Bait and switch: When a wine list becomes irrelevant

Dear sommeliers,

Without you, we wine drinkers are nothing. Trips to restaurants, banquet dinners, sojourns to the private members’ club for a swift one; without a sommelier, we’d all probably be drinking Gallo. So we’re grateful for your expertise.

And grateful we are, too, for your attempts to write long wine lists covering wine possibility and probability. Grateful, because you know we love choice, even if it the dizzying array of options paralyses us.

But can I impart some advice?

We’re less grateful, I’m afraid, for the lack a helpful description of what we’re ordering when we don’t have your assistance at the table. You know, those times when we’re at banquets and someone has thrust the wine list in our hands and all we see – thanks to the fog caused by several previous glasses of wine – is a list of wines but nothing that actually stands out as a winner.

What can we expect from that generic Napa cabernet sauvignon nobody’s ever heard of? Dark fruits and leather or a thin and putrid Northern Californian slurry?

Given the likely mark-up from the retail price (ahem) I’m tending towards the latter rather than the former. But that’s just a guess, since I have nothing to go on.

Less grateful we are, again, when ordering a bottle becomes a game of vintage pot luck.

Oh sommeliers. It isn’t your fault; it’s probably the waiter who was assigned to my table.

I appreciate it isn’t always easy to maintain stock of a single vintage at all times. And sometimes it is necessary to list more than one vintage of the same wine because one is likely to run out. But perhaps if this is the case, laminating the wine list was a bad idea.

The other week at a banquet at the Park Lane Hilton in London it was vintage roulette (or bait and switch) when ordering wine. The offending bottle here was the modest Chateau Lamothe-Cissac Vielles Vignes. The kicker, it was listed as “2004/05”.

Ah, I thought, this will be interesting.

What arrived at the table was a 2002. Given the state of everyone else having dinner that night, I was probably the only one who noticed.