Thursday, June 18, 2009

Foibles of Houston wine service

It’s hard to come up with a more relaxing, enjoyable scene: sit down at a nice restaurant, white table cloth, carefully set table, bustling scene, tempting menu. You look over the wine list, but this is one of those grand days where you don’t want to think too much about it. You want to offer yourself up to your host entirely. Sadly, in Houston, the chances are leaving yourself in the hands of a restaurant for wine selection and service will result in disappointment.

Wine service in Houston is sorely lacking. One might argue service generally, even in the best restaurants in town, is the greatest weakness in this city’s dining scene. When it comes to wine, at least, the situation is annoying but fixable. A few simple rules and an attitude change is all it would take.

1. The pour

This is, without a doubt, the biggest foible and easiest to fix. Almost without fail, waiters and (inexcusably) sommeliers pour your glass too full. Most of the time it’s halfway up the glass, just enough to prevent you from being able to swirl it effectively and unlock all the wine’s aromas. You end up being forced to drink a third of the glass before being able to really appreciate and evaluate it.

Usually this isn’t a huge concern with wines by the glass, which are served out of bottles that have been open for quite some time and don’t always require the same amount of aeration. But when you purchase a bottle, and the server pours the whole thing out in four glasses, it substantially inhibits enjoying the wine. What’s worse is that there is no clearer sign that a restaurant is trying to force you into buying a second bottle immediately. It starts the meal on a rushed note, trying to get you to commit to more wine before the food arrives (if you’ve even ordered at all).

Pouring doesn’t need to be like this. Indeed, it isn’t always. There are a few notable exceptions in Houston, namely Ibiza, Catalan, Voice, and Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Prego, where wine service falls under the tutelage of Sean Beck, easily the city’s best sommelier. These are restaurants where proper service show attention to detail and enhances the atmosphere of a meal, and it is an easy standard to live up to.

2. Poor stemware

What difference does the glass make? It can make you think one wine is actually two completely different ones. Proper stemware allows more surface area of the wine to be exposed and a well-designed glass funnels the bouquet to your nose, allowing your olfactory to maximize its essential role in tasting.

Perhaps more disconcerting, good stemware is relatively inexpensive. You don’t need the Riedel Sommelier Series to enjoy any wine. The Vinum series is great; Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau both make excellent and affordable glasses. While some of the design intricacies, such as creating special Oregon Pinot Noir glasses are going overboard, good and basic glasses for white, red, and sparkling wine are essential.

Fortunately, for the most part, Houston’s better restaurants have invested in adequate stemware. But several exceptions are shocking; when that’s the case, go ahead and bring your own glasses or forego wine altogether. Yes, what you drink your wine out of is that important.

3. Lack of knowledge

This is a two-pronged issue. First, servers far too often are completely at a loss when it comes to wine. It’s not general wine knowledge they need; it can be fine if they lack that. But wait staff needs to at least have familiarity with the restaurant’s wine list. They must grasp some fundamentals about some bottles that will complement the menu, and it is a poor reflection on the chef and sommelier when waiters don’t.

Lack of server knowledge perhaps is forgivable because they should have been trained better. And this is the second problem: sommeliers in Houston with disheartening regularity come off like novices. This is particularly evident when they recommend wines that supposedly work with the restaurant’s food and in their ability to translate a customer’s articulated preferences to wines on the list. A sommelier needs to be able to take a description of a wine and match it to something she has available. This is a difficult but necessary skill; it is the hallmark of a wine professional.

Perhaps this is too harsh a critique. It is possible that restaurants are just responding to what their clientele demands. Maybe the Houston wine consumer is too unimaginative to allow restaurants to come up with great wine lists, leaving us with a proliferation of boring Chardonnay and Cabernet. Even Ibiza, one of the best and most creative lists in town, is stocked with loads of Napa Cab that doesn’t suit its menu. Even if this is the case, however, sommeliers should be doing a better job of teaching. They should be providing more variety and better pairing possibilities.

Again, there are exceptions worth noting. Despite that head-scratching Cab-heavy list, Ibiza always offers a few interesting and crisp Spanish whites. (They easily could expand their New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc selection.) Catalan is marvelous in pushing grower Champagne, as well as the occasional Savennieres or lesser known Spanish wine. Voice deserves kudos for its thoughtful wine pairings to complement excellent tasting menus. And the aforementioned Sean Beck is a true master of finding wines that work with difficult cuisine. You only need to sample a few of his extraordinary Pinot Noir pairings with the Mexican food at Hugo’s to see he has a complete understanding of the intricate dance between the flavors in wine and food.

As Houston’s food scene matures, with more professional service staff and more sophisticated palates on diners, the knowledge gap can be closed rapidly.

4. Briskness

Speed is also a misstep that is easily addressed. Too frequently, servers refill your glass after you’ve only had a few sips. This inhibits seeing how a wine evolves in a glass. It messes up the temperature of white wine. It destroys the pacing of the meal, subtly trying to get you to speed up. For what? The restaurant wants to sell you more wine.

That, in essence, is the true failure of the Houston restaurant wine scene. Wine and other alcoholic beverages, as a general rule, are seen as profit centers. If they get you through one round of drinks, they can move you on to another. Of course, that opens a massive can of worms: the ridiculous price of wine in restaurants, but that is worthy of in-depth discussion at another time. For now, it is sufficient to say that subordinating an essential part of dining enjoyment is not in a restaurant’s best interest.

The old liquor store in Chicago, Zimmerman’s, used to have a sign that read, “Drink fast and hurry back!” It’s a chuckle-inducing sentiment but, drunk driving concerns aside, one that doesn’t have a place at the dinner table.


vinolatino said...

Your research is lacking. Too great of a generalization.

You did not visit enough restaurants. Correction: Rafeal Espinal is the Wine Buyer at Pregos in the Rice Village, not Sean Beck.

What about Da Marcos? El Meson, Shade, Perry's Steakhouses, Bailey's, Tony's, Mark's, and Pappas steakhouse????? To name a few.

You should further research this by contacting THE TEXAS SOMMMELIER ASSOCIATION before saying that anyone person is the BEST.


Anonymous said...

While I hate to comment on a comment, Perry's, Pappas, Mark's, DaMarco's, and even the venerable Tony's operate similarly when it comes to wine. Have a few bottles that people will recognize from something - Opus One, Silver Oak, Shafer - and people will pay the 4-5X mark-up. Little is left for exploration or education. A higher price seldom means better wine. Fortunately, these elites will see their appeal pass with the baby boomers. As the next generation becomes more knowledgeable about wine, food, and eating out generally (because of the web), their ability to charge certain prices for wine "because they can" will not sit too well. To those restaurants, enjoy it while you can.

Tom Gutting said...

I have visited all the restaurants you mention, VINOLATINO. I don't find that the wine service at any of them stands out greatly. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse has a very fine -- albeit it (for the most part) exceptionally overpriced -- wine list.

Over the years, I have considered a great deal regarding the most top notch service in Houston. Sean Beck stands out to me. I don't know how contacting the Texas Sommelier Association could be any substitute for my own research.

Ed Wrath said...

Vinolation - Do not taunt the dragon. You've been warned.

BubblesNBBQ said...

Since this is a blog, therefore, one person's opinion, your belief that Ibiza with the best wine list and Sean Beck as the best sommelier stands as just that - your opinion.
What I find interesting is that Ibiza does not have a dedicated sommelier or wine buyer. Much of the time they buy their wine in close-out from distributors so mark up can be low. Tasting Room uses the same tactic.
I agree that Backstreet and Hugo's have good wine lists. Sean Beck has been with them for a while as a manager and darn well should have it figured out by now as proof of his success.
Rafael at Prego's has a good list too.
One large difference I find between a good sommelier and a great (or potentially great) sommelier is desire to learn and training. This typically results in a better wine program overall including all of Gutt's points. Somms obtain this training from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Society of Wine Educators, etc. Although the Court has the most emphasis on the service aspect.
One commenter mentioned the highly recognized wines, Opus, Silver Oak, etc. As you will see many programs do mark these well-known wines up greatly over others because they can and the somm does not want these mainstream wines to be the benchmark of their programs. They are encouraging you to ask for recommendations.