Traditionally in haute cuisine wine service, a waiter refills wine glasses, and the diners never need sully their hands on the bottle.
But traditional haute cuisine service is just about dead. Instead, the main reason servers refill glasses today is to get the bottle off the table and encourage you to buy another one.
I spend many meals in fine restaurants these days trying to play defense against every passing server topping off a glass I don’t want refilled. Let my guard down for a second — laugh at a friend’s joke — and suddenly I have a full glass I didn’t want.
Perhaps I’m unkind to think servers are only looking for a 20% tip on a second bottle. Many are just trying to do a job.
But servers can’t keep track of each diner’s individual needs, nor do I want to give them a rundown of our personal situations each time we sit down.
Example: My wife is a lightweight. She should only drink one glass, but if you repour, she might drink too much, which she will regret. My friends drove here and one of them must drive home. They don’t have an agreement ahead of time, so one of them usually takes the lead after one glass and says, “That’s enough, I’ll drive.” But what if both have a full second glass in front of them? And as for me, I only drink a lot of wine that I love. I usually have either one small glass or most of the bottle. But I don’t want to reduce my companions’ enjoyment by admitting that I don’t love the wine.
Got all that? I didn’t think so. Then why are you refilling our glasses?
As you can see from the examples above, servers shouldn’t refill wine glasses for health and safety reasons. It’s much easier to exercise will power while the wine is still in the bottle. Few people like to leave a glass full of wine on the table, particularly if it’s expensive, even if that’s the best course of action.
In my case, believe it or not, I often would rather have the kitchen staff enjoy half the bottle than see it sit undrunk in our glasses.
Also, a table of wine lovers likes to keep the bottle in sight, to hold and read the label, or just because we’re enjoying it. I can’t stand it when staff at some formal-service restaurant keeps whisking away a bottle I’m paying for.
I don’t want to make your job harder; I want to make it easier. Open the wine and leave it with us. If an ice bucket is needed, leave it beside the table.
But please, you can’t possibly pour for us with the same intimate knowledge of our individual needs as we can. So don’t even try. In this case, inaction may be better rewarded.
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Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.