I’ve had plenty of terrible restaurant experiences, but never while I was sitting at a wine bar. It might be the sense of camaraderie that comes with dining at the bar; formality dissolves, complete strangers strike up conversations, and most importantly, the sommelier is in the mood to talk.
Years ago, I struck up a conversation with the sommelier working the wine bar, and since he was in a jolly mood, he offered me a free glass of thick, ultra-concentrated Spanish Oloroso, telling me the complicated story about how he found it. Had I chosen a table instead, I would have missed out on an opportunity to try an unusual wine. Every serious wine collector should try sitting at the wine bar now and then, because it offers some amazing perks.
Get to Know the Sommelier or Bartender
Some restaurants hire both sommeliers and bartenders; the sommeliers usually stick with wine recommendations in the dining room, while the bartender handles wine and cocktails up front. However, I’ve found that even when a restaurant has both a sommelier and a bartender, the sommelier tends to hang around the bar when they’re not actively making their rounds. In these instances, starting a conversation with the sommelier is as simple as saying hello. Some restaurants only hire sommeliers, not bartenders, and the sommeliers take turns working the bar every week. In these cases, they’ll be busier, so you’ll want to avoid monopolizing their time.
Sommeliers are one of the types of people every collector should know, and when you sit at the bar, you have much greater access to them. At a table, you’d be lucky to strike up a long conversation with the staff because they’re busy serving other tables. At the bar, your sommelier isn’t as rushed, and it’s easier to talk about the latest Bordeaux vintages while he cleans a set of glasses, or opens a few new bottles. If the bar is worked by a bartender rather than a sommelier, I’ve found the sommelier still tends to gravitate there when he’s not busy, so you should feel free to approach him.
The best way to get personal attention from the sommelier is to:
- Visit the restaurant at odd hours. I always call ahead, or ask one of the staff members which days and times of the week are less busy. A calm sommelier translates into more wine recommendations (and chitchat) for you.
- Sit as close as possible to the sommelier. Sommeliers don’t have eyes on the back of their heads, so don’t expect them to see you if you’re sitting in the far corner.
- Have at least one order ready. Take some time to look through the wine list. While you’ll want the sommelier to make some selections for you, it helps to show the sommelier what kind of wine typically catches your eye, then follow-up by talking about that wine and why you enjoyed it. From there, you can ask for his or her picks.
- Make eye contact when you’re ready to order. Sticking your nose in the menu or gazing at your shoes will make your sommelier think you’re still deciding. Use polite, friendly body language to make it clear you’re in the mood for a drink.
- Wait for a lull. Your sommelier won’t want to chat with you about 2015 Lafite the moment you sit at the bar. Take five or 10 minutes to watch them work, and wait for a quiet, calm moment, like while the sommelier is cleaning up, to pick their brain.
Opt for Speedy Service and Smaller Pours
You usually get faster service (when it comes to wine) at a wine bar than you would at a table because you’re close to the sommelier. When I sit at a dining table in one of my favorite restaurants, I can expect to be finished with my meal in about an hour and a half, and get two full glasses of wine. However, when I sit at the same restaurant’s bar, I’m usually finished in under an hour, and I’ve drunk tiny samples of as many as a dozen wines. It might not seem like speed is a factor when you’re tasting wine, since you want to savor the experience, but I’ve found that if you’re in a restaurant to explore the wine list, you’ll want to try small tastes of as many of the options as you can, rather than sampling just two full glasses every time you visit. Make it clear from the beginning that you’re looking to try a full flight of wines, not nurse the same bottle all night. Most sommeliers will be accommodating.
Keep an Eye Open for Damage or Hidden Bottles
Finally, my number one tip for collectors looking to make the most out of wine bar dining is to take a long look at the wine on the shelves. A little while ago, I went to a restaurant that had amazing food, so I decided to attend their special wine tasting event later that week. To my horror, hundreds of bottles were being stored upright in a semi-open building, which was easily 85 degrees inside. Had I not visited the bar, I wouldn’t have seen the poor condition of their bottles, and I might even have purchased a cooked wine. See whether the wine is being stored professionally, and ask about bottles that catch your eye. I’ve been to restaurants that have massive bottle libraries with staircases and ladders to reach the uppermost shelves. Ask if you can take a peek at the top shelves, or be on the watch for the restaurant’s most dust-covered vintage. You might make a rare, unexpected find.
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