Predator Sommeliers

By Craig Camp
Friday, August 1, 2003

THE RESTAURANT was elegant and deservedly famous. My large group arrived almost as one and we were ushered to our table by the overly gushing maitre d'. Almost at once the owner arrived and deposited himself at our table, obviously pleased by the presence of several winemaking celebrities in our group. It was a typical business dinner in the wine trade. I was starting to get paranoid and could feel my American Express card starting to twitch excitedly in my wallet. The sommelier soon arrived at the table and the look in his eyes would have scared my accountant to death.

"I would be pleased to select your wines for the evening," said the sommelier.

"Great," responded everyone in our group except me.

My AmEx card was champing at the bit so hard now that I could barely stay seated.

"Perfect," oozed the owner. "I'll have the chef make you a special menu."

"Wonderful," shouted my guests whose charge cards where safely hibernating in their wallets.

The sommelier returned to our table with a dusty bottle. "Here is a real treat for you," cooed the sommelier. "This is the only bottle they had available in the auction, but the other bidders gave up when they saw we were determined to have it at any cost."

This was the climax for my American Express card and I felt an intense pain in my . . .

Then I woke up with my heart pounding fast and a gripped by a cold feeling of fear. It was only a nightmare, even if one through which I'd lived repeatedly.

(music slowly raises in the background - the theme from Jaws)

Yes I had been there face to face with that most fearsome of creatures: the predator sommelier.

The predator sommelier is a deadly hunter with a keen sense of smell that can discern gold, platinum, and black cards from the dining room's remotest regions. Their natural habitats are over-decorated dining rooms with big reputations, outrageous prices, and food that makes you expect Louis XIV's imminent arrival. They are a species closely related to the predator captain and the predator waiter, but are more vicious because of their exceptional speed. A master predator sommelier can kill an expense account in a matter of seconds; while it takes a predator waiter's an evening's toil to draw a tenth as much blood.

Scientists have been unable to determine how the benign non-predatory sommelier becomes a predator sommelier, but there are several theories. One study pointed to daily exposure to foie gras. Another study by a well known psychiatrist blamed extended exposure to snobby customers begging to be looted. This last study was recently questioned when it was discovered that the good doctor had been sold a bottle of 1972 Petrus for $600.00 in a famously stuffy French restaurant the evening before he proposed his theory.

Before there are too many howls of protest, please read the following disclaimer: The vast majority of sommeliers are honest, hardworking people who take great pleasure in discovering exciting wines that are great values and in passing those wines and values on to their customers. It is their passion to share their knowledge with their clients.

This does not negate the fact that there still are plenty of predator sommeliers, waiters, and restaurateurs out there who approach their customers with the same love and respect that P.T. Barnum had for his patrons.

The predator sommeliers weapon of choice? His victim's dining companions.

The strategies are simple, but effective. The sommelier arrives at the table with a bottle already in hand. After a short but lovely story about the wine, the sommelier asks if you are interested. The host does a quick survey of the delighted faces of his guests and agrees without knowing the price. Quick as a wink the $170.00 bottle of Chablis is in the Riedels. However, there is just a bare taste for the host when the sommelier arrives back to her glass.

"Would you like a second bottle," he asks the host with a pleased grin?

A European wants to try an American red and asks the sommelier for a zinfandel recommendation. With enthusiasm the sommelier raves about a new zinfandel that has just arrived, but it's not on the list and would he like to try it. Glancing at his now drooling guests he orders the bottle. Though no one mentions a price, the zin adds a zippy $150 to the tab.

It is a simple process. The host does not want to look cheap.

The long gone Le Perroquet restaurant in Chicago had one of the most successfully organized wine selling systems I've ever seen. Everyone on the floor was a consummate wine pusher and they worked as a seamless team.

The rules of service were:

-Keep the glasses full so guests can't count the number of glasses they drink. There's no surer way to cut consumption than to let the guests know how many glasses have gone down their gullets.

-The first bottle must be emptied before the main courses arrive.

-Pour heavy on those drinking slow and light on those drinking fast.

-Use large glasses and if at all possible empty the bottle before you arrive back at the host.

-If one person at the table is considered the wine expert make sure you short pour on that glass so the expert needs to order another bottle.

-If there is one guest that is obviously into wine and the host is not, make sure that person's glass is empty while the host's glass is full.

It was a thing of beauty for a wine salesman to see them push bottles through the dining room. This type of institutionalized pack predatory behavior is far more dangerous that the occasional rogue predator sommelier.

You see many examples of this, but several stick out in my mind. In one famous restaurant there is a dedicated sommelier who seeks out unique and interesting wines which are often great values. The 400% mark-up that his restaurant's owners demand turn the otherwise civilized fellow into an unwitting predator sommelier every time he sells a bottle. It is painful to order wine there as the interesting bottles start at $100.00.

Institutional predatory behavior is amazing in its audacity. Once I was hosting a luncheon for Angelo Gaja at the Chicago location of a famous Italian restaurant group, when the manager burst into our private dining room just as our pasta course arrived and announced that white truffles had just been delivered and who, of my twenty-five guests, would like some on their pasta. As you might have guessed every hand in the room went up. When the bill arrived the manager had added $25.00 per person for the truffles. The same restaurant was famous for buying off-brand wines with famous place-names and then selling them to unsuspecting customers at outrageous prices. The waiters also approached the table as soon as you sat down and asked you if you preferred still or sparkling water while forgetting to mention they charged $6.00 a bottle for water that they would keep replacing as soon as you finished the bottle.

Why do we allow ourselves to be so readily taken? Insecurity, intimidation, and the desire to please their guests make diners easy targets for predators.

My most nerve-wracking experience occurred when I took well-respected Master Sommelier, Joe Spellman, to lunch at Alain Ducasse in Paris several years ago. Spellman not only has a great palate, but is the exact opposite of the predator breed of sommelier. As Ducasse had recently visited Charlie Trotter's, where Spellman was working at the time, we were ushered into the fabled kitchen dining room. I was excited to say the least and prepared to drop the big bucks on such a rare and exciting dining experience.

Then the sommelier arrived and announced he had selected a particular wine for each of our courses. I felt a sharp pain come from inside my wallet. For over four hours course after extraordinary course arrived at our table and with each course the sommelier would arrive and open an equally extraordinary bottle: old Salon Champagne, Grand Cru red and white Burgundy, Premier Cru Classe Bordeaux, ancient Vouvray and Sauternes . . . there was even a range of old vintages of Vega Siclia. At the end we retired to the bar for old Cognac and coffee.

This was the single greatest wine and food experience of my life. When the time came for the check to arrive I reminded myself this was a once in a lifetime event. With a deep breath I opened the check expecting to see a bill in excess of $2000.00 -- and that was for two at lunch.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I opened the bill. There was just a note saying "With our compliments," signed by Ducasse and his sommelier. The entire thing was free.

There is a God and just as I had been told: his name is Ducasse.