How restaurants ruin your wine

Featured Posts, The Wine Experience, Wine — By KF Louis on November 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm

The newly opened St. Vincent just rocked my world.  It’s a restaurant started by David Lynch, whose forte is wine (former sommelier for Babbo and Quince).  It has one of the best medium-sized lists I have ever seen, and meanwhile, the food is humbly amazing.

But walking out of there Saturday night, I realized my discontent with most restaurant wine.  The reason?  Because I’m usually ordering down on quality to compensate for paying 2-3x retail and the wine is often served poorly.

A surprising number of restaurants that should know better are lazy and most customers don’t speak up.  So they routinely serve our wines too hot or too cold and with not enough time to breathe. And then there is junky stemware.  These tactics are plenty enough to knock down an A-grade wine  to a B or worse.

So here is my take on the three biggest faults restaurants make with our wine and some guidance on how it should be served, ideally:

Temperature. The other day I heard Steve Bearden, Bordeaux buyer at K&L Wines, say that he rarely buys wine at a restaurant.  Although I’ve heard this same comment from other wine experts, I was particularly surprised by his single reason:  temperature. Wines in most restaurants come to the table at one of two extremes, either reds served above 70 degrees and whites come right out of the cooler at 42.  In order to control it, Bearden brings his own bottle to the door at what he believes to be the ideal temperature.  Although sometimes you can’t control what lands on your table at a restaurant, you can control the temperature of the wine you serve at home.  Check out the great chart from to see what is the appropriate temperature for each wine you serve and approximately how long it takes to chill them.

Breathing. Almost all wines will benefit from 15 minutes of breathing…and there are untold hundreds such as a 2010 Napa Cabernet that need a few hours.  Air exposure helps to soften the tannins and alcohol impact of a wine and also helps pull out the fruit flavors.  Most people assume that only big, bold red wines need breathing time, but in reality there are whites that benefit as well.  Rather than write a treatise on the subject, I’ll pass along a few quick rules of thumb.  Whites less than 4 years old:  15-30 minutes of breathing before serving.  Rich and bold reds:  at least an hour.  There are two ways to do this right— just opening the bottle may not be enough.  First, pour the bottle into a decanter or other large vase-like container with adequate air flow/exposure. If you don’t have a decanter, you can pour the bottle into glassware for breathing.  If you give yourself 6-8 inches of pour space between the bottle and the glass, the pouring action itself also works to aerate the wine.

Glassware. I mentioned in a previous post that glassware is a vital element to wine enjoyment.  Restaurants in big cities are getting better on this front, but still too many are using inappropriate glassware to serve a $20 bottle of wine.  Thick edged glassware (made of common glass), or worse yet, common table glasses, do nothing to showcase the wine you are drinking.  Personally, I prefer Riedel and Spieglau glasses, but it is important to look for thin-edged bowls that are usually made of crystal.  The bottom line on glasses and restaurants is — a good wine program usually assumes good stemware.  I definitely notice the ones who have the good stuff and am likely to buy higher-ticket wine when they do.

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