Once again, why Americans don’t drink more wine

restaurant wine problemsThe Wine Curmudgeon was traveling, and stopped at a major U.S. chain restaurant that will remain nameless to protect its identity. (OK, it was Chili’s.)

One of the group wanted a glass of wine, and ordered the Australian chardonnay that was on the list. And Chili’s does have a wine list — not great, but not awful, either. The wines are professional, and shouldn’t embarrass anyone. Barefoot, even. And, in fact, this post isn’t about the quality of the wine list. Or that the chardonnay, which retails for about $5 a bottle, cost $6 a glass. One deals with what one can get.

Rather, it’s about how too many restaurants — even ones that spend millions of dollars on server training — don’t have any idea what they’re supposed to do with wine. The chardonnay took 20 minutes to arrive at the table, which was bad enough. How hard is it to walk to the bar, pour a glass of wine, and bring it back to the table? More, after the jump:

But that wasn’t the real problem. When the wine did arrive, it was oxidized; obviously, the bottle had been open for a considerable period of time, and the wine had started to turn. It no longer tasted especially like chardonnay, but like bad sherry, with burnt wood and caramel flavors. Oxidized wine is very common at restaurants like Chili’s, because the bar staff sometimes opens the wine at the beginning of the shift (or even at the end of the shift the night before) so they don’t have the “inconvenience” of opening a bottle when they’re busy. This practice, though it saves time, ruins the wine.

Which the restaurants don’t seem to care about. Yet ask them if they would do this to beer, and they’d look at you as if you were crazy. It would ruin the beer, they would say — and completely miss the irony.

So how does this affect how Americans approach wine? Assume that this wine was served to consumers, say those bright, young happy people in the Chili’s TV commercials (who aren’t wine geeks who know oxidation). What happens when one of them tastes the wine, and gets burnt wood flavors instead of green apples? Or when he or she shares a taste with someone at the table?

The reaction is predictable: “Ooooo.. gross.” “That’s disgusting.” “How can you drink that?” And then they order a beer or a margarita and we lose another wine drinker forever, because they’re convinced that all wine tastes like burnt wood. Given that experience, who can blame them?

Why can’t more chain restaurants be like Olive Garden?

8 thoughts on “Once again, why Americans don’t drink more wine

  • By Steve -

    OK, so Chili’s is not an effective embassador to wine – or responsible custodian of its reputation in America. That shouldn’t come as a shocker – it’s not like they are tireless caretakers of fresh American gastronomy, either.
    I agree that in a Utopian society every place that sold wine here would also store, market, serve, and otherwise represented it with integrity and reverence. But that’s why traveling to Italy is so rewarding. Here in the barbarian US of A, we prefer to reserve those values for doughnuts, hollow politicians, and tangoing celebrities.
    Seriously, though, what were you doing in a Chili’s to begin with?!

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Hey, sometimes Chili’s is the best one can do.
    The thing that makes me crazy, and I don’t know that I emphasized it enough in the post, is that restaurants handle their wine inventory so differently from the rest of their inventory. Would they leave chickens out on the counter? Of course not. But for whatever reason, it’s fine to treat wine that way. And the thing is, no restaurant type that I have ever asked about this has a good reason for this behavior.

  • By Winerackstore -

    Hey we love your commentary. I concur with you about wine being poorly stored and served at “fast food” restaurants. Their job is to get you in and out asap, so that your table is occupied asap. Just a fact of life. Consumption of a beer would be I believe much faster than a typical wine. Not a whole lot of “shotgunning” of wine goes on. It is probably a missed profit opportunity by the restaurants. However, I go back to that they want to see guest rotation go maximized. We do provide many wine racks to restaurants and many more all the time, as they search for additional income. However these are not chains typically, rather they are mom and pop restaurants looking to increase their income per guest and not just trying to increase the number of guests. Thanks for the opportunity to comment on your good article. Mike Kitson President http://www.WineRackStore.com

  • By Ron Saikowski -

    Besides wine being improperly stored and served, it is outrageously priced. Restaurants think they can take the retail price of a full 750 ML bottle and charge 110% of that cost for a glass of just under 5 ozs. so they will pour 5 glasses out of one 750 ML bottle.If you want to turn wine around in a restaurant, follow the ways of Olive Garden in marketing, store it properly,serve it promptly in clean glassware, and PRICE it reasonably so the price you pay for a glass of vino does not exceed the cost of your Entre’.

  • By MacDaddy Marc Hinton -

    In my time as chef with Back Bay restaurant group,Kimpton Group and the 10 independent restaurants I have opened we always stored wines on metro shelving cases laid on the side, at 65F and a decent humidity, sorry Mike K. As for having to go with what you can get, are you not allowed to bring a bottle of wine into a restaurant in Texas? If you can bring a bottle for the price of two glasses of Barefoot you could of had Rodney Strong, Cambria, Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay. If it’s true that sometimes Chili’s is the best you can do, There are 49 other states you could move to.
    Chili’s went out of business in my neighborhood because no one would support it. With any luck Olive Garden will be next. Oh yeah you could have asked when was the bottle was opened or demanded they bring a fresh bottle and open it in front of you. Not considered inappropriate behavior anytime you think a wine by the glass is funky. Education not provocation!

  • By Independent -

    I won’t comment (much), on the issue of whether any self respecting foodie would ever be caught in a Chilis, Applebies, TGIF, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Outback, or other similar chains. But, I will mention something that a couple of my wine industry friends talk about a lot. They say that until restaurant managers across the US start seeing steady streams of customers willing to pay a $15/btl corkage fee to bring their own, rather than settle for the overpriced, oxidized, lowest common denominator swill that nothing will change. The reality is that most people do wind up settling for less than, or they just opt for a beer, knowing that it’s galling to pay $6-$8 for mishandled bad wine.
    And, I’ve got to say you hit the mark when you talk of people being turned off to wine based on these types of bad experiences.

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Thanks, everyone, for the intelligent and well thought out comments. And it’s always a pleasure to have an award winner like Mac Daddy commenting on the blog.
    But this post isn’t about me or Texas’ wine laws or where I eat dinner when I’m on the road or the local food movement. And maybe I should have made that more clear.
    It’s about what happens when Americans who aren’t wine drinkers, which is most of the country, go to a restaurant chain that does $4 billion annually in sales and gets wine that is spoiled. They don’t know what wine is supposed to taste like. They don’t know they’re supposed to send it back. All they know, after tasting the wine, is that wine tastes terrible and they don’t want to drink it. And then, sadly, they assume all wine tastes that way.
    Which is yet another reason why we’re not a wine drinking country and why we have so far to go to become wine.

  • By BillinBigD -

    I think complaining about anything at a place like Chili’s is ridiculous. Old saying: You can always get worse for less.

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