Monday, December 4, 2023

Wine Tips: Be Assertive with Annoying Waiters

4.1.1In the world of sports, intimidation of the opponent is often critical to success. This idea has now moved to the more manicured playing fields of wine as well. For years, waiters have tried to intimidate customers by handing them corks to sniff, labels to decipher, and other provocations. Now the tables seem to be turning, so to speak, and customers are counter-attacking.
The other night, I overheard a dissatisfied customer make an incompetent waiter pronounce the entire wine list, then corrected him when he got to Pouilly-Fuisse wrong. Brutal. The French can hardly pronounce that word right themselves. She could have just ordered it by its bin number, like everyone else, but we wine drinkers perhaps having watching “The Equalizer” on TV, are in no mood to be conciliatory and are demanding more competent and less arrogant service when it comes to wines.
This new vinous vigilantism first came to my attention in a column by the late Russell Baker, that bitter, but usually passive, enemy of pretension and snobbery. Baker was in one of those horrible, pseudo-French restaurants in New York where pure chance seems always to land him. Presented with a wine cork to sniff, Baker assertively told the waiter to take it back to the kitchen, chop it fine, and sprinkle it over his salad.
This confrontation seemed liked an isolated incident until a few weeks later when a similar thing happened in a Calvin Trillin column in The New Yorker. Trillin, if you haven’t seen him on TV, is a mild-mannered, balding, former Midwesterner who now inhabits Greenwich Village. His numerous books focus mainly on his overwhelming love of food. He wrote recently on his quest for the best cheeseburger in Paris, but his specialties are dim sum and barbeque.
Despite his preference for normal American food, Trillin had never been known for verbal violence toward uppity or incompetent wine waiters. Nevertheless, when he was recently presented with a cork to sniff by a waiter in a posh restaurant, he first eyed it approvingly, then ate it. Don’t try this at home.
Is all this hostility necessary? I think maybe it is. The reason the French and Chinese have such great food and attentive service is that they constantly demand it. The incompetent snobbery that too often passes in American restaurants has gone on long enough. we need waiters who know what they are talking about and how do not get their jollies by intimidating the paying customers. Understand, I do not advocate eating the cork they tender you. That victimizes us,  not them. Just curl you lip a little while squeezing it, then toss it aside as if unworthy, and lean toward glass you are about to taste.
Cork-sniffing is, after all, a useless affectation. If the cork feels sound, then it will not likely have spoiled the wine. Even a broken, crumbly cork does not mean a bad wine. Superlatively fine, old wines often have corks so old they come part during extraction from the bottle. The real test of a whine is in sniffing the wine, not the cork. When the waiter pours you out a splash, swirl it around, taking care not to dampen the onlookers, then sniff it good before tasting. The aroma will tell you quickly, even if you have no technical knowledge of wine at all, whether it smalls good, and if it does, nine times out of 10 it will taste just a good. You do not even have to put it in your mouth if its really bad.
Never let the glares of a supercilious water intimidate you. Take a few seconds to really taste it, and ponder what it tastes like right after you swallow it. He is being paid to wait for you to be satisfied. If the wine is vinegary, make him taste it too, and tell you what he thinks. If he disagrees, call the captain or next person up the line until you receive satisfaction.
One last point. Despite the sexual revolution and the obvious fact that women now buy nearly as much wine as men, most waiters still tender the wine to the man for tasting. If you disagree with this, or like her informed opinion, just pass her the glass without explanation. If she nods her approval, you’ve not only improved both your evenings, you’ve gotten one up on the waiter, with whom you may have to contend on other issues later. He is probably insecure about his own wine knowledge anyway and this will put him more under your control. And, who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and he’ll bring her the check, too.
Written September 16, 1987
John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.