STATEN ISLAND, NY -- In these hard economic times the theme with restaurant critiques lately has been to focus on the positive: Chat up the best the Island has to offer, don’t be stingy on the stars and relax on the malingering foil-wrapped-butter-pat issue. But a gripe does needs to be aired on the matter of wines by the glass.
My heart sinks with the server’s question, “Red or white?” It has become a very common greeting in Staten Island eateries that, alas, speaks volumes beyond the fact that the restaurateur/bartender/manager didn’t educate the waiter on a major detail of service. It tells us patrons that the restaurant puts little thought into the wine by the glass selection except perhaps on the matter of price points. To me “Red or white?” evokes the image of a bartender in a store room pouring cheap Burgundy from a drum into a glass carafe. That wine, probably a reasonable pour in kitchen applications, eventually comes to table as “house red.”
“Red or white?” also heralds what’s to come with the meal: An incredible lack of attention to detail from the front- to the back-of-the-house. But it’s not just the restaurant at fault: Wine salespeople should work harder at educating the restaurant’s staff, giving promotional materials to business owners and making a much stronger presence in the borough to broaden awareness of fine quality varietals that can enhance a meal. Ultimately we, the customers, need to be more demanding on how their wine is handled.
Now you might think this a harsh commentary on the Island’s food service industry considering, among other things, what everyone is up against. Sure, the restaurant has to manage food costs, control inventory and satisfy the public’s expectations on prices and value. The wine salesperson needs familiar-tasting vinos to satisfy a goodly amount of palates and budgets. And the server is at the whim of his or her establishment to stay enthusiastic and knowledgeable on what’s in that glass for $6 or $5 or $8. If it is Sutter Home, Grandpa Cha Cha’s or La Vendemmia then just proudly and voluntarily tell us patrons what the house is pouring. Please.
Moving on, let’s address how wine by the glass is handled. We, the customers, deserve bottles to be freshly opened on a daily basis. Unless the restaurant has a sophisticated preservation system (or, arguably, vintage wines by the keg, something that is now available to New York City eateries) day-old opened wines have a better application as sangria or, say, in the chef’s hands for stocks, reductions and dressings. We, the customers, demand that the server knows the brand of wine, grape varietal and pricing per glass even though (in the rare instance) it is posted on the menu or a table tent. (And wishful thinking: It is always nice to hear a little story about the wine like, “This Pinot Noir pairs fantastically with our red snapper special” or “You know, the owner tried this wine Upstate and just had to have it available here by the glass.”)
We, the customers, should count on red wines to be served at room temperature not straight from a cooler except on the occasion when the wine demands otherwise (as in a Lambrusco which is desirable with a little chill to it plus the refrigeration helps to sustain the effervescence.)
Our glasses should be spotless and our server’s fingers should never wander above the stem. Our pour should be about 5 ounces in a respectable goblet, something with a decent amount of air space above the liquid for swirling and savoring the whole sipping experience. And whether the portion is dispensed from a small carafe parked on the table, our 6-ounce or 13 ½-ounce Libby-brand wine goblet shouldn’t be filled to the brim. Prices for a shorter pour should be adjusted accordingly.
We expect a reasonable variety of wines by the glass ideally written on a menu that is updated constantly in an establishment charging more than $12 an average entrée. Reasonable, in my opinion, means at least four wines by the glass. Depending on the cuisine of the establishment that could be two whites of different brands (or a white plus a bubbly or rose) and two reds of different brands.
Now I am not asking for any laws to be passed on regulating the wine-by-the-glass matter. Nor am I suggesting that the Department of Health start issuing fines and summonses for oenophile offenses. I ask only that the little bit of wine in the glass be treated with a lot more care and, in turn, we, the customers, will appreciate the respect.