"

Really, sir? I presented the bottles correctly before I served them, but I should have pointed out that one was bottled under screwcap? 'Cause that might have changed your mind? Really?

I delivered their fish entrée and a separate side of French fries, then asked: "Would you like ketchup or aioli?" The woman responded: "Yes, but on the side." What the hell did she think I was gonna do, come back with a large bottle and squeeze it all over the top of the fries?

Woman says to me, pointing at the list of Brunello di Montalcino: "My dad doesn't want a wine over 13.5% alcohol. Any of these fit the bill?" I check all the labels, find one, present the bottle and open it, and she accepts. When I go to serve him, he waves me away because he wants to finish the shot of grappa he ordered first.

Palmer mentally preparing for Pinot Fest. Photo by Dan Fredman
If you ever see me at a restaurant with friends or family and I'm looking down at my smart phone instead of interacting with them, please feel free to smack the shit out of me.

I presented the bottle of Bordeaux. He looked at the label and accepted. "May I decant this for you, sir?" He waved me away and answered, as if I were crazy to have asked: "No...It's a 2000."

Sometimes I roam the dining room floor like a great white shark calmly cruising the waters surrounding the Farallon Islands; except my wake is littered with satisfied guests, not the bloody remains of elephant seal body parts.

Two consecutive nights overheard people talking about Washington State Pinot Noir (?). Saturday, Farallon: "They're some of my favorite Pinots. It's that cool climate terroir." Tonight, Waterbar, as I was serving an '04 Williams Selyem Westside Neighbors: "I found this Washington Pinot for $12 a bottle, a really good Burgundy that rivals anything by DRC."

Sunday night party of nine at 9:15. Two bottles [of the wine shown at right], both flawless, compliments of an elderly gentleman after my own heart: He suggested that I keep them in the fridge until serving (awesome); urged me to taste both bottles before I poured (yes, sir); made me enjoy a glass of each (yeeowza); then in conversation told me he has another case and a half (speechless).

I'm sitting at the bar, listening, as a guest chats up the sommie on duty while he waits for a table. "How's this Chateau So and So drinking?", the guy asks. Sommie weighs in, quite ably, I think to myself. Then the guest, apparently unconvinced: "What's Parker say about it?"

White guy in a suit, overheard talking with two Asian women who are enjoying dinner at the bar, obviously thinking what he's about to say will win him some major points: "You know what I love about you people? You do nails the best!"

At the table last night, while I'm serving their wine. "Yeah, my son has a small one." Oddly: chuckling from his fellow diners. "How do you know?" "I've seen him with other boys his age, and it looks small." Gosh...Thanks, dad.

"A bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to go with the triple layer, double fudge chocolate cake you brought in for dessert?" I almost gagged, but instead said: "Right away, ma'am."

I opened the bottle of bubbly, gave the woman a small taste and waited for her to accept it. "Mmm...Good," she said to me and to her table-mates and to no one in particular, "It's like water, but with some fruit juice in it." I took that as a yes and poured everyone a glass.

Table 46 wants to talk bubbles. I approach. "Who are you," she asks? "I'm the wine guy on duty." "I'm a sommennyay, too," she slurs. "Really? Where?" "In LA, bud iss my second job; I'm a lawyer, anna sonnemlay." Then she asks if the extra brut Champagne I just recommended is from Champagne, 'cause she doesn't want anything sweet.

At Farallon we sprinkle Hawaiian sea salt on the pat of butter that comes with bread service: it's rusty colored from the lava and crunchy and delicious. Last night a couple called their server over and said they were shocked that a restaurant of our caliber would reuse butter that had obviously already been to a table, that had breadcrumbs all over it. What?

Tonight a French gentleman told me (a few times) that he was disappointed in the selections on the wine list. Really, I thought; all 500 of them? Can't find anything? Then he told me why. #1: We don't offer any wines from the Okanagan Valley in Canada. #2: We offer a wine from Burgundy producer Louis Jadot. Told him I'd work on #1, and that he just needed to get over #2.

Unpredictable and exciting as a great white shark sighting, Peter Palmer can be spotted occasionally cruising the floor at Farallon, Waterbar, Jardiniere, 25 Lusk, First Crush and the Fairmont Ghirardelli Square. If you are interested in Rent-a-Sommie, you can reach him here.

Follow W. Blake Gray on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


rapopoda said...

Those are v funny. But "sommie" are we really saying that now?

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter's word, not mine. I got jumped on by a Brit in Turkey for saying "somms."

That said, I remember when I first got into wine, I didn't like asking for the "sommelier" because it seemed pretentious on my part as a diner. So I was always looking for an alternate word, and never found a good one. I like "sommie."

Michael Donohue said...

And then there are those who ask for a white chardonnay...

Unknown said...

Where can I find this feed on facebook? Great stuff.

rapopoda said...

The Brits are just annoyed that they no longer control the lexicon and aesthetics of wine

W. Blake Gray said...

Cody: Peter just sends out these tidbits occasionally; he doesn't have a page. You'd have to friend him.

Amalie Robert Estate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
clay h. said...

Great post! After many years of pouring for consumers my favorite is always, when I'm about to pour a sample, they ask "What does it taste like?"