The Perils of Being “The Wine Guy”

by Tim Elliott on June 27, 2010

This week I attended a technology conference held by one of my clients. It has been a long time since I have attended such a gathering but the change of pace was welcome. Like in my past life as a tech marketer, I was “the wine guy” at a dinner. You know, the guy you give the wine list to in order to take the pressure off such decisions. Over the past 20 years I have been put in this position hundreds of times and have always come away justified.

Not this time, however.

First, in my defense, the restaurant we dined was really a “19th hole”, sports-bar type of place in a resort near O’Hare airport in Chicagoland. My dinner companions were tech CEO’s, retail journalists and my client. Easy, I thought, as I surveyed the bar and saw some good choices in craft beer on tap. The same person who chose those must have pulled together a decent wine list, or at least left the task to his liquor distributor.

When the wine list arrived I surveyed the contents. On one side of a normal sized menu were mostly supermarket wines arranged by style, subtle to bold, white, pink and red. I also noted that Riesling was misspelled, not a good sign (I before E, Especially after R, folks!). There were few of the standard “tent-pole” restaurant wines I normally gravitate to in such situations if there is nothing else interesting. In fact, there was only one such wine, a Napa Valley Cab that was the most expensive wine on the list.

Picking wines in such situations is always filled with peril but in this case my client was paying so I passed on the safe choice. After asking what everyone preferred and what food they were considering, it was clear we needed a medium bodied red wine. Longtime readers will remember I favor Zinfandel so I looked to see what they had. Only one, from one of the “3-R’s” but not in my top two choices of those “R’s”. Next on the list were two Aussie Shiraz from producers I have never had before. The rest of the list were your normal assortment of Merlot, Pinot and Cabernets; nothing notable except that over-priced Napa Cab I mentioned before.

When the time came to order the wine I selected one of the Shiraz picking the wine with the same family name as an executive in my client’s company. Since he is British, there was a chance there was some connection with this Australian wine. I knew my client would get it and hoped it was at least a standard example of the variety. I was wrong; very wrong.

The next part of my tale is not pretty. The wine in question arrived opened and full glasses were poured to my left until the bottle was empty when the waiter asked if we wanted a second bottle. Since the table was not served I ordered that bottle and the waiter left to fetch it. Those served wine smelled and tasted my selection and made funny faces. I knew there was a problem. Around this time, the person on my left pushed the glass my way saying she did not drink and thought I might want to try the wine. I swirled and lifted the glass to smell an unholy brew of volatile acidity, alcohol and blackberry, the latter in the very back.

Crap.

I let everyone know the wine was bad and I would order something else to replace it. After tasting it was clear something went very wrong at the winery and what we had was a 16% AVA boozer with what could have been a few weeks of 100+ F days at sea. The waiter came back and said he would be bringing the second bottle out and I said this wine we bad and we would order something else. In short order I selected the Zin from the lesser of the “3-R’s”… at least it wasn’t their supermarket cuvée.

What happened next even surprised me as a Zin appeared on the other side of the table opened and poured before I could point out it was not the wine I selected. The waiter came over and said it was the wine I ordered quoting the number on the list as I pointed to the brand on the list that did not match. It seemed likely from the vintage this Zin was the last bottle in the same bin but I still wanted to get what I picked. As I tried the Zin I had not selected, I was happy that it didn’t have serious flaws other than being somewhat generic and tired (it was a 2005). The bottle I ordered finally arrived and everyone got some sort of Zinfandel that at least was drinkable.

I recount this tale as a warning to not stray from your game plan in these situations. Unless you know the wine you are choosing well, don’t take a flyer on something that might be a disaster. Next time I’m in such a situation, I’ll get that generic Oregon supermarket Pinot. Lesson learned.

  • http://www.twistedoak.com/ El Jefe

    I hate it when that happens. That was unbelievably bad wine service. Even our little restaurants here in podunk-ville know better than that!

    (Welcome back ;)

    • http://winecast.net Tim

      Having dined in “podunk-ville” I agree… thanks for being first comment on my first real post back. Somehow I always knew you would be there, Jeff ;-)

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  • http://wineintheshower.com G Winemaker

    If it really was a sports-bar-type place, and the wine list really sucked, perhaps you should have opted to suggest a pitcher of an excellent craft beer instead. But, I don't know your audience or the fare, which may have made wine a must.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

      Next time, it's beer all the way. As I said, lesson learned ;-)

  • Wineguy999

    Sounds like part of the problem is that you are too timid about insisting on good service. I hope the tip reflected the server's incompetence. Also, leaving the task of creating a list to a distributor is where most such venues make their first mistake.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

      This was way out of control and I don't think the restaurant knew what good wine service was. I didn't want to make the situation any worse than it was…

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