So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Object lessons and the value of arcana

You know how I’m always throwing weird stuff your way? Information that you may never need as a waiter?

Well, you never know when that little bit of weird info might be useful sometime.

But, sometimes it doesn’t even help if you’re not nimble on your feet and you just can’t add 2 plus 2 and come up with 4 after multiplying by 2 and dividing by two. That’s what happened to me tonight and it should be an object lesson to everyone to try and stay mentally quick and try to always think outside the box and put information that you have gleaned in your career to good use, even if you have to do a few mental gymnastics.

No, it’s not nearly as earth shattering as I’ve made it out to be. But it’s a good teaching tool.

The host of the 10 top I was was waiting on had ordered several bottles of wine when he got to the Cabernets. He started to mention Meritages and excluded a certain one as a Meritage, even though he didn’t know the bottle and it was in our “Cabernet and Blends” section, which only calls a Meritage a Meritage when it’s labeled a Meritage.

Perhaps I should digress at this point for those of you who haven’t delved really deeply into wines yet. 

Meritage (pronounced MER – i- tijz, not mer-i – TAJZ, as some people pronounce it) is basically a marketing term for a California Bordeaux blend. As in Bordeaux, it can actually be a blend of varying percentages of the following big five Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec (there are a couple of other minor blending grapes that can be used as well). There are certain percentage guidelines that have to be met and, most importantly, to call your wine a Meritage, you must pay a licensing fee to The Meritage Alliance to use the term, as it’s a proprietary term bound by certain quality guidelines (and of course, the payment of the fee).

Hence, there are plenty of wines that are actually Meritage-esque blends but don’t call themeselves Meritage because they either don’t want to comply with the strict guidelines or they don’t want to pay the fee.

So, when he started talking about Meritage, I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to avoid it or get it; he had already ordered 4 different wines at that point and this was right after they sat down, so I hadn’t really had a chance to read him yet. At this point, he pointed to one of the wines on the list and said, “I guess this isn’t a Meritage here”.

Well, I didn’t know the wine, but, of course I knew that it might very well be a Meritage-style wine for all I knew. And, I know a bit about wines but I couldn’t give him a definitive answer because I just didn’t know for sure about this particular one (I knew that we had 3 Meritage-designated wines in the category, but I also knew that we had a couple of wines that would be comparable to a Meritage). He pointed again to it and said, “Well, see, it can’t be a Meritage”.

Once again, knowing lots about wine, I shrugged again and said, “Well sir, I just don’t know for sure since there are some wines that are the same as a Meritage blend but can’t call themselves Meritage…blah, blah, blah”.

Once again, he pointed to it and said, “But I really can’t be one, can it”? He then said, “I’ll get it” before I could respond.

As I’m walking to the register, it finally dawned on me as I looked down for the VIN number so I could punch it in.

He wasn’t pointing at the Vintner name, he was pointing at the SINGLE VINEYARD NAME.

Ahhhh, so THAT’S the point that he was making. He must have thought I was a real blockhead.  And I was.

Don’t get me wrong – believe it or not, there are some single vineyard Meritages. But they are few and far between because that single vineyard has to be planted with some of the Meritage varietals. Technically, if I had followed his train of thought, I could have shown myself to be the big expert that I’m not, but that would have meant that I would have had to be able to follow his chain of logic.

I didn’t even make the connection that my guest made, although he was a little confused about the regs. When I brought the wine to the table for presentation, I said, “I get what you were saying”. He said, “Yes, 85% of the wine has to be Cabernet because of the single vineyard designation”, although when I just checked, it seems that it’s actually 95%.  And then there’s the complication that there are different ways to designate single vineyards. The concept of a Meritage and a single vineyard designation would seem to be at odds as a Meritage can’t have more than 90% of a single varietal. Since there is the rare wine that is both “Meritage-approved” and single vineyard, there is obviously some wiggle room. So, had he been correct about the percentage needed to be labels with a single vineyard name, a Meritage could have conceivably been made because the percentage wouldn’t have exceeded 90%.

But I’m sort of getting away from my main points.

First (and in no particular order of importance) – there is always someone who knows more about wine than you do. And, if that person seems to be your customer, take your cues from them. Don’t try to one-up them with your knowledge.

Second – prepare with as much wine knowledge as you can muster, but you must be prepared to connect the dots, even when the connection is hard to make. It’s not always obvious. I certainly found this out myself.

Third – when you are the lucky recipient of an object lesson, take it to heart and learn from it.

Fourth – wine regulations and labeling aren’t always cut and dried. Sometimes there are mazes to negotiate. but the more knowledge you have, the better. For instance, the novice usually thinks of Bordeaux as Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab blends. However, “right bank” Bordeaux wines emphasize Merlot to a great extent, to the point where the famed Petrus, generally the most expensive Bordeaux  available, is almost 100% Merlot and has no Cabernet Sauvignon at all. If you only get the “wine talking points” from an occasional wine training session, you probably wouldn’t know this and you can embarrass yourself in front of a wine geek guest if you’re not careful. This is why it’s so important to assemble as many facts about food and wine as you can – you want to be able to educate the guest if necessary, but you also want to avoid embarrassment whenever possible. Here’s the rub though – it’s helpful to actually be able to think beyond the linear. sometimes you have to get from A to C by going to D and then backtracking to B before you finally get to C. I failed at that sort of thinking. Hopefully, my failure will help you think outside the box.

Here’s an example of a single vineyard wine.

3 responses to “Object lessons and the value of arcana

  1. nativenapkin February 3, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Fifth: Be smart enough not to give your guests a wine smackdown even though you really want to; even if they are idiots, but think they know what they’re talking about, and butcher the pronunciation on French AOC’s.

    • teleburst February 3, 2010 at 9:11 am

      Agreed. Especially if your French is as bad as mine!

      About the only thing you might do (and I’ve done) is pronounce it correctly when repeating it back. But when you do it it, you do it in the most neutral fashion possible and avoid any tone of “Are you a fucking idiot? THIS is how you pronounce Petrus”. Of course, not ever having worked in a restaurant with Petrus on the list, this is an example that has no real-world relevance to me.

  2. waiterextraordinaire February 3, 2010 at 10:03 am

    There is so much to know about wines. Unless you are constantly delving into the books which I don’t there is always something new we can learn and sometimes it is from the guest.

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