Somm Stories: the Bordeaux Breakdown

Courtesy XSC
Courtesy XSC

By 2001, wine lovers in New York City spent lavish amounts of money in restaurants like Veritas. Adventurous diners would try wines they had only read about for fraction of the price offered at other restaurants.  Big nights would become part of Veritas lore.  Those stories were fun to relive and easy to tell.  As a sommelier, however, enlightenment came from the more challenging moments.

During these heady times a gentleman, accompanied by his wife, came into Veritas eager to drink one of Bordeaux’s great wines. When asked whether he wanted ice water, bottled still or bottled sparkling water, he put on a big smile and requested the wine list.

“Water,” he said, “could wait.”

I gave him the wine list and offered to help him select a wine or to answer any questions.  In a wine destination restaurant, it was important to be attentive, but not overbearing and snooty when offering help.

He said it would only take a minute to decide.  I did a quick tour of the dining room and returned to his table.

“I’ll take this one,” he said, pointing to the 1959 Chateau Haut-Brion.

Normally, the guest would ask how the wine was drinking or at least look for a nod of approval after making their selection.  Clearly he did not want my opinion.  This guy, in blue jeans, a button down checkered shirt with rolled up sleeves, just ordered a $1200 superstar.

“And,” he continued, “I’d like you to pair the wine with two courses that you think go best with the wine.”

He explained that he heard the wine was magnificent, but had never had it.  It would be a great bottle to celebrate his birthday.

He assured me that there were no dietary restrictions and wanted to proceed right away. The cellar was kept close to 53 degrees, the perfect storage temperature. The wine would need time to warm. The earthy elements would be more expressive if the wine was in the 60s and even though the wine was over forty years-old, it would benefit from a little air.

After presenting the wine, I carefully decanted it.  Tasting was customary to avoid serving a flawed wine.  It was pristine.  Even at a cool temperature, the pepper and dark fruits jumped out of the glass. The tannins were velveteen.  When the earthy, woodsy part of the wine emerged, the Haut-Brion would offer a nearly perfect balance of fruit, spice and truffle.  He tasted the wine.  His eyes glimmered with delight.  A pause before their first course would give it just enough time to open and reach ideal drinking temperature.

For the first course I went the route of high adventure and chose a scallop dish.  With mature red wine, most seafood would develop an iodine, or fishy quality.  With the right preparation, fresh diver scallops would not.  The scallops were on a bed of potato purée with chive and truffle butter.  A black truffle jus lightly covered the dish. I tried this exact combination a couple of weeks earlier.  The flavors and textures paired seamlessly with the Haut-Brion.

“Prepare to be surprised and amazed!” I thought to myself.

Courtesy XSC
Courtesy XSC

After the first course, I chose a straightforward steak to give them a cushion of comfort to land on after I blew them away with the scallop.

The food arrived as we were talking about how the 1959 Bordeaux stacked up against the 1961s.  The interruption allowed me to step away so they could eat without interruption.  The server described the first dish.   The man’s smile turned into to a red-faced grimace.  I went over to the table right way and asked if there was a problem

“Is there a problem?” He repeated.  “What in the hell were you thinking?  How could you ruin my wine with seafood?”

He yelled so loud that the entire small dining room could hear. I asked if he’d like to try it first or if he’d like something else.  To ask this necessary question was tricky.  At this point, the guest could interpret the most sincere question as being condescending or rude.  The couple spent a lot of money and it was his birthday.  The restaurant would profit not only from this visit, but subsequent ones if I managed to turn this around.

He wanted something else.   It became clear that he wanted to play it safe - pasta with mushrooms and black truffles.   The guest graciously accepted the dish and was very pleased with the steak.  He barely recovered from what he considered to be a violation of wine pairing etiquette.

Who was right or wrong didn’t matter.  They pulled in the reins, and steered me towards a familiar direction.  My job was to make sure that, if at all possible, they left happy.   The blame game had no winner. How we handled a difficult situation, more than anything else, would best define our service and hospitality.