Wine Whine: What Does "Not Too Expensive" Mean to You? How About to Your Sommelier?

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Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 9:00 AM
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Last week I had a frustrating service experience with a sommelier at one of L.A.'s most highly regarded restaurants. It's something that has happened to me before, and it has to do with what "not too expensive" means to different people.

Here's the scenario: When presented with a giant wine list, my tablemates and I decide to ask the server for some wine recommendations. He listens to our parameters (what we're planning to eat, what types of wine we enjoy and what price range we're considering) and suggests we speak to the sommelier. The sommelier arrives and I repeat our parameters, ending with, "We'll probably have one bottle and a couple of glasses of something else, and we don't want to spend a ton of money."

The wine list in question was huge but not prohibitively expensive overall. Sure, there were bottles in the $500-plus range, but also plenty in the under-$50 range.

The sommelier launched into a reverie about a couple of different bottles. She didn't mention the price on any of them. She also recommended a couple of glasses of wine to pair with certain courses. We trusted her and went with her choices. Between three of us, we ended up buying one bottle and three glasses of wine.

It bothered me a little that she hadn't mentioned any prices, and I asked my tablemates what they thought a reasonable price would be for the bottle given that I had requested it not be too expensive and given that she hadn't mentioned price. We agreed that around $65 was a fair top price under the circumstances. We didn't even think about the three glasses -- I didn't really consider that they would be hugely expensive.

When the bill came, the bottle of wine was just over $100. One glass of wine was $18, one was $26 and one was $30.

There are certainly ways I could have avoided paying almost $200 for wine. I could have chosen on my own, without the help of the sommelier. I could have (and probably should have) specified a dollar amount we were looking to spend. I could have asked to see which wines she was referring to on the list as she recommended them. I could have asked her how much they were -- a vaguely humiliating thing to have to do, but I guess not $200 worth of humiliating.

But seeing as we were putting ourselves in her hands, a professional, I think she should have either recommended more affordable wines or mentioned the price along with the glowing descriptions. And honestly -- while a $110 bottle might seem "not too expensive" to many people (I guess?), $30 is a lot to pay for a glass of wine, simply because it is three times more than the average cost of a glass pour.

But more than anything, the situation bothered me because it cemented the idea that only big spenders deserve the attention of the sommelier in a dining room. That's a notion that many wine and food writers, as well as many wine professionals, have been looking to dispel for years. The takeaway is that if you're going to ask about wine and be enthusiastic about it, you ought to be willing to shell out (a lot) for it. That or my definition of "not too expensive" is way off, and I'm too poor to be asking. Either way, I learned my lesson: Drink somewhere else.

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