Wine & Food

Snooth User: Joseph Salerno

Wine or Pine: A Waiter Rant

Posted by Joseph Salerno, Nov 18, 2010.

I work as a waiter in a semi-fine dining Italian restaurant where I sell and suggest wines each day. In this type of setting there are so many outside influences that can make or break a wine experience at the dinner table from the waiter who polishes his wine glasses with rags dried w/ softener sheets, to the ambience, lighting, setting and volume of the dining room, to all the pleasant or horrific smells you're bound to encounter throughout the night (like the 20 top party next to you that just got out of the Tattoo convention in the 400 tower). Believe it or not, these things bear an unbelievable weight on your psyche before you've even begun to peruse the wine list.  Then there's the wine list. I've come across a plethora of very close-minded and uneducated personal preferences in wine buying from "MMMM do ya'll carry that Moscato DEE Asti?" to "your California list is so short, where are the big Napa Cabs?" or "I'll take your cheapest house red" (what does that even mean? Cab? Merlot? Zin? Pinot? Malbec? (and you gotta make sure they know that Zin is actually red first).

In such a setting as this, why not try to enjoy your dinner and the guests around you by letting the experienced help you open that closed cabinet of wine knowledge you keep inside?  Stop pining over the fact that we only carry the '07 Paraduxx and not the '05 and let the waiter (who probably knows the menu better than you) offer up something comparable. Who know's you may learn a thing or two about Amarone's and their facinating method of production. And when in fact you DO rely on the waiters suggestion but are displeased, it's perfectly acceptable to take it back and request something different (at least on glass pours.)  Be Brave my friend and step outside the box. 

This post is directed to the kind of wine drinkers that think they know a thing or two about wine after pulling up there Robert Parker app on their IPhone. The kind that don't know the difference between a Malbec from Cahors or Argentina or say, "gimme a Pinot Noir you like" 

Tell me what you like in a wine, what your price range is, and what you're having for dinner and I'll knock your socks off. 

Ahhhhhh, Thank you all for listening to me rant.


Loved this one:

Customer: I only drink Kendall Jackson Chardonnay

Me: (Uhhhhh??) Really, why is that?  Is it the Acidity you like, or the Oak, or how it feels in your mouth?

Customer: I don't know, I just like it.

Me: Have you tried many others? I'm sure there's something out there thats as good, if not better.  Here let me give you a couple samples of some of our glass pours....I think fra...

Customer: No, No, I only like my Kendall Jackson.  I buy cases and cases of it and I just love it. 

Me: (C'mon)


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Reply by dmcker, Nov 18, 2010.

Several of the experiences you recount above reek of customers outside their comfort zone who have defense mechanisms rising. How to make them comfortable, then open?

Reply by ovoysgirl, Nov 18, 2010.

I am glad to hear that there are waiters out there that will help you pick something outstanding. My husband and I several years ago had a really bad experience in a resturant. We were wanting to try something new, the waiter suggested something to us and we asked if we could have a taste. He said yes, and brought a bottle of wine to our table with a towel wrapped around it. We really liked it and when he came back we told him we would take some. He brought another bottle to the table and poured our wine. It was the worst wine we had ever tasted and was 17.00 dollars a glass. Needless to say we have never asked for a waiter to help us or ever went back to that resturant.

Keep up the good work and please always be honest.

Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 18, 2010.

@Ovoysgirl: Sounds kind of strange to me... You didn't even ask the waiter what kind of wine it was you tasted and compared it to the bottle he was pouring it from? Did you complain to him about it? Could very well be that he opened a new bottle of the same wine, but the bottle was spoiled. Why didn't you complain and let him taste the wine?

I personally think its always a good experience to talk to the waiter or if available sommelier. Always interesting to listen to other opinions and recommendations, afterwards its up to you if you go with it or not, after all its you paying for it... even if you insist on Kendall Jackson...

Reply by GregT, Nov 18, 2010.

" I've come across a plethora of very close-minded and uneducated personal preferences in wine buying from "MMMM do ya'll carry that Moscato DEE Asti?" to "your California list is so short, where are the big Napa Cabs?" or "I'll take your cheapest house red" (what does that even mean? Cab? Merlot? Zin? Pinot? Malbec? (and you gotta make sure they know that Zin is actually red first)

In such a setting as this, why not try to enjoy your dinner and the guests around you by letting the experienced help you open that closed cabinet of wine knowledge you keep inside?"

Read more:'
That's the problem right there.  What is wrong with liking the big red?  Or thinking that Zin is pink?  Not everyone is consumed with wine facts and trivia, in the same way many people aren't concerned with spelling and grammar, (although the lack of an edit function certainly contributes to ungrammatical posts.) I don't think it's a problem for people to love what they love.  Maybe they come to the restaurant for its "famous" roast beef or pizza or steamed halibut or whatever, and they order that same thing each time.  And not knowing someone, or thinking that their minds are closed, how can one possibly recommend something that the person would like?  I can only recommend what I like, not what you will like, and you can only recommend what YOU will like, not what I will like.  If I'm faced with a wine waiter who denigrates my wine choices, I'm not going to let him intimidate me into drinking his wine choice! Moreover, at least in NYC, it's at least a fifty-fifty shot that rather than the big fruity wine I want, the wine person is going to try to sell me something high-acid, biodynamic, sulfur-free, unripe and horrid because that's what he or she has fashionably decided was au courant and non- Parkerized.. 
Reply by napagirl68, Nov 19, 2010.

GregT- you said it better than I could have!  DITTO!

Reply by Joseph Salerno, Nov 19, 2010.


I would never make a customer feel bad about their choice.  But in the same breath I'll offer a few suggestions on either a different varietal but similar in body or style, or of the same varietal but with different characteristics so that the customer can experience something new. It's important to me that people broaden their personal wine lists.

When I can educate them on how certain wines may complement their food, rather than mask its flavours, they usually find comfort in this but keeps them in control of the final decision. Even if they stick to their old standby, they can appreciate my service and when they come back to see me, they may take my suggestions next time.


I totally agree.  You don't have to be rude, but you can explain to either the waiter or management that what you expected is not what you got.  In the end, you're paying $34 for not speaking up. 


There's nothing wrong with liking big reds, It's the fact that people who are uneducated or close-minded on the many great, full bodied, big reds of lets say Piedmont, fall prey to clever marketing and are quick to choose the Big Napa Cab because that's what all their colleagues or friends drink, they've never experienced a proper Bordeaux or a good Cab from South Africa, or a blend from Tuscany.  There's so much more out there that you can impress your friends with, if that's what you're going for, by inviting them to something exciting they've never had before that's just as tasty and "BIG"

Zins are not pink so there is something wrong with thinking that. They can be pink, but they're not pink. They're red, rose or (white, kinda). The comment was directed to the overwhelming population who choose white Zin as thier safe bet because they don't know any better. I think I've come across one person who's persisted on having their White Zin after I've brought them a taste of Moscato or Riesling, which leads me to believe they just didn't know their options. The other 99% love the suggestion and are happy they now have another choice.

People should drink what they like, I agree and do it all the time but they should broaden their horizons too and that's what this post is about. Stop pining over specifics, what's available and not available to you at the moment, and try something new.  Maybe learn something in the process.  Enjoy the world of wine, not the cheapest pour, the over commercialized Cab, or the safe bet.  Live a little. 


Love all the comments everyone, thank you and I hope you don't find me terribly aggresive. 

Reply by napagirl68, Nov 19, 2010.

I think it is fine to offer a *customer* tastes of your recommendations.. as a matter of fact, I think that is WONDERFUL.  But, if they don't want it, or don't like it, go ahead and roll eyes silently, but PLEASE your customer.  You have to remember that people are at different stages in wine appreciation development.  I think kindly offering a taste of something that may be "the next step" for them is a good thing.  But if they don't bite, don't bite off their heads! LOL!  

Your post, and the comments about BIG CA wines vs french inspired me to start my own thread about CA prejudice.  It is truly unfounded.... like I say, give me a month, and I will convert anyone.

Reply by Joseph Salerno, Nov 19, 2010.

Haha, of course I don't bite peoples heads off.  I'm glad they're drinking wine.  I just want to help them along on a fantastic journey of aromas, bouquets, flavours, tastes, unicorns, stardust and lilly pads.  :)  I have fun with it and my guests always!!!

Reply by napagirl68, Nov 19, 2010.

Another point I'd like to mention... your quote:

why not try to enjoy your dinner and the guests around you by letting the experienced help you open that closed cabinet of wine knowledge you keep inside? Made me think about people who hate caviar, or those who cannot stomach sushi..  Perhaps they need to develop their palates?  or maybe the have an aversion to a certain taste.. not uncommon. Also, when GregT addressed "zin" as not being pink, I believe (sorry greg if I am speaking wrongly) that he was addressing YOUR terminology here: 
(and you gotta make sure they know that Zin is actually red first).

Many people who drink and like white zin do not know there is another whole wine with a similar name!  And yes, here in CA, we call white zins "pink".  And yes, there are WONDERFUL roses that are in the similar color palatte.  As a matter of fact, I am serving one as a pairing wine at Thanksgiving.  And I agree with you on principle for the most part... however, there ARE different palates, and a sommelier will TAILOR his/her own opinions to that of the consumer... thus is why there are a RANGE of wines on most wine lists.. You say you are a waiter... I am definitely sensing that you would like to do more with wine.. perhaps some sommelier schooling/training, and a position in that field.  That may satisfy your frustration over horrible wine picks AND give you more credence at a higher end restaurant where those who dine come to trust their sommelier.  You just can't force them directly, but you can indirectly if you control the wine list :-)   But keep the variety open, and lose any prejudice over a type/region of wine.JMO!
Reply by Joseph Salerno, Nov 19, 2010.

Thanks for the comments.  I've never said no to any kind of wine.  As a matter of fact I'm studying at the moment through our in-house Sommelier and through the Society of Wine Educators CSW and CWE programs before attempting the Court of Master Sommeliers.  I tell my customers whenever they ask what my favorite wine is that I don't have a favorite wine. I like them all :) I just want to know everything about them so I can effectively educate my guests and spread the word.

Reply by napagirl68, Nov 19, 2010.

Excellent!  How exciting to be studying that path!  As a boring scientist, I envy you :-)

Reply by GregT, Nov 20, 2010.

Well, a friend of mine was once the president of the Society of Wine Educators.  He and I disagree on a lot of things. 

I've told this story before but the folks in the restaurant shouldn't assume that the person requesting a specific wine has a closed mind. Went to a very high end place in Manhattan and asked the Som to recommend a wine that would go with my choice of venison w blueberry sauce.  W/out missing a beat he suggested a $580 Barolo.  I didn't know that particular wine but I knew the producer and I knew the wine was way too young.  I asked about a $45 Zin instead.  He disdainfully dismissed it and I ordered it anyway.   

When the wine came, it was room temp and I asked for an ice bucket.  He told me "It's a RED wine sir," in his snottiest voice.  I responded that I was surprised but would he bring me an ice bucket like I asked because the wine was too warm.  I got the ice bucket and never saw the Som again.

Until I wanted another bottle.  Zin and venison happen to work out really well.  My Zin was exactly right with my venison. 

His tip was zero.

I happen to taste a lot of wine through the year and maybe even have had more wine than that Som. So maybe I wasn't particularly impressed.  But his behavior is exactly what turns people off when it comes to wine.

And I'm thinking of my neighbors now - but they don't know squat about wine.  OTOH, they have a few wines that they buy because they don't want to learn all the BS that goes into wine and they don't deserve to be treated with condescension because they don't devote their lives to wine. 

I guess what I'm saying is that they could be seduced into trying something, but would resent any attempt at intimidation.  Some people in the wine biz figure that if they can intimidate or coerce someone, a sale is a sale.  But in fact, if it creates an enemy, it's a Pyrrhic victory.

Reply by wineydoc, Nov 21, 2010.

rather than arguing about who is more right in this little saga, can someone explain to me how to tell if the waiter or sommelier knows what they're talking about?  i am still really new at this.  i usually end up being the one to choose the wine for our tables, and every once in a while, i won't recognize any of the vintages on the list.  or, we'll be having something that i've never paired before, or we have several different styles of meal at the table, which doesn't bode well for just one bottle of wine.  that's when i need help.  but i'm cheap, and i rarely eat at the more expensive restaurants that hire dedicated sommeliers.

Reply by dmcker, Nov 21, 2010.

Good question, wineydoc. I don't have time to start that subthread right now, but hopefully others will step in.

Joseph S., I go back to my first post way up this thread and say perhaps the biggest part of a Somm's (or other people involved in the restaurant's interface with customers) job is not to know every conceivable fact there is about wine. Instead it's to know people, to make them comfortable, to allow them to open up in relaxed fashion to new experiences. That's what I look for in service staff. The technical knowledge can always be learned/trained. But that basic stance towards people, and a fundamental openness, unfortunately, can't. 

The world of wine being so big and complex unfortunately makes too many people nervous, on several levels. Not just the customers, but also professional service staff...

Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Nov 21, 2010.

I completely agree with dm.  Anyone can gain the knowledge, but not everyone shares it well.

Reply by zufrieden, Nov 21, 2010.

I second that opinion - and concur with the seduction line as well: you need to softly introduce the customer to the idea of wine as a more or less indispensable component of fine dining (or any dining if taking the absolute position).  

Going out to dinner is the compleat experience; it is sustenance and art.  A competent sommelier can enhance this string of moments by making it emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Engaging the customer in a kind of competition that seems designed to expose ignorance or lack of grace is not professional.  A restaurant professional wants to raise the hedonic bar for the person who ultimately pays the bill. Rendering the experience a memorable one takes all those interpersonal skills that enable technical (wine) knowledge to win the day.  

A Pyhrric victory won't do at all. 

Reply by rahnjoseph, Dec 13, 2010.

Oh great god, why is such people hang on a thing if their are million of options available and this instance seems a fine example of the same.

one of the great person saying is right

"Nothingis permanent except change"

Reply by dmcker, Dec 13, 2010.

Afraid you lost me there, rahn. Can you explain a little more what you mean?

Reply by rahnjoseph, Dec 14, 2010.

I read your Kendall Jackson Chardonnay instance and want the people who is a fond of it would change and try some other wine. thats the thing i want to present

Reply by dmcker, Dec 14, 2010.

Probably a good recommendation...

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