Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Palate or Yours?

Been dining in high end and casual places recently, and got the waiters’ wine opinions in both. On Friday night at the upscale Highlawn Pavilion, I ordered the Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay. The waitress, a lovely woman—do actresses wait tables in Jersey, too?—declared it her favorite wine. But as we talked, it became clear that she was thinking about Chalk Hill, the winery, not Chalk Hill, the Sonoma appellation. I liked the waitress, but I started to wonder about waiters offering opinions about wine.
Next night I was in New Brunswick, home to my alma mater Rutgers University. I dined with fellow alums at a local fave: Old Man Rafferty’s. This hang-out has been going strong for decades. It was more of a sandwich place at first, but my college pals always loved it because it stocks seriously good desserts. Over the years the space and the menu expanded and now the entrees, especially the specials, get pretty fancy.
My girlfriends assigned me the task of wine selection. Since we were ordering a variety of mains, from crabcakes to filet mignon, I honed in on the Pinots. I ordered the Laboure Roi Les Sangliers Pinot Noir Reserve 2006. The waiter, who seemed young enough to still hang around the frat house, excitedly told me, “I think you should order the Castle Rock. It’s great and it’s the same price.” I paused, taking this in. I asked him, “Why is it great?” He replied, still enthusiastic, “It just is.” I smiled and told him I’d love to try it another time, but tonight I wanted the French. He was crestfallen and mumbled something about “All the bartenders agree with me.”
In truth, I had never tried either wine. But I had been to France a couple times this year and felt pretty safe ordering the Laboure Roi. Later at home, I googled the Castle Rock, and based on limited online reviews, it did seem interesting, so maybe I will pick up a bottle to compare.
There were a few ideas that hit me after these dinners. Number one is obvious: everyone has a different palate. Maybe our youthful waiter likes a lot of oak in wine or maybe he hates oak. I have the feeling he couldn’t tell me one way or another, because, like most of the world, he doesn’t know when he’s tasting oak in wine. Lacking a wine vocabulary, most people are reduced to adjectives like “good,” which tell you everything about their judgment and nothing about the wine’s taste. So, listen up wait staff. If you can give me real information about a wine--“This Chardonnay was aged in stainless steel,” or "this Shiraz has huge tannins"-- then I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say. If you're just going to give me your opinion, then forgive me for ordering the wine I want instead of the wine you like.


  1. Give those snooty and ignorant waiters heck, DI-ane!

  2. Got here from OWC, so ring up a success for that connection.

    Interesting post. I have always been skeptical about wait staff giving recommendations, especially at casual restaurants. It is not easy to match your palate with another person's.

    Then again, most customers couldn't give a better answer than "it just is" either.

  3. You're right, most customers can't talk the talk either.
    The following week I asked a waiter if their Reisling was sweet and he emphatically said "Yes." When I said I didn't want it then, he offered an alternative dry wine. So, it was nice to have a waiter who knew his stuff.
    Thanks for visiting. I am getting traffic from OWC, which has been just great.