7 Habits of Annoying Wine People, Readers’ Edition
From waiters who automatically hand the wine list to the man at the table to crazy corkage fees, readers share their pet peeves-and what they do about them
By Lettie Teague
Aug. 20, 2015
TWO MONTHS AGO I wrote a column detailing the actions and habits of wine drinkers that I found most annoying or over-the-top. The list clearly resonated with readers, who wrote in not only to express agreement but to name a few of their own gripes as well. The following are the seven reader wine peeves I thought deserved wider discussion in a column of their own.
1. Bait-and-switch bottles
How many times have you picked up a bottle that, according to the store’s card, critics have rated 95 out of 100 points only to find that it’s not the actual wine they were rating? I’ve encountered this disconnect in more wine shops than I care to count (or to name), and this was one of the most common complaints I received from readers.
When this discrepancy occurs, the high score and praise on the “shelf talker” frequently belong to a wine’s previous vintage. While the difference might be “just” a year or two, that little gap can have fairly great consequences. All it takes is some bad weather (heat, hail or frost) to turn a promising vintage into a dud.
It may be the fault of a store clerk who didn’t take care to display an up-to-date review, or a purposeful deception on the part of a store manager who knows that the new vintage isn’t quite as good as the old. And when a retailer regularly attaches the wrong reviews to wines, I wonder if he or she might be deceptive in other ways, too.
2. Sexist servers
There are quite a few female sommeliers working today-so I was surprised how frequently readers complained that the wine list is often automatically handed to a man. Or I would have been, had I not occasionally experienced this brand of casual sexism myself. Instead of asking who would like to order the wines, or simply placing the list on the table, the sommelier (or, more frequently, the server) automatically hands it to the closest male.
I rarely say anything when this happens, although I might ask for a copy as well. Reader Liz Goodgold asks for a second list, too, or she might exclaim, “I’m the ‘wineaux’ of the family!” so they know who’s in charge.
When I do order the wine, I’m sometimes confronted by a related peeve. Service etiquette dictates that the person who ordered the wine should have the first taste. Often the server returns with the bottle, however, and offers it to my husband. Adding insult to injury: When this happens, my husband sometimes happily ignores protocol and serves as first taster-but that’s an altogether different peeve of mine.
3. Good wine in a bad vessel
A good glass can’t make a bad wine taste better, but the opposite holds true: Pour a good wine into a bad glass and witness the transformative effect a thick-rimmed, thick-stemmed, cheap piece of stemware can have. Try swirling your wine and you’ll see what I mean. A fat stem is hard to hold and a stubby bowl means wine will likely slop over the top of the glass.
Reader Jerry Nissenbaum regularly hosts wine events and will actually bypass one restaurant in favor of another if the glasses are bad. This makes sense to me.
I’d venture to suggest that the quality of a restaurant’s wine glasses is a fairly good indication of the quality of its wine list. I don’t think I’ve ever had a memorable bottle in a place with bad glasses; the aesthetics are too closely linked.
On the other hand, it’s likely that a restaurant with particularly nice glasses will not only offer good wines but inspire one to improve one’s glasses at home. Charlie Bird restaurant, in New York, has some really terrific bottles, and it has such great glasses that I bought the same stemware (Zalto Universal) for myself. They were thin and elegant-light to the touch but not insubstantial. They were also “precise,” as oenophiles say: The wine’s aromas seemed clearer, the taste more pronounced, in these glasses.
4. Cheap, commercial wines offered by the glass
With thousands of well-made, well-priced wines from all over the world, there is no excuse for a restaurant to offer mass-produced, grocery-store-quality wines by the glass. Readers were not only offended by this-particularly when the wines are heavily marked up-they were bored. Who wants to drink the same wine in a restaurant that you have in the refrigerator at home?
I’m not sure if this is better or worse than the scenario described by reader Steve Glass, who was frustrated by wine lists where all the options-both bottles and by-the-glass selections-are high-end wines such as Barolos, Barbarescos and Super Tuscans. His solution? He’ll order a wine by the glass. Although it may be overpriced, “at least the overall bill is reduced,” he wrote.
5. Crazy corkage fees
A fair number of readers registered outrage at outsize restaurant corkage fees, a plight I can partially identify with since I dine sometimes in New Jersey and sometimes in New York.
As many as 80% of the restaurants in New Jersey don’t have liquor licenses, due to the state’s antiquated liquor laws. Most observe a bring-your-own-bottle policy, and legally, they aren’t allowed to charge a corkage fee.
But I also dine in Manhattan, so I know from large corkage fees. Most restaurants I patronize charge fees that range from $35 to $50, although some top restaurants, including Per Se, charge a lofty $150 for the privilege. (Some restaurants, such as Le Bernardin, don’t allow corkage at all.) The message in this case is clear: We really, really don’t want you to BYOB. Of course, if you like your wine better than any of the wines on their list, it’s worth the fee.
6. Hosts who hold on to the good wine
I don’t know if this peeve is as much about wine as it is the presumed social compact between guest and host. As a guest, if you bring along a nice bottle, shouldn’t you expect to be served something as good in return?
Over the years, I’ve brought some very nice bottles as gifts that have been whisked away by the host or hostess never to be seen again. The wine that they’ve served instead has at times been all but undrinkable.
Some might argue that a guest should not expect to drink the bottle he or she brings, with which I agree in principle, although this doesn’t make it any less painful to trade a lovely Grand Cru Chablis for a bottle of $10 Concha y Toro Chardonnay.
A friend of mine once brought a chilled bottle of Champagne in an ice bucket to a friend’s house, thinking this would make it clear he wanted to drink it. The host just took the wine out of the bucket and put it away. And no, you can’t ask the host or hostess to open the bottle. That’s considered very poor form.
7. Perfumed tasting-room staff
I was surprised by this particular reader peeve, as most of the winery tasting rooms I’ve visited are fairly rigorous about keeping a “scent-free” staff. After all, a strong perfume can easily overpower the delicate aromas of a wine. Reader Kay Duffy wrote she has had to carry her glass outside the tasting room for an unadulterated whiff of a wine’s aromas.
Scent-wise, I’ve found tasting-room visitors the greater problem. I’ve stood downwind of quite a few tasters who were clearly great fans of very strong, drugstore-quality eau de parfum.
I’ve even traveled with an oenophile friend who was deeply knowledgeable about wine but had a curious predilection for strong aftershave. He smelled like the scent strip of an Old Spice ad. I never said anything to him during all of our years of travel, however, because he had every other virtue as a tasting companion: He knew a great deal about wine, collected old Burgundy and spoke French with élan. And besides, the Old Spice wore off by midday.