On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Adam and Zach discuss what happens when wine service goes wrong. Drawing from their own recent experiences as well as a listener email, the two explore some wine service experiences that left them a bit cold, and try to figure out what might account for it: labor shortages, restaurants desperate to extract every last cent from diners, or just bad luck. Tune in for more.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Man, we’re both back. We’re just kind of — I’m in the studio. You’re at home in the basement.

Z: [laughs]

A: It’s all good.

Z: Yes.

A: It’s Friday.

Z: It is Friday.

Z: Oh, yes. Tell me about it.

A: I was going to say, too, this maternity leave shit, Joanna has only been gone two weeks, it feels like three months. [laughs]

Z: Yes. It’s a big ship to run without one of the main — I don’t know. Analogy is already breaking down, but whatever. Without the captain, I suppose.

A: Admiral, captain, whatever. Yes, exactly. It’s the throwback. It’s just me and you.

Z: Exactly, still. I want to hear a little bit about Napa because you teased it last week. We haven’t had a chance to really talk about anything that you, I know we’ll get into it on a Monday of next month, this coming Monday, so exactly what you drank, but just — I always love it when you’re out there because I feel like you always come away with an interesting tidbit or a bit of insight or something that you experience.

A: Well, maybe let me tell you about two experiences I had and you can tell me — This is not about what I was drinking. Maybe this becomes our topic for today. Who knows? We have one planned but this could be so long that we just do this instead. First of all, I think Napa is just a really fascinating place. I think Napa and Sonoma and they’re so different yet so close. I think it’s really funny how one day we had meetings in Sonoma and we got there very quickly even though we were staying in downtown Napa, but everyone in Sonoma’s like, “Oh, I never go over to Napa, it’s so far,” and everyone in Napa, “Oh, I never go over to Sonoma, it’s so far.” I said, “Guys, it’s like 30 minutes [laughs] to certain places,” right? It’s interesting because I’m actually working on a piece that we’ll discuss once it publishes. I think I want to make it one of our podcast topics about one of the biggest challenges I think Napa has, especially in continuing to attract younger people. One of the things that I was really interested by was someone pointed out to me that the only wineries at which you’re seeing a large young population aren’t just wineries that are catering to young people in terms of their design, aesthetic, and stuff like the Ashes & Diamonds and Scribes of the world but the wineries in which all of the employees at the winery are themselves also young.

Z: Interesting.

A: I was like, “Oh, you know what, that’s actually, really, I never thought of that before,” but when I do go to some of these older-school wineries, especially in Napa, the people at the tasting room are actually older than me. I think that could be just the nature of how expensive it is to live in Napa. There may be a lot of people that are working in the tasting rooms. These are second careers as retirees or something because Napa, really, I think too has become, I’ve noticed in the past few years of being out there, like a Florida, if you will. It is definitely a large number of retirees that live there. I went to — Gosh, I can’t remember what it’s called now. It’s like something station. It’s owned by Joel Gott. It’s his gas station and coffee shop in St. Helena. Maybe it’s just St. Helena Gas Station. We got coffee one morning and it was like we were the only young people getting coffee. Everyone else is pulling up in their Mercedes or their BMWs and getting out in workout gear and they were all of retirement age, which is not —Look, someone came at us earlier for going after boomers on comments. Also, for those of you who listen to the pod and love the pod, why don’t we — Let’s get some more reviews on iTunes so we can make that comment go away. I’m not coming at boomers. My parents are boomers. I’m just saying it is interesting and I think there’s a different way of speaking by that generation to each other and then how that generation speaks to us. I can see why some of these tasting rooms, some people our age feel like it’s a more, I don’t know, buttoned up experience and they would like to have, if you will, or too serious, too much about hitting the marketing talking points. Just an anecdote, which I thought was pretty hilarious, is we went to this one winery, this was the very end of the trip. It was because we kind of commented in one of our meetings that we hadn’t really been to any wineries. The woman behind the bar was of elderly age and she was pouring us all these different Napa Cabs. This winery is like one of the original wineries of Napa and they’re very famous for their Cabernet, as most of them are. She pulls out this last wine and she’s like, “If there’s one wine to buy today, you must buy this wine. It received 100 points,” but she wouldn’t tell us from who, “100 points, and this is the wine to have in your collection.”

First of all, as we’ve talked about before, people our age don’t really have collections or aged wine that often. Second of all, they don’t really care about scores. Third of all, for me, the wine was so oaky I couldn’t drink it, but whatever. We try the wine and then she comes back and she’s like “Look, I want you to know I don’t even get a commission but you should buy this wine. Let me tell you why you should buy this wine because let’s just say that one day-” and this will tell you who she’s used to speaking to because it’s a script, right? “Let’s just say that one day you need emergency surgery and you need to get into that surgeon, but you know that surgeon is all booked up. Well, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to call that surgeon’s receptionist. You’re going to say to that surgeon receptionist, ‘I have a bottle of blank, blank, blank, and I can give this bottle to the surgeon if,’ and then she said, ‘he will see me right away,’ because all surgeons collect wine.” [chuckles]

Z: Oh, my God.

A: “I guarantee you, he will see you immediately.” I just was like, “Oh, my God, this is 100% why some people our age and younger are staying away from some of the tastings here in Napa because this was just her script, and you could tell, she says this to everybody. This is her second pass at the sale, and we’re like, “It’s fine. Thank you so much for the experience.” [laughs]

Z: Yes.

A: The opinion that I do want to get from you is I am curious about two service experiences that I had.

Z: Besides that one, you don’t want a recommendation for the bottle to bribe your surgeon with.

A: Have you ever bribed a surgeon?

Z: I have never had surgery as it turns out so, no.

A: You’ve never had surgery.

Z: No.

A: For anything?

Z: No.

A: Oh, man, I’ve had surgery a few times.

Z: Well, we’ll get into your cosmetic surgery some other time.

A: Hey, look, you can’t look good without a little bit of plastic.

Z: Yes, I have no comment. No comment.

A: I had knee surgery in college from running, and I had a hernia.

Z: Well, see, this is why I don’t run. It’s a good way to avoid that kind of surgery.

A: Oh, I will tell you, man, that propofol, really, really, good stuff.

Z: [laughs]

A: Anyways, these two experiences, they were both very off-putting, and I’m curious what your thoughts are. The first one was the past few times I’ve gone to Napa. I had gone to Charter Oak, and I really enjoyed Charter Oak. This is the second experience I had and it was after having a similarly not great experience earlier in the week. I told the team we were going, Charter Oak was our last meal and I was able to get an eight o’clock reservation. Usually, Charter Oak is not the easiest reservation to get and somehow I put myself on the Resy waitlist, and I got off. It’s a cool way to go to Charter Oak, but Ubers are so hard to get at Napa now that we were like, “Look, let’s not chance it. Let’s just go early, and we’ll sit at the bar and have a drink.” We get there early. First, we’re like, “Well, maybe we don’t go stay at the bar. Let’s go across the street first at Long Meadow Ranch, and we’ll sit and we’ll try to get a drink at that bar.” What I thought was interesting is this, and this is just the New Yorker in us, we just don’t realize this, so first of all, Long Meadow Ranch, they won’t serve you if you’re not sitting at the bar. I was like, “But it’s a bar like, why can’t we just stand here and have a drink?” Then we were just, “Okay, well, this is totally different. We’re not used to this,” so we went back across the street to Charter Oak. It’s 7:30 and we check in. I’m like, “Hey, I know we’re early. I know it’s 7:30 but we will just get a drink in the bar first,” and the host says, “No, no, no, I can seat you right now.” Okay. They seat us. Remember, we had an original reservation at 8:00. The waiter comes over and he’s like, “Here’s all our specials, blah, blah. I really suggest that for your main, you split the bone-in rib eye. It’s really amazing. We roast it over charcoal, blah, blah, blah.” We’re like, “Oh, that sounds good.” At this point too, by the way, which I thought was really interesting, I think I mentioned this to you when we were not recording last week but just in passing, we hadn’t really had much Napa wine. No one was ordering it. [laughs] It was so weird but everyone with us was ordering everything else but Napa wine, so I said to the somm, “We really want to have a Napa wine.” He recommended a few, and then I picked out — The first thing is I picked up a bottle of Hera Chardonnay, which I love, to which he was just a little weird, he said, “Have you had this wine before?” I was like, “Yes, it’s okay.” “I just want to make sure you’ve had it because it’s not your typical California Chardonnay.” I was like, “No, no, I know. I like that.” We ordered two bottles of wine to help him with the flow and then we explained to him what we were going to do. We’re going to do appetizers, then a salad, and then the entree, so he left. At around 8:05, our server comes over to us. Now we’ve only had the appetizers, and he says, “Hey, y’all, I’m getting off my shift now.” Oh, you’re going to be replaced by someone else on the floor. We noticed, at this point, that about half of the floor empties. Five minutes later, the salads are brought, and then five minutes after that, 8:15, we still have half a bottle of Chardonnay, this new server, who we’ve never met, walks over and says, “Hi, everyone. We’re about to bring the steak and all of your sides.” We’re just, “Wait, what?” Also, we’ve already opened the Cabernet and it’s being decanted. It’s not even on the table yet. What’s going on? We start to notice that they’re already cleaning up the kitchen.

Z: Wow.

A: I say, “Hey, we haven’t finished our salad yet and we still have half a bottle of wine. Is there any way you can wait? We already ordered the Cab and it’s been opened. We wouldn’t have ordered two bottles of wine if we thought this was going to be that fast of a meal,” which he took great offense to, and was like, “Well, the food’s already been fired. I can hold it for as long as you want me to hold it, but it’s already been cooked.” It just ruined the rest of our meal. I don’t know if there would’ve been- is there a better way we should handle that? I don’t know if the guy was just in a bad mood, but then, five minutes later the steak comes, they drop everything and they just bring the Cabernet. By the way, he just then proceeded to take the half bottle of Chardonnay and just dump it in all the glasses. It’s just like getting rid of it so that he could bring the Cabernet. It was really weird. This is a place that I’ve really enjoyed in the past. I want to think it was an off night but it was interesting too how quickly they were closing and I’m wondering if this is a staffing issue because it was a Thursday night.

Z: That’s weird. I think there is a little bit of, my first inclination is like, okay, what night of the week was it, which you just said it’s a Thursday, so not like maybe a Monday or a Tuesday where you could potentially imagine that there’s just not a lot of later reservations. You were there at the end of February. It’s obviously not peak tourist season but Napa’s kind of a year-round destination. I’m sure the tastings and stuff were pretty, I’m sure, not empty. You’re getting into the end of February. It’s not like it’s the deadest time of early January, or whatever. I don’t know. I think it’s weird. This conversation, broadly, in service about how you handle wait tables is an interesting one. I’ve heard and seen lots of different takes on it, but I think that there needs to be a recognition on the part of the restaurant and the service staff that- well, two things. One is whatever the expectation that the restaurant holds for when service is going to be concluded needs to be communicated to tables that are coming in towards the end of it. I’ve certainly had in every capacity that I’ve worked tables that come in, five minutes before closing, and I think always best to just be clear with those people like, “Here’s the deal. This is the time we close. You’re welcome to come in and have a meal but just be aware of that.”

Some people are like, “Oh, we’ll be really quick,” some people are completely oblivious and have a long, leisurely meal, which sucks, but that’s part of sometimes what happens I think, and other people fall somewhere in between. I think for you, and I certainly would understand this, an eight o’clock reservation on a Thursday night, especially since you actually sat down at 7:30, is not — It’s not like you’re, “Oh, we came in at 9:45 and we’re surprised that they were closing up at that point when we started our meal.” I also think that pacing a meal — Again, it’s hard to know what’s going on. Maybe the manager, maybe the GM, or whatever is like, “Look, we got to get labor down. We got to have people out of the restaurant by 9:30. Move them along. I don’t care.” Again, I hope that’s not the case. That’s a shitty dining experience to have. I’ve also been to Charter Oak and enjoyed myself. It’s a bummer to hear that you had a bad experience there, or at least that not great experience there. I don’t think there’s any reason for me to think that you guys did something wrong. I think they clearly did not communicate if there was a, “We need to close early,” or, “We’re closing earlier than you would anticipate,” or, “Hey, you’re the last reservation.” There are all ways that that could have been communicated to your party or something like that in a more graceful, gracious way that gives you maybe a little bit of an idea, or at least the ability to say, “Hey, I understand that. We’ll try and be respectful. We won’t linger over dessert or whatever but we don’t want to feel like we’re getting rushed.” I think that if you sat down at 7:30, depending on the pace of which you went through your appetizers, and especially given the transition between servers, it’s odd to me that your first interaction with the replacement server was basically like, “Here’s your food, open wide.” That’s jus like a weird — We’ve seen more of this when I was towards the end of my time in restaurants so far. We were seeing more and more, for a variety of reasons, people really just being on shift work and it literally being like, “Hey, I got to clock off because, whatever, my shift is over. It’s slow and my manager wants to get rid of me, or whatever. I’m passing you off to someone else,” but there was always a way to handle that that made the guests not feel like there was this discontinuity in their service. I think most people, including you guys, I’m sure, would’ve been like, “Okay, we get it.” Who knows why? You don’t need an explanation from the server. Maybe they’ve got to go pick a kid up from a babysitter or something. It doesn’t have to be communicated clearly. It just needs to be like, “Hey, I really appreciate taking care of you all, but I need to clock off. So-and-so’s going to take care of you. They’ll be over in a minute.” Just to have that continuity of service, especially if it’s what happens regularly, it should be a part of the restaurant’s practice. To not have that sense of like, “Hey, we’re handing you off to this other person, but I’ve talked to them. They know what’s the deal. They’re going to seamlessly step in.” That’s part of gracious service too.

A: Yes. What I think is interesting is, then the next day, of course, Keith McNally, who, love him or hate him when you follow him on social, posted just this really weirdly timed post where he talked about how he had been, early in his restaurant career before he opened the Odeon, and that he had gone to Raoul’s one night, which is a really famous French steakhouse-ish in SoHo in the early ’80s. They’re really famous, especially for the steak au poivre. It was 11:15 or something, and they closed 11:30, and he was turned away. He told himself that he was going to guarantee that any restaurant he ever had, even if you walked in with a minute before close, you could have a full restaurant experience and stay as long as you wanted. I think that’s a little bit aggressive, because then — I see on that point too if we had walked in two minutes before closing, like, “We expect to dine here for two hours.” That obviously is not chill, [chuckles], right?

Z: Yes.

A: I think that there’s both sides of it but it was weird because no one gave us any of those heads up as you said, right? No one was like, “Hey, we’re really trying —” Had the waiter said at the very beginning, “Hey, the kitchen closes down at 8:15, so you guys can order all this stuff, but I just want to let you know it’s going to come really fast.” They encouraged the two bottles of wine to be ordered. It’s not like we were a huge group or we were splitting the two bottles, it was a four-top, and we were going to drink through those two bottles throughout the course of what we thought was like an hour-and-a-half to two-hour meal. Instead, we were out of there in an hour. It was wild. Again, I think those are these things where we’ve talked about this now a bunch in terms of just wine pricing. I think pricing in general, I feel like you’ve really seen this after Covid, where the prices at restaurants are very expensive and that’s causing the customer to be much more aware of the experience. It feels like sometimes those experiences aren’t as great as they have been. I think that that’s a staffing problem, but still, at the end of the day, what sucks is, this was a restaurant that I’ve really enjoyed in the past. I would not recommend to anyone in the future. That’s because of one experience, but still, it was a really crappy experience. It was a bummer too to take colleagues and people that you want to impress there and they’re like, “Oh, this sucked,” and that sucks. I think this might be the whole podcast, Zach, because-

Z: Yes, let’s do it.

A: -we’ve gotten a lot of questions from listeners about interactions, especially with somms. We get this question, interaction with somms, we get more than anything else. We almost never get emails from people being like, “I had this weird interaction with a bartender.” I mean, can you remember the last time we’ve had anyone email like, “Hey, I felt intimidated by my bartender,” or, “Hey, I felt intimidated by the guy pouring at the tap room.” I kind of can’t, but we get a lot of the somm stuff. Recently, someone emailed in asking you, specifically, Zach, about an interaction they had, which I’ll let you talk about in a second. We don’t have to name the restaurant, but it was something with wine service, which I think it shows how much anxiety people have around this and how so often the person on the other side gets it wrong as well, but then the person who has anxiety doesn’t know how to speak up and so then it just becomes this really bad experience. I was very, very lucky. I’m not going to say that I wasn’t lucky. I was extremely lucky to be able to go to the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Napa Valley. I’m not going to say their name, but everyone should know who they are very easily.

Z: Google exists. You all can find them.

A: It was a work dinner and I was put in charge of ordering the wine. The first interaction that happened was I was looking at the Chablis section and I saw Chablis that I had never had before, and I was really interested because it was a 2009 and it was only priced at like $120 a bottle. Again, I want to be clear, the reason I want to give prices, and I said this is because it was a three-star Michelin restaurant. I think most people can probably connect that there were no wines under $100 on this list that I could find. They also gave me the wine list on an iPad, which I hate [chuckles] just because I want the sheets. I want to be able to hold my fingers in places and go back and forth. I was looking at a Chablis to start the meal and I figured there was five of us. I was like, “Oh, we’ll get three bottles of wine throughout the course of the meal.” I thought I’d start with a white, then I’d go to a light red, and then I’d pick like a fuller-bodied red towards the end of the meal. The first interaction that happened was I looked at this and so the somm comes over and I ask about the wine, and I’m like, “Hey, I don’t know this producer. This is really intriguing to me. I think this is very well priced.” Also, it was a Premier Cru and they had three different vineyards from this producer, all Premier Cru. I was like, “I’ve never heard of this producer before,” and this is really interesting. There’s a 2009 and it’s only like $120, $130 on your list. “Can you tell me about it?” The somm’s immediate reaction is, “It’s a geeky wine. It’s cool but I really think you should go more classic Chablis. You should order Raveneau, which, dear listener, was 10 times the price. I was like, “Okay, well, maybe the somm is just thinking I want Chablis and thinking that I saw the date.” I was trying to put myself in their shoes like maybe they think I’m just trying to order old Chablis and that’s why I asked. I go, “No, no, no, I’m really interested in this wine. I’m looking for something like this.” I did not point at the Chablis, at Premier Cru, at the year, I pointed directly at the price because that’s what you’ve told us to do, right, Zach? That’s what people’s going to say you should do. Is that right?

Z: Yes, be direct. I think if there’s a price point that you are comfortable with it’s always good to be — You don’t have to necessarily come out and say it directly, especially, given the setting.

A: I did not want to say I want the $100 bottle of wine. That’s why I pointed at it because my guests don’t need to know how much I’m spending on the wine but I needed him to know because you are recommending like an $1,100 bottle of wine right now and I’m not looking to spend $1,100 on a bottle of wine. I pointed the price, and he then says, “Well, if you’re not interested in Raveneau, may I suggest the other classic producer?” which was —

Z: Dauvissat.

A: Dauvissat. “May I recommend Dauvissat.” We scored a Dauvissat, which is, oh, just $800 a bottle. [chuckles] I was just like, “Oh, my gosh.” Then I’m like, “Okay, well, I’m not going to get any help with this white. Then I just said, “Okay, you know what, I’m just going to get the white.” Basically, I found this fine. Then I quickly ordered a Volnay around the same price and then a Valtellina Superiore, all around the same price points. Then the somm looks at me and says, in front of everyone, “Sir, I’m really sorry, but I really must insist you did not order enough wine.

Z: [chuckles] Oh, my God. This is the second time folks I’m hearing this story and it’s also an audio medium and Adam can’t even see what I’m doing but there was a Picard-esque face poem moment for me here as I heard this. Again, because it’s like just the gumption to be like — You know, this person knows nothing about your guests, doesn’t know if two of them don’t drink, doesn’t know if someone is pregnant, doesn’t know if someone is trying to watch their calories, to just be like, “You don’t have enough wine.” Yes, continue. Sorry. I’m just going to get angry, otherwise.

A: This is what I like. I want you to get pissed.

Z: Just trigger me. Go ahead.

A: Yes. Then I’m like, “Okay, I guess I’ll order one more bottle of wine.” He has this very strong endorsement for a bottle that I’ve had before that I’ve liked, but it’s a pricier bottle than the other ones. It was Clos Rougeard. I was like, “Cool.” I’ve had it before. I’ve enjoyed it. Let’s do it. It’s like the last wine. This vintage is very fairly priced. He recommended this one specific vintage and it was a little bit cheaper than the other vintages they had on the list, so we do it. Wines start coming out, and the meal’s great. First of all, that Chablis was fucking fire. It was really cool, like really cool. I’m actually going to open up my photos right now because I took a picture of it because I want people to get this Chablis because I don’t care that maybe some people don’t know about it. It was amazing. It was Daniel-Etienne Defaix.

Z: Oh, yes.

A: It was Awesome.

Z: That’s good wine. Agreed.

A: I don’t think I’ve seen it in New York. It probably is here and someone’s going to blow me up, but I had never had it before. It was his Premier Cru. It was f*cking awesome. I’m glad I still ordered it. [laughs] Then the Clos Rougeard comes out and — Oh, by the way, also we’re like in the middle of the meal, they’ve been pouring the wines very quickly. He has me taste it. The second that I smell it, I’m like — I’ve had Clos Rougeard a few times before, “This one is much heavier on Brett, much heavier on Brett than I’ve ever experienced. The somm’s like, “Okay, it will blow off.” Brett doesn’t blow off. That’s an urban legend. Brett is an infection. It is a spoilage yeast that eats the sugars and turns it in — It doesn’t blow off. I was like, “Oh, okay.” He pours it through without even saying, “Do you want me to take the wine away?” At this point, I’d only had that small taste so he could have taken the wine away at that point but he didn’t. He pours it completely through. Then the guest to the right of me turns to me and says, “Hey, Adam, this wine’s really, really Bretty. I don’t like it.” We called the somm back over. I’m like, “Hey, this really isn’t blowing off. It’s really strong with Brett.” He says, “Well, that’s just the characteristic of this vintage.”

Z: Guess it explains why it was cheaper.

A: Yes, exactly. I’m like, “Okay, you didn’t tell me that when you sold me the wine. You didn’t tell me that when you opened the wine. You know that the first time I said Brett,” and then he says, “But I’m going to take this away because I can tell it offends you.”

Z: [laughs] Yes. It’s the wine that’s offending you at that point.

A: I was like, “Okay, cool.” He takes it away and he’s like, “I’m going to bring you something else.” He brings another wine that was actually more fairly priced, actually a really cool old Rioja, which was great but then when he brings the old Rioja, he says, “And, sir, I must insist you still did not order enough wine. [laughs]

Z: My God.

A: He, basically, strong-arms us into getting a fifth bottle that gets open during dessert. That was my experience. I sat there being like, again, this is one of those things where this is a very expensive meal in general. I think anyone that goes to these meals, you just have a lot of anxiety at a meal like this because, you know it’s expensive, it’s also special. There’s a lot of pressure at any of these meals, whether it’s business pleasure, et cetera. I haven’t had that happen to me at a meal of that caliber. I’ve only been to it, I think it was like the second three-star Michelin meal I’ve ever been to in my life. Even when I’ve gone to fancy restaurants in New York, I’ve never had something like that happen. Maybe it was the inexperience of the somm, maybe they were younger. I’m not really sure, but it was really crazy and it affected, again, it was one of these things that kind of affected the table because everyone’s watching this happen and being like, “Huh, this is weird.” The biggest thing for me is, I don’t understand this profession and so I’m curious what experiences you’ve had in fine dining when you’ve dealt with this, it turns into like you’re being combative with your server, with your somm. You’re fighting against them because they’re recommending something, but you don’t want that something. Then you feel like you are disappointing them by not ordering what they’ve recommended. It’s almost like I’m going to be like, “Who’s more right?” It’s all very weird and it was not fun.

Z: Yes, a couple things. First of all, one thing that you left out on this retelling, which I found interesting when you first told me this story is also, you had to fight with the somm to even be allowed to order wine by the bottle. They were very insistent about you all doing the pairings. If I recall correctly, you told me where you could pick either $400 or $500 or $600 a person.

A: That’s what they had offered us, yes. [laughs]

Z: You get a real sense from the get-go that the restaurant’s expectation in this case is like, that’s the amount of money per person you will be spending on wine at a minimum $400 and really you should be probably spending $600 because you’re here to really enjoy your experience, aren’t you? We’ll have another episode at some point about wine pairings that we’ve talked about on the podcast before. I find them to be generally a waste of time. It’s rare that they’re well curated enough that they’re worth the amount of money you pay, especially because you do see a lot of control. That can work in the right setting but it’s not what I would generally opt to do at any restaurant, however many Michelin stars it has or not.

The other thing about this is, I think that there is this element that might be unique to places like this or relatively unique to places like this, which is you and most of the people dining there are one-off guests. You’re probably never going to go back. You might go back 10 years from now, but you are for the sake of the restaurant, certainly for the sake of the sommelier, they’re never going to see you again. It really becomes this exercise for the restaurant in a way of just how much money can we extract from this person or this table, their one pass through here. That’s where the pushiness I think comes from. That’s where the expensive add-ons come from, all those things, because they’re not really worried about building rapport and trust.

In my restaurants and various experiences, I never worked in a place with any Michelin stars to say nothing of three and so we were, in one way or another, at least somewhat dependent on our regulars. With that kind of restaurant, that kind of dining, and that kind of wine service, the short-term gain of convincing someone to get a more expensive bottle than they wanted to order, or getting an extra bottle of wine that they don’t really finish, you’re just losing return business. It was always drilled into me that it’s never worth it. You never want to turn someone away from being a regular. Yes, sometimes you know because of what people tell you that they’re only ever going to dine there once, but even then you’re not really trying to soak them for every last kind of dollar and cent you can get. Again, these are different restaurants with a different sort of — People are not salivating over the reservation for months. They’re not desperate to try and get it. I never worked in a place with that kind of rep and that kind of clientele, so it was never my experience. I can’t speak to that from personal experience exactly. What I will say is, just as a fundamental thing about service, and then, specifically about wine, one thing you never want to do is pick a fight with your guests. Sometimes guests can be confrontational and combative and in general, it’s best to avoid any of that even if it means a little bit of maybe sublimating your own impulses. Certainly, this somm seems like they were keen to frankly wine-shame you in front of your table. Both like, “Oh, do you know what you’re doing? Are you a cheapskate?” and/or like, “Don’t you want to enjoy yourself? Do you want to order enough wine for the table?” To me, that whole thing — I can’t even fathom telling a table, “You didn’t order enough wine.” I can fathom someone asking — It did get asked from time to time like, “Hey, is this enough?” Whether it was food or wine or whatever. Then you want to give a somewhat honest answer. You don’t want to tell someone — In the same way that if a table of six people orders a single bottle of wine and they’re like, “Well, do you think this will be enough?” I might have said, “Well, that’s less than a glass of wine per person.” It depends on how much you think they’ll drink but it’s never my place to know at the outset. It’s impossible for me to know and I shouldn’t assume that everyone is going to drink the same amount of wine, everyone’s going to drink a lot of wine, and that some people may not drink any wine. They might not drink it all. They might prefer cocktails or beer or who knows what. It’s really not my place to assume anything even if I’m just doing basic, like, “Oh, it’s X number of people and we expect X amount of wine per person per meal, or whatever.” That part is all really, really gross. I also think the other thing that’s weird to me is-

A: [chuckles] Kind of gross.

Z: -the other thing that’s weird to me is just if you’re going to push someone — It’s just weird to me to push — I mean, I guess maybe based on what you ordered this person had a reasonable expectation that you would generally like something like Clos Rougeard, which for people who are listening is a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, so not like — It’s for people who know it, it’s obviously highly regarded and is prized and all that, but we’re not talking about a super — What do I say? It’s not like you ordered, to come back to the earlier part of the conversation, it’s not like you ordered a classic Napa Cab or they recommend a classic Napa Cab and were like, “Here’s a wine that someone is going to know what to expect and get it.” Even if you were like, “Oh, yes, I know Clos Rougeard. I like it.” It’s just the whole thing about it is just weird to me. Again, you’ve explained pretty clearly, I think how it felt on the receiving end. What I don’t know is, and maybe this is where listeners can chime in and I should mention that we did, as you said earlier, got an email connected to this or related to this about someone having a wonky experience with a sommelier at a restaurant in Los Angeles, which I suppose we won’t name, but a well-known restaurant in L.A. and brought in a bottle of wine and felt just really off-put by how the somm handled it, both in terms of not really prioritizing opening and pouring their wine and then tasting their wine multiple times. It was an awkward story to read.

A: How they should serve.

Z: Oh, yes, that’s right, asking the guests if they would like the wine decanted, and then when the guests said they wanted it decanted, basically, telling them that they were wrong, which is like an older bottle of Bordeaux. It’s not like an unreasonable thing to expect that wine decanted. Certainly, if you’re going to ask for what the guest wants and then tell them that they’re wrong, it’s like, “What the f*ck are we doing here?” What I don’t know is, to some extent, I buy a little bit of the argument that this is borne a little bit out of, yes, labor shortages, maybe people are working longer or more shifts than they used to, maybe these sommeliers, et cetera, are just a little more ragged than we give them credit for but, at the same time, it’s hard for me not to just look at all of these stories in one way or another and many others that I’ve heard and we’ve received, and feel like there’s this problem where wine service at these higher end places is just like, it’s so enraptured with its own pretense and formality. It’s like the example in the email that John sent us about this sommelier taking multiple tastes of his wine, it just like — The guest brought the wine in. If the wine is flawed, that’s the guest’s problem. If they realize it and decide, “Oh, shit, we’ve got to order a bottle of wine,” then great for you. You’re not really entitled to an ounce and a half of their wine just because they brought it in without them offering it. The ritual of the somm tasting every bottle before it’s served, I think is mostly ridiculous in the first place. If it’s in a restaurant where it’s expensive bottles of wine and maybe there is real risk to a situation where a somewhat flawed bottle goes to the table, you don’t want that to be the experience your guests have, maybe I can see the argument for it, but in general, winemaking these days is, it just is like an anachronism that I think got turned into a job perk for somms in some way, like, “Oh, you get to taste all these wines. You get to drink while you work,” which, I mean, let’s be clear, lots of people in restaurants manage to do whether they should or not. In any case, we’re in this weird spot, right, man, we just keep coming back to this about wine and I feel like, God, restaurants, and especially the places that you would think would be the best and most beneficial places for wine, these really nicer restaurants, they just seem to be doing wine dirty. I don’t get it.

A: Look, and I think this was, essentially, you said about this experience that John had, was it like, if you bring in the bottle, the somm should not — You’re paying corkage, pop the cork, do what the guest says, and then — Look, on the guest side it is the appropriate thing to offer the somm a taste. That’s a nice thing to do, where we say, “Hi, would you like to taste the wine?” You could taste it all. It’s their bottle. If it’s f*cked, it’s their problem. They brought it in. Then guess what? Then they’re going to have to then buy a bottle of wine on your list if they want to keep drinking wine. That is what it is. That’s why that example to me was also so weird. It’s like the amount of times it sounded like this wine was tasted and brought around. The somm tasted, then the somm beverage director tasted it, and it’s just like, this is a lot of pomp and circumstance for a wine that you actually are not selling. [laughs]

Z: Yes, exactly.

A: We brought from someone else’s private collection. I do have another question for you about that. We’ve had this question before as well, is just around the BYOB aspect of restaurants or corkage fee, not BYOB. Is it the expectation that someone should try to check the wine list before they bring a wine in? I was at a restaurant recently in New York where someone brought in a bottle of wine and I was sitting at the bar and they came in with a friend and sat at the bar and actually brought a bottle of Raveneau. They were told by the person behind the bar, “We have this on the list so we’re not going to open this for you.” Then the response from the guest was, “I looked at your list online and I didn’t see this vintage on the list.” “Here it is. It just wasn’t updated online.” Where does that all stand? Is it a no-go to bring in a bottle of wine that’s also on the restaurant’s list? Are you not supposed to do that? Is that the restaurant’s call? Then also how do you play at that, though, if the guest is like, “Look, I looked online, your list wasn’t updated online. This vintage wasn’t there. I brought it in. Not my problem, you have it now.” How does that all work?

Z: I think the answer to this is, again, comes back to something we were talking about with your last story about why is it that wine service sometimes feels so confrontational? I think it depends, to me, again, restaurants I worked at, the restaurants I ran, we basically would never not open a bottle of wine for someone. Yes, would we have preferred it if people didn’t bring in bottles that were on our list? I guess. Why is it that we also would have preferred that people didn’t bring in $15 bottles of wine, but some people wanted to pay more in corkage than they did for the wine at the store? You just go like, “Hey, it’s not my business to really get in the middle of that.”

A: Right. If you like this wine, you like this wine.

Z: Yes, or you want to spend the minimum amount of money on wine. That’s your deal. To me, I never, again, never worked at a place, a restaurant where it was like, “Oh, the wine list is the thing that people go there for.” I can’t speak to that directly. Obviously, I know lots of people who have and have been to those places and all that. My feeling with bringing wine into restaurants, in general, is I do think it’s good practice to be considerate of the restaurant’s list and probably don’t bring in some. If you want to take the time to look, you will at least give yourself the protection of a restaurant may choose to not open your bottle of wine. They have the right to not do it. They’re not obligated to do it for you fundamentally. If you want to avoid that, yes, maybe it’s good to peruse the list and just make sure you’re not bringing in something that they already carry. I also think that there’s a way in which being able to bring in something that is outside the purview of the restaurant, in general, is maybe another way to feel like, “Hey, I really want to have this bottle of wine. It’s a special bottle of wine,” whatever. For me, it’s an easier thing to reconcile with the reality that the restaurant is not profiting from you bringing in wine in the way that they might from selling you wine. Again, is that your responsibility as the diner? Maybe not but you gotta understand it’s going to create perhaps a little bit of tension. I think one of the things that bugs me about so much of this, and it comes to all of the stories in some way that we’ve been sharing, is this sense of entitlement that you hear and see in some of these experiences where the sommelier or the restaurant as a whole feels entitled for any single diner to spend X amount of money on wine. It’s just like, that ain’t it, man. Just because someone is coming in and dining, yes, it’s great in a way that when people come in and they dine and they’re like, “Oh, bring us the $8,000 bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy. Cool. Then you got to hope they tip on it if you’re in a place where that’s a relevant thing. Functionally, yes, everyone has stories at whatever kind of restaurant you work at, everyone has stories of selling the most expensive bottle on the list, and that being an exciting moment. I think especially when you’re younger that’s a bigger thing. Look, the money is real. If you make more money from that, as most people do — People are working in restaurants to pay their bills to make a living. I’m not out here saying they shouldn’t care about their income. Of course, they should, but I think there’s also this thing of what in the end do you even as an individual saying I think of a restaurant is a whole gain from being confrontational and combative with your guests. I think the answer is you don’t gain anything. You just get people who walk away feeling like f*ck. As just to come back to the Charter Oak example, you’re in Napa with some regularity and you would be saying the next time you’re there being like, “You know what, I had this really bad experience there. I don’t want to die in there again. If the people from Charter Oak are listening or hear about this, as they might, we got some listeners in Napa, they might drop a note on this to those people, they should not be pleased with this takeaway, and not just because we’re on a podcast talking about it. Although in this day and age, you never know who’s going to go out and talk about things. It’s not just Yelp. You’re in Napa.” There’s a lot of people who have lots of access to who knows what. I think it’s bad for the restaurant, it’s bad for the individuals because, in the end, you don’t want to — It’s not good for you as a server, a sommelier, or whatever for your table to walk away feeling like they had a shitty experience that was not shitty for things that are outside of everyone’s control, but for shitty for things that like because your approach to their dining experience was just backwards. In the end, the last thing I’ll say about this, and then we really probably should wrap, is that there are two kinds of approaches to service. There are a lot of people who have talked about this. There’s a lot of different ways to approach it. There are people who are technically proficient at the elements of service and wine is, I think, an area where you see a lot of this. People have a lot of practical experience. They might have a lot of certifications, they might have whatever, a lot of knowledge, but translating that into an enjoyable and customer-centric experience isn’t always easy. I will say that whether it’s with wine or with almost anything else, a number of the best experiences I’ve had in my life as a diner, had been with people who may not have been the most experienced, the most knowledgeable, the most technically proficient, but they seem to genuinely care that I enjoyed myself. That is a truism about service and about hospitality that has to carry through all elements of it. It cannot just be the job of the host or the server to be hospitable. It has to be the responsibility of the sommelier, anyone else who’s touching the table because if the somm and the wine service part of it is detached and confrontational and crassly financial, well that’s a big part of the dining experience and it undercuts whatever else the mess restaurant might be doing or trying to do. That’s just something to keep in mind.

A: Totally. Dude, this has been really, really interesting. Thank you so much for hearing about my experiences and giving your thoughts on them. I think this just proves that in general, we’re all trying to figure it out but that sometimes if you have a not a great experience, it’s okay to be unhappy about it. My question for you though is, should we have called the manager over, at least in the Charter Oak experience?

Z: I think the last thing I will say on this is twofold. One is I’ve found that the best way to handle this, and I have done this a few times when I’ve had service that I found dissatisfactory for whatever reason, is I think the best thing to do is follow up afterwards with an email. For one, I think right in the moment it’s really hard, unless you’re really — It’s like, one thing if you feel like this server he’s been, whoever he’s been- like something’s really, really, really wrong, where — I don’t know what it would be exactly. I can’t even think of a good example but if someone was aggressively rude to you, again, I can’t really picture this happening, but I’m sure it does happen from time to time. I think most of the time the problem with addressing it in the moment is an awkward — You need a little bit of space. I think there’s the element, for me, it’s always been of following up afterwards. To be fair, I have also, and I think this is great to do too, when I’ve had particularly exemplary service, I like to get in touch with someone at the restaurant and be like, “Hey, so-and-so did a really great job. I thought they handled the situation beautifully, or they just did a great job of service.” Those things are really nice to get as a server who got a few of them over the course of my career. It was always really nice to hear from people who had had a really good experience and appreciated enough to take a little bit of time, not just when they’re at the restaurant, although it’s always, of course, nice to hear that too but after the fact. I think that after the fact is also better because it allows you or whomever to be clear about what might have been objectionable or unpleasant or distasteful. The transaction is finished, that you’ve paid. It’s not about the feeling that sometimes happens in restaurants where some people complain because they know they’re going to get free stuff out of it, they’re going to get things taken off their bill. Obviously, I’m not saying, I know you wouldn’t do that, but the restaurant may not know that. When you do it after the fact, you remove the financial consideration from it. You’ve paid your bill, you’ve moved on, whatever, but you’re just like, “Hey, I want you to be aware of this because it was not the experience I was hoping to have.” When someone makes a mistake or a restaurant makes a mistake, the only thing, I think, fair thing to do is to give them an opportunity to make it right. In the middle of a meal, if they f*ck up your order, sure, you should tell them. You should say, “Hey, this isn’t what I ordered,” or, “Hey, this steak is well done and I ordered medium rare,” or whatever. For broader, the whole scope of service thing, there’s not really a way to do that in the experience so it’s after the fact, you address it. You give them a chance to reflect on it. They might say, “We’d love to take something off your bill or we’d like to send you a gift card or whatever.” You, as an individual, any individual person can decide how to handle that situation going forward but when you take it out of the setting of the restaurant and move it to sometime after, I think it just gives those comments more weight because it’s clear that you’ve thought about them enough to take the time to send an email to a stranger functionally and say like, “Hey, I just need to let you know about this.”

A: This is great. Well, if you have any other questions for Zach about service, hit us up.

Z: Or you have other experiences that you want to share, we love to get emails that are like, “Hey, this is kind of weird to me. What do you think?”

A: Hit us up at podcast@vinepair.com. We’re always happy to answer. Zach, have a great weekend. I’ll talk to you this Monday.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.

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