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Monday Manifestos
A Lesson In Tipping

By Charles Olken

I wrote a tip on Saturday night for about 67% of my share of the bill. As far as I could tell, my table mates without being prompted did the same. It took me a moment or three to come to grips with all this largesse, but it was so right that I am now privately embarrassed that I had even so much as a hint of a second thought.

In order to get to the lesson, however, I have to do a bit of name-dropping. You have rarely seen us drop even a hint of a name inside Connoisseurs’ Guide, but this just seems so right that it has to be done. You see, last Saturday night was the big Reunion—although that title is a bit odd for a group of people who actually had never met each other face to face. Rather, it was a gathering of people who have become friends because of the Internet. We are all wine people, of course, and you have probably heard of those good folks if you have been reading the wine blogs. But, even our four-hour dinner and bragfest would not be news if it were not for the wines that we brought along. That—and how the restaurant treated us.

We choose to gather at Estate, the newish restaurant just off the Plaza in Sonoma town. It is owned by the same people who have brought us Girl and The Fig, one of our favorites for many years. Girl and The Fig is a Rhône-wine directed restaurant in menu and wine list. Estate bows to Italy rather than to Provence, but, despite its somewhat fancier digs, it still has a casual, bistro/trattoria kind of feel and pricing.

There were seven us to start, eight by the end of the evening, and all of us have long-involvement in the wine industry. Tom Wark, whose blog, Fermentation, is one of the best anywhere and is considered by some to be the granddaddy of the wine blogosphere for his promotion of it was there with his fiancée, Kathy, who, it turns out is a major operative at the wonderful Failla winery. Their inclusion of a wonderful Failla bottling was appreciated because all the other reds were ancient and showed it one way or the other. Ron Washam, whose blog, The Hosemaster of Wine, has gone into retirement, was the only person at the table who had met everyone else. He was the glue that held everything together, and he was the host to our guest of the night, Samantha Dugan, whose day job is running the French wine section at the large and popular wine store, Wine Country, down Long Beach way. Sam’s blog, Samantha Sans Dosage, is one of those unique pieces of literature in which wine is the base but not the story. John Kelly from Westwood Winery, and later on, his assistant Eddie Townsend, rounded out the group.

Here, just because name-dropping is such fun are some of the other wines tasted. A couple of currently available Champagnes, non-vintage Camille Savés Brut, a rich and caramel-tinged cracker barrel of a wine was followed by a lighter and more elegant Billiot 2002 Brut. Then the reds starting coming out. Chalone 1978 Pinot Noir (a bit funky but still with that special layering that those old Chalone Pinots possessed), 1990 Chateau Fonsallette Côtes du Rhône from magnum with its mix of ripe and hazelnut scented fruit, 1996 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel also from magnum with fully mature tannins and the beginnings of claret-like layering that Zin can give at times, 1985 Stags Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that John Kelly helped make when he was at that winery and 1970 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve, now past its prime but not the least bit oxidized and promising to live another twenty years in its role as senior statesman. We ended with 1985 Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes.

Now, here is where the lesson, or several of them come in. Restaurants everywhere plan to make money on wine sales. It is part of the business plan, the structuring of the presentation, the reason for a well-constructed wine list at any restaurant worth its salt. Good wine is part of recreational dining. Folks like our group simply do not eat at restaurants whose attitude toward wine is less than respectful. We expect wide-ranging, fairly priced lists; we expect knowledgeable waitstaff and a wine steward/ sommelier who knows the list and can help even wine geeks like us navigate among wines we may not have tried recently or ever; we expect good stemware; we expect the restaurant to charge a reasonable corkage fee but to honor that fee with timely wine service.

At Estate, we never did get to explore the list. We had too much wine for that. But what we got was all of the wine service and attention that one could ever want. At one point, we ran the kitchen out of glasses as we kept opening, pouring, sampling and moving on. Never a complaint from anyone; only an apology followed very shortly thereafter by a busboy rushing over with freshly washed glasses. To say that the wine service was exactly what we wanted would be an understatement. Decanters appeared when decanters were needed. Glasses were whisked away when we were done with them, and new ones appeared as if by divine intervention.

And then the evening ended some four hours later and the bill came. The server, who had spent the entire evening feeding us and caring for all of our wine needs, announced that the restaurant was waving its corkage fees. I doubt they knew exactly how many bottles got opened in any event, but this much is true. The corkage fee, it if had been charged, would have matched or possibly exceeded the price of dinner. It became instantly clear that we had to figure out a way to honor the service provided and also to recognize that the restaurant had honored us. In the end, we each added our own tip to our portion of the bill. In my case, it amounted to some reasonable facsimile of what it would have been if we had been charged corkage plus a bit more to recognize that the waitstaff would have earned an even bigger tip if we had purchased the wine off the list.

This was not the first time that any of us had learned the lesson of tipping based on the level of service rather than the bill, but, as I noted, it still took me a second or two to mark down an amount that was two-thirds of the actual bill. Restaurants should, I think, understand that wine service comes in all kinds of forms and be ready to serve those varied needs. Estate did and its waitstaff got amply rewarded.


service, indeed
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:9/27/2010 12:45:18 PM
Hear, hear. What you guys wound up doing is exactly what needed doing. You can't measure my sadness at not being able to be there with the group. Maybe one day you will all take a trip East--at the same time.
Well done.
by Evan Dawson
Posted on:9/27/2010 5:06:59 PM
What a wonderful post, and a wonderful reminder that restaurant wine service can be outstanding. I am guilty of sharing horror stories, but sadly I fear they abound more than examples you described above. Your decision in tipping is an example of a true wine lover, generous in the presence of excellent service. Restaurants, take note!In particular, I love your description of the 40-year-old Beaulieu. Which recent Napa wines might have such an aging arc, Charlie? (In your fair and estimated guess, of course!)
good times
by John Kelly
Posted on:9/27/2010 5:23:37 PM
The only thing wrong with that dinner was that it was not longer! And with as much wine as was there perhaps a dump bucket would have been in order. Everyone buckled down and tucked in like a group of seasoned pros though. I wanted to say thanks again for the invitation to meet you cats face to face - I'd like to think we could make that an annual event. And a special thanks for the gracious acceptance of Eddie Townsend to the table toward the end of the evening. He had hoped just to drop by to put faces to names he's been hearing from me for years. The once in a lifetime opportunity for him to taste some of those great wines was much appreciated. Thomas - one day I hope to.
Old Wines, Good Times
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/27/2010 7:01:56 PM
Evan and John--One could not have asked for a better way to handle the wines. Quiet, unpretentious and attentive. As for wines that have aged like the Beaulieu 1970, I would add Ridge 68, Mayacamas 70, Heitz Martha's 74 to name some of the more outstanding bottles that are holding their own into their fourth decade. And, in an earlier blog entry, I mentioned the Heitz Marthas' 75 from magnum. I thought that wine was pretty amazing and had another 20 years of relatively alive service.
Oh What A Night
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/27/2010 9:54:40 PM
Can't comment on the tipping of this wonderful evening as not one of you jackasses would let me toss in my credit card for my share, (thank you for that you sweet adorable people...still blushing) but I could not agree more that any restaurant and server that goes out of their way to make things as comfortable as things were that night should be richly compensated for their work. If you take in to account everything they had to deal with; Saturday night in the busy season, couple large parties, a group of people with a massive amount of wine that kept opening them without the server...well, lets just say that I deserved the mild spanking I got from Ron for making a little snippy comment about the speed with which things were happening around us. Estate did an amazing job and had I been allowed to tip I would have made it very clear how happy I was with the outcome of that night. Thank you Charlie....the wines, the conversation, even the Zinfandel which I loudly admit was something that I very much enjoyed. What a night....

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