Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Let's Name Names: Restaurants where sommeliers recommend bad wines

"Natural wine" is one of vino's most popular punching bags. Even Newsweek took a shot at it yesterday, with a headline saying it "tastes worse than putrid cider." When a wine story hits Newsweek, you know it's mainstream.

While some of these wines exist, we're not talking only about natural wine anymore. We're talking about, generically, wines we don't like. And the "hipster sommeliers" who recommend them.

Is there a more pejorative word you can print in the newspaper than "hipster?" I've heard people call themselves a punk, redneck, drama queen, bitch, queer, nigg ... I could go on and get booted from Google's search results. But I've never heard anyone describe themselves as a "hipster."

So let's forget the pejoratives and get to the main question:

At which restaurants do sommeliers recommend bad wine?


Newsweek writer Bruce Palling did name four restaurants to avoid because of their wine lists: two each in London and Paris. Nice, from a U.S. publication: blame Europe. But Palling chickened out when giving an actual anecdote, refusing to name the Paris restaurant where the wine he was served "usually verged on the disgusting." You're no help, Bruce. Also, "usually?" You mean you had more than one disgusting wine, and went back for more?

Let's list some actual restaurants where the sommelier recommended bad wine, that you actually tasted and was bad -- especially if a staffer resisted taking it back.

I'll start. The last time I went to Delfina in San Francisco, I ordered a white wine that looked and smelled oxidized. I asked if it was OK, and the server said it was. A little while later I insisted the wine was oxidized, and they took it back. But they should never have served it in the first place.

The most recent corked wine I was served was at Chino in San Francisco. We had a little discussion (I was with a food critic and almost went to "do you know who we are?'), but they did eventually replace it. 

I can't remember the last time a sommelier recommended a wine that I thought was bad, that she wouldn't replace. It has happened, but not in the last year. However, I'm probably more comfortable sending a wine back than most people.* Which is why the comments on this post can be of great value, with your help.*

(* Once in Tahiti, I sent back two bottles of corked Chablis. When I sent back the second the head sommelier came out and said, "Sir, I am French and that Chablis is a beautiful wine." I said, "Sir, I'm American and that may be true, but this bottle is corked. Smell it." He muttered something about how Americans grow up drinking Coca Cola, and Chablis is more subtle than California Chardonnay. But he smelled and then took it back. Take that, Snidely Sommelier.)

Your turn. Name some names. Are these sommeliers who recommend undrinkable wines apocryphal? If not, let's do the drinking public a service and compile a list.

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The Etruscan said...

Plumpjack in Squaw Valley recommended and served a Littorai Pinot Noir. It had gone through secondary fermentation and was sparkling.

The somm actually said "That should never happen but it isn't a flaw" and refused to take the wine back.

Pity, I used to eat there all the time.

W. Blake Gray said...

Whoa, good one! Or would it be more correct to say "bad one?"

Unknown said...

I have been lucky to have very few corked or otherwise flawed wines served to me in restaurants. The last corked wine I was served was a great Barolo that I had brought. The server was confused that I rejected my own wine but I suggested they have all of the staff taste it as a great example of VERY corked wine. Most sommeliers have been hesitant to hard sell me and frequently open and offer a taste if there is something geeky they want me to try. The worst snooty hippster somm service I have received was several years ago at Charlie Palmers in Dallas. When I ordered a Rkatsiteli from the Finger Lakes, the punk corrected my Russian pronunciation & did so rudely in front of my colleagues. Apparently this was not his only offense as I heard he was booted later that week. Frankly, I don't give a rkatsiteli's ass who was right! ;-)

Dan Fishman said...

Ok, I will bite. I asked for a recommendation at Piccino (which I love) in Dogtpatch, and got an obscure red (which is what I wanted). It tasted... bad. Not corked, but just... bad. So I worked up the courage and asked the somm what he thought. He didn't try it, but said it is a natural wine, so it can be a little funky. I said... well... I have a hard time believing that you would recommend a wine that tastes like this. So he brought another bottle. It was still funky, but tasted a lot better to me. He said there could be bottle variation since it is a natural wine.

So... what is the conclusion? Would someone who is not in the industry have even sent it back? Was it a "bad" wine? I really have no idea. This experience certainly wouldn't stop me from asking for a recommendation again, but I do wonder how the same scenario would play out with a customer who wasn't as confident in their palate.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dan: This is exactly the kind of anecdote I'm looking for, so thank you for it.

Piccino's a good example of a place with some out-there wines, but I like that the somm (or server) replaced it when you asked. Would someone else have suffered in silence? Maybe.

Unknown said...

Etruscan, Are you sure that just wasn't California's $75 version of a $10 Lambrusco Grasparasso?

Charlie Olken said...

I often find that restaurants don't really know.

Example: Was in NYC a week ago and went over to Brooklyn to have dinner with my nephew and his wife. Ordered an Etna Rosso (it was an Italian restaurant) and it turned out to be volatile. Sent it back and the restaurant refused to supply a second bottle because "there was nothing wrong with it and you would just send back the second bottle".

So, I ordered a cheaper Chianti.

In this case, they simply did not have the knowledge to recognize excess VA because the wine.

But it works the other way also. A few years back, my wife and I were celebrating a big number anniversary with a trip to Venice, Paris and Champagne. In Venice, at Vini di Gigio (write this name down--it is a seriously good neighborhood restaurant), the waiter brought a bottle of wine and smelled it. He said, "I don't think this wine is up to its usual standards". I smelled it and while it was not very good, it was more dull than bad. He insisted on opening a second bottle, and it was, indeed, a much fresher, deeper and enjoyable effort. That is what restaurants are supposed to do, but many simply do not have the tasting acumen to do it.

By the way, the restaurant in Brooklyn was Frankie's. Food was spot on, and so was the second wine. They did not knowingly sell bad wine--just did not recognize the tune when it hit them in the mouthpiece.

Dan Fishman said...

BTW, I should have specified that it a second bottle of the same wine and it tasted a lot better. That is one scary thing about "funky" wine in general--it can be hard to tell the difference between an off bottle and a wine that you just don't like very much... at least for me.

Unknown said...

You named names, Benes....

Bob Henry said...


"Newsweek writer Bruce Palling did name four restaurants to avoid because of their wine lists: two each in London and Paris. Nice, from a U.S. publication: blame Europe."

Palling named European cities because he resides in London, and (citing his Twitter account) is the "Former Wall Street Journal Europe Food Columnist"



Sample WSJ columns:



~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...


I will name one "name,"

Some years back I was on a business trip to Indianapolis.

I stopped in St. Elmo Steak House due to its Wine Spectator award for its wine list.

As a solo diner not wishing to pay for or consume an entire bottle of wine, I asked to see the wine-by-the-glass list.

To my surprise and delight, they had Saintsbury Pinot Noir.

The open bottle -- with no attempt to preserve it via a VacuVin pump system or a carbon dioxide/nitrogen/argon gas system -- was sitting on top of the cappuccino machine . . . "cooking" away.

Egads -- a crime against nature!

I ended up having a beer . . .

~~ Bob