Wine and Self Assurance

Audrey I fear I'm about to say something rude or inconsiderate (at least it feels that way), but I'm compelled to say it nonetheless. So forgive me.

In perusing the cache of on-line wine media today I cam across an interesting poll being taken at "The Life of Vines" blog. The poll, which centered on what it is that makes ordering wine in a restaurant so intimidating for so many began with this introduction:

"Do you ever get that deer in the headlights feeling when you’re handed the wine list in a restaurant? You don’t get that feeling when ordering your meal or a glass of beer. What is it about wine that makes it so intimidating?"

There is no question that many folks DO feel intimidated ordering wine in a restaurant, particularly when in the midst of others they believe are wine educated and even when on their own. So, I think in this I and the writers of this poll are in agreement.

The optional answers that were given to the question of what makes ordering wine intimidating were as follows:

-I don't know enough about wine
-I'm afraid I’m overpaying
-I don’t recognize any of the names on the wine list
-The sommelier/waiter not helpful or is snobby
-I don’t know how to taste, what to do with the cork, etc

Am I wrong or are all these potential reasons for being intimidate over ordering wine in a restaurant just another way of saying, "I'm afraid to look stupid"?

And isnt' being afraid of looking stupid just another way of saying, "I lack self assurance."

Here's where I start to look pompous: I've never been afraid of being corrected, asking questions, displaying my ignorance or seeking advise. So, I've never been intimidated by ordering anything, let alone wine—even before I had a decent background in wine knowledge.

I will grant that there are occasions when the person taking the wine order appears condescending in response to your ignorance about wine and even your choice. There is ugly story in the comments section of the above blog post in which a stop at Robert Mondavi's tasting room occasioned the commenter to explain to their host that their favorite wine was White Zinfandel. The commenter explains they "thought the server was going to have a stroke! Rather than educating me about other wines, they just wrote me off."

This happens. But isn't the proper reponse to that kind of treatment a sesounding "F*ck You", a turn, and a walk out?

The key, it seems to me, to overcome one's intimidation over ordering wine in a restaurant is not to wait for the server corp to in restaurants to display better table-side manners, but to gather up some self assurance, not worry about feeling stupid, being willing to patronize places that won't display condescension and gird yourself with some self assurance.

11 Responses

  1. Joe - August 3, 2011

    It’s a good point, Tom, but it’s easy for you or I to not quite understand the confusion of now knowing what we’re reading. And usually, there’s $40-50+ at stake.
    A bad metaphor might be to compare this decision to betting on a horse. If I’m in Las Vegas, and I bet my $4 on a horse race, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can read the pamphlet about the horses, but it’s all Chinese to me (and who can really predict the actions of an animal accurately?). I’m throwing money blindly at the situation, hoping the result is positive. Granted, I’m risking throwing my money completely away vs. a confused restaurant patron being guaranteed a bottle of alcohol, but if it is very unpleasant to that person’s palate, then the money is as good as wasted. And I’m simply incapable of approaching the horse-betting situation with self-assurance (though the stakes are low enough where I don’t stress over it… like I said, bad metaphor).
    I think the key is that a good wine steward or waiter will try to ask some questions and carefully guide a decision, without creating any discomfort. For a sommelier, who is an employee of the HOSPITALITY industry, I posit this skill is as critical as knowing wine regions, taste profiles, etc.

  2. Marcia M - August 3, 2011

    I was irritated by the survey; it seemed to be pigeon-holing readers to state they have difficulty ordering wine in a restaurant. Not one of the options is “Does not apply to me,” or “I love the challenge of the unfamiliar wine list!” So it isn’t exactly a balanced survey.
    That said, it’s easy enough to read a wine list and go, “I don’t recognize a single wine on this list!” It’s how you react to that realization that counts: Do you see it as an opportunity to learn about a completely unfamiliar wine or do you shut down in total intimidation? You can choose.
    Good wait staff will know how to politely refer a customer to a White Zin alternative. Poor server behavior reflects only upon the server, not the diner asking about the wine.

  3. Tom Wark - August 3, 2011

    Hard to argue with any of what you wrote. However, I do think there is a difference between being intimidated with buying wine and being concerned you won’t like what buy.
    I really do think we are talking, in the main, about folks being afraid of being humiliated. And that is not, in my mind, so much an issue of how the server acts, but whether or not you care more about how the server’s actions might reflect on you than reflecting more on what you want.

  4. Joe - August 3, 2011

    Agreed; I may have gone on a (valid, IMO) tangent there. And, yes, there’s no reason to let something as trivial as a wine list cause humiliation. Any restaurant that cares about its wine list should not have any “bad” bottles anyway, so the patron should (hopefully) always feel like he/she made a good decision in the end.

  5. Steve Heimoff - August 3, 2011

    Tom, but of course the answer to all your questions in the last paragraph is “Yes.” But also, it never hurts to educate yourself about wine, so your self-confidence is at least accompanied by a little knowledge!

  6. Marie Payton - August 3, 2011

    Tom, thanks for writing about my poll on why ordering wine is intimidating for the average wine consumer. If we look at wine bloggers, or those who have spent effort learning about wine, then this question may seem silly.
    I have been to many a business function where the wine list is like a hot potato, as everyone at the table tries to not look like a fool ordering for the group. One of the very knowledgeable wine bloggers I met at WBC11 told me that this was the very reason that he learned about wine – so that he would never be in this situation again.
    I’ll be writing a follow up article on how to stop feeling intimidated and have the self assurance that you mention. Perhaps you’d like to weigh in?

  7. Tom Wark - August 3, 2011

    The question isn’t silly. Nor are the potential responses in my view.
    It just strikes me that the real motivator behind the feeling of intimidation is really just too much worry about looking stupid and not enough self possession.
    Good post!

  8. Phandke - August 4, 2011

    Let’s not forget that the server and/or wine steward might be just as intimidated or nervous as the guest. As someone who is just starting out in the hospitality industry, I worry just as much that I am going to get a customer who asks me a wine question I cannot answer. The worry here is not only making myself look stupid and/or incompetent at my job, but also making the restaurant look bad in the process. When I go home at night, I don’t sit around thinking about the person who fumbled with the wine list and settled on White Zin because it is there go-to wine in a time of uncertainty. The thing that keeps me up at night is the question I cannot answer, the slip in service, etc.
    I do think the self-assurance you call for, Tom, is warranted (on both sides of the table), but must we also be careful to not let self-assurance become brazen over-confidence? This is, of course, more a worry for the service staff than the customer.
    I would say that we all just need to relax a bit…it’s just dinner after all. I agree with Joe though, it seems quite hard to relax when the stakes can be so high.
    Anyways, great post! Keep the good stuff coming.

  9. Phil - August 4, 2011

    Good points Tom, but let’s not let the restaurants entirely off the hook here. Where is written that all wine lists must be printed tables of wine name and price, organized by country/varietal? Where are the wine director’s comments on individual wines? Where are the food/wine pairing recommendations tailored to the menu? Where is the creativity in organizing the list to make it user friendly?
    As you know from our recent survey, 74% of fine-dining restaurant guests like pairing suggestions built into the food menu and 73% feel more comfortable ordering wine when the list includes notes on the wines. Yet these practices are still the exception, rather than the rule.

  10. Tom Wark - August 4, 2011

    No doubt that restaurant and their list builders could do more to offset the lack of self assurance and the too great importance diners place on protecting their ego. No doubt at all.

  11. plastic glasses - August 5, 2011

    Nice post.Nice thoughts.

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