Everyone knows a little about wine, they have a few favoured grapes; they know why they don’t like chardonnay and what goes best with their main course. But beyond this the fascinating – call it intoxicating – world of viniculture remains, for the most part, a specialist one.
Unfortunately, rather than educating the paying public, several restaurants I’ve visited recently seem more interested in sneakily up-selling their excess stock than helping thirsty diners to navigate the wine list.
A visit to the new second venue of a much-lauded wine bar was the first incident to arouse my suspicion. On this occasion a jubilant friend ordered a Château d’Angludet: a classified Bordeaux, about which I can tell you very little else. After an unsuccessful browse of the bar’s cellar the polite waitress returned, shamefaced, to report that none was left. But the trouble started when an uppity sommelier sent out a completely different bottle of Cru Bourgeois as a replacement.
“It’s not a Bordeaux,” said the sadly stuck-in-the-middle waitress. “But it’s just as good.” Aside from the fact it actually was a Bordeaux, this episode was my first experience of my ignorance about wine leaving me vulnerable to the recommendation of an unscrupulous sommelier. I was saved only by the knowledge of my dinner companions.
My next brush with a badly behaved wine peddler came at a Piccadilly steakhouse. Despite charming London with its dictionary-thick cuts, the restaurant’s wine service was at best disingenuous. Having ordered a Napa Valley red the sommelier this time came to apologise personally for its absence from his cellar. But like before, he hastily recommended an expensive alternative. The problem was that he didn’t ask why we were ordering it, what we liked, what food we were having. He just saw what were spending.
What’s worse is that the so-called expert offered no insight into his thought process. If I’d gone in to buy a washing machine he’d have assured me I needed a drier at twice the price from a brand I’d never heard of. In vino veritas? Wishful thinking. It’s a trend, which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Localism is the hot topic in the restaurant industry: I’m told what farm my heritage tomatoes came from and the favourite Yorkshire field of the Longhorn cow I’m about to scoff. But given this trend, it’s baffling that wine can still be used as a money spinner: a mysterious elixir protected by a few unprincipled gatekeepers.
I’d love to be taught more about pairings, to trust a recommendation without needing to settle on the second-least expensive bottle of plonk (statistically still the most popular choice). But these examples have alerted me to the fact that it’s in the interests of some restaurants to keep a thorough understanding of wine from its paying customers. It’s an issue that has me seeing red – but rarely the one I ordered.
Josh Fehnert is Monocle’s Edits section editor.