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Wine service winners

Props for those who pour properly

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A couple of weeks ago on our Omnivore blog, I posted a rant about the terrible wine service I’ve received recently, and over the years in Atlanta. It’s a topic I’ve found increasingly frustrating because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the quality of wine service in this city. High-end restaurants in Atlanta often employ servers who don’t understand wine service basics. There are plenty of less expensive restaurants, however, that have some of the best service around.

My post garnered a lot of responses. Many agreed that Atlanta lacks in this particular area, and quite a few readers called out places that excel at wine service. I like the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, so I set out last week to find the places that are doing it right, and to understand how they do it.

First let me be clear about what constitutes good wine service. There are two main components, as well as a fair amount of etiquette. The first requirement is obvious — a restaurant must have a good list. By “good,” I don’t mean long or expensive or daunting. I mean, it must have interesting wines in a variety of prices (although interesting wines that are all cheap is fine by me as well). What’s interesting to me may not be interesting to you, so a variety of tastes must be represented. Mass-produced wines that can be found on any supermarket shelf or chain restaurant wine list are not interesting. For a wine list to be really good it must teach me something, show me something new, delight me with its unexpected gems.

An outstanding wine list is only possible with a sommelier, owner, chef, or manager who knows wine and is willing to put in the time and effort to create something unique. Having worked with distributors to create a restaurant’s wine list, I can tell you that it’s fun but hard work. You must sit through hours of tastings. You must resist sales pitches. You must fight for quality over easy sales, seek out smaller, more boutique distributors, and think of everything, from food pairings to profit margins. Too many restaurants rely on the main distributors to tell them what’ll sell, and we end with lists full of the same old California chardonnays and cabs.

The second requirement is an educated staff. This is the heart of Atlanta's problem. Restaurants go to the trouble of putting together a decent list, but without someone eduated on the floor, many customers miss out. It’s hard to assign blame here — both the waiters and the restaurants are at fault. Restaurant management should make a concerted effort to educate servers, and servers should take it upon themselves, even if the restaurant doesn’t make that effort, to learn the list as best they can.

The most baffling thing for me about this issue is that savvy wine service benefits the waiter and the restaurant more than the consumer. Wine is the moneymaker for most establishments and waiters. It raises the tickets and tips on meals, and has a hugely higher profit margin than food, so why not know how to sell it?

Etiquette is important, and truthfully I’m not that picky. Whether you present the cork with a flourish or serve from the correct side matters little. But offer a taste, even if it’s a second bottle of the same wine. And offer the taste to the person who ordered, even if it’s a woman and there’s an important looking dude at the table as well.

Knowing how to talk about wine is both education and etiquette – you want to give information, but too often it’s given in a condescending tone. It’s a fine line to walk, especially when, as a server, you get the feeling the patron may not enjoy what she's ordered. I’m never offended by a “Are you familiar with that type of wine?” as much as I am by a lecture about something I'm already familiar with.

So, who in town has all this stuff down? There are a lot of great wine lists, and a somewhat smaller number of places that have wine service to match. I'm consistently impressed with the wine program at Repast. The restaurant’s monthly featured region is pure heaven for wine geeks. But the best thing about Repast’s wine program is the obvious attention given to educating the servers. They're well-versed about the entire list, and present the information in a smart, non-snobbish manner.

Top Flr’s list always contains something unexpected and intriguing. I’ve had in-depth conversations with servers and bartenders there about the merits of different wines. I recently came across a bartender late one evening who didn’t seem as familiar, but who was happy to pour me tastes of whatever I was interested in. That works.

At Ecco, waiters obviously have a grasp on the long, varied list, and are able to make informative recommendations without a lecturing overtone. Likewise, the small, eclectic Italian list at La Pietra Cucina is fully understood and discussed with authority by the staff there.

I often find that the more engaged a chef is with the diners, the more likely you are to get great wine service. Chef-owned and operated restaurants frequently do far better with wine, usually because the chef cares and wants his staff and customers to follow suit. That’s certainly true at Cakes and Ale in Decatur, where chef Billy Allin and barkeep Corina Darold are both happy to muse over the short but smart list.

This is also the case at Social, which is one of the city's most underrated spots for both food and wine. You’re likely to find one of the owners or a member of the passionate service staff behind the bar, eager to talk about regions and grape varietals, and pour tastes of wines from underrepresented countries, such as Greece. This is one place where everything is inexpensive. And they make a mean sangria as well.

Of course, there are other restaurants with great lists and great service — there’s no way to name them all here. But I wanted to give accolades to the places I’ve seen excel in this area recently. I hope that attention to wine, both on the variety and quality fronts and the service front, is Atlanta’s next culinary great leap forward.

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