The Wine Ethicist: Cease and Desist, Obtrusive Waiter
Happy New Year; I hope everyone ate and drank well over the holidays and avoided any bad hangovers, and my best wishes to you for the coming year.
I thought it would be good to start 2012 with another installment of The Wine Ethicist. As you surely know, Christopher Hitchens passed away last month. In addition to being a Vanity Fair contributor, Hitchens did a weekly column for Slate, and in 2008, he wrote an amusing screed about restaurant wine service, specifically the practice of sommeliers and waiters refilling wine glasses without being asked to do so. This “breathtaking act of rudeness,” Hitchens fumed, “conveys a none-too-subtle and mercenary message: Hurry up and order another bottle.” He suggested that the dining public’s tolerance of this ritual “must have something to do with the snobbery and insecurity that frequently accompany the wine business. A wine waiter can be a bit of a grandee, putting on airs that may intimidate those who know little of the subject…people somehow grant restaurants the right to push their customers around in this outrageous way.”
I think Hitchens was being a little unfair to sommeliers. Here in the United States, at least, restaurant wine service has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last two decades or so, and it is pretty rare now to encounter an insolent sommelier. Moreover, the better somms are very adept at reading the mood of a table in order to determine whether automatic refills are welcome or not. In my experience, the problem Hitchens described tends to arise in restaurants without sommeliers, in which “regular” waiters handle the wine service. And it is a real problem: in many restaurants, wine glasses are topped up with no regard for the wishes of the customer, and the pours are often obscenely large. A few years ago, four of us were out for dinner, and the waiter emptied almost the entire bottle on his first go-around. To spite him, we nursed our glasses for the entire night rather than ordering a second bottle.
The obvious solution to the problem of heavy-handed or incompetent wine service is to wrest control of the bottle from whoever is doing the pouring. Or you can just announce at the outset that you, the diner, will take care of the pouring, which avoids the problem entirely. However, I don’t like to invite the wrath of people who handle my food (you never know what they might do!), and informing a waiter that he is not to touch your bottle could leave him feeling insulted. Sure, if he cares about his tip, he’ll swallow his pride and graciously comply with your wishes. But waiters don’t always act in their own best interest, and making an issue of the wine service could create an undercurrent of hostility and diminish the pleasure of the meal. So taking charge of the bottle is not a risk-free move.
My approach now is what might be called the two-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. If the waiter pours too much wine in the glass or is too quick with refills, I’ll gently indicate that I’d like him to back off; if the problem persists, I will relieve him of the pouring duties while trying to be tactful about it. This strategy generally works well, but I’m curious to hear how you handle restaurant wine service. Do you go the wait-and-see route, or do you deny the waiter/sommelier the opportunity to tick you off by assuming control of the bottle from the start? Do you agree with Hitchens that the unsolicited refill is a “barbaric custom” that should be ended? Tell us how you deal with unsatisfactory wine service, and definitely share any horror stories that you’ve experienced!