In the past six months we’ve had three unusually pleasant wine experiences at restaurants, thanks to a chef, a waiter and a sommelier. Here are the stories.
The Chef -- we’re in Bilbao, Spain having lunch at a nice restaurant (Michelin 1*) on our first day in Basque country. We are the only English-speakers in the almost-full dining room.
The chef stops by and we talk for a bit about the restaurants we are visiting in Spain and compliment him on two of the excellent dishes served thus far. We are drinking house cava, about to switch to a house white. A bit later he brings out three wine glasses and an extra dish, crab legs so fresh they smell and taste of the nearby sea, and opens a bottle of oaked white Rioja labeled ‘Finca La Reñana’. He tells us that Robert Parker rated this ‘the best oaked white wine in the world’ last year as he pours glasses for us and for himself and asks us to try it and tell him if he should add it to his wine list.
We drink it with the crab and yes, it is a very nice white indeed, surely the best Spanish white wine I’ve tasted (I haven’t tasted many but this one was excellent). Later I look it up and find Parker quotes to back up the story, with a Wine Advocate rating of 92.
When we leave we notice there is zero charge for the white Rioja, for another wine he poured for us and for our dessert wine pours. There is little or no tipping in Spain but we leave a nice tip anyway for the waiter.
Chef Fernando Canales of restaurant Etxanobe in Bilbao ... long may he prosper.
The Waiter – still in Bilbao the next day, this time a few miles outside town at Azurmendi, a fast-rising restaurant that just received its third Michelin star, and which rose to # 7 in the world in 2014 on the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants list.
We are nearing the end of a ten course tasting menu with matching wines. Before the desserts I mention to the waiter that I hoped to try a good Pedro Ximenez sherry while in Spain. He says it’s not part of the pairing but that he’ll check what’s in the cellar ... and when it’s time to pour the dessert wine he produces an unopened bottle of Fernando de Castilla Antique Pedro Ximenez, which he proceeds to open for us. This was a very sweet, almost syrupy dessert wine, just as I imagined PX, and it went very well with the last two desserts and final sweets. I’m impressed they would open a bottle just for two customers.
Jon William Herrera of restaurant Azurmendi ... long may he prosper. (I just learned Jon William is also the Head Sommelier.)
The Sommelier – we are at the Fat Duck outside London in April and I’m having the cheapest seven pour wine pairing with my meal. We get to know the Somm a bit as he comes to the table to pour the wines and we chat. He’s from near Paris and gives us some suggestions for restaurants next time we’re in France.
Fat Duck offers two enhanced pairings with very expensive classic wines but the pairings are, IIRC, 250 £ and 480 £ (roughly $425 and $810, too rich for me). The dessert wines for both pairings are Château d'Yquem (different vintages), an exceptional Sauternes from Bordeaux which is so superior it has its own classification, First Great Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur).
The dessert wine for my economy class flight is a 2008 Tokaji from Hungary and it goes well with the dessert. I mention the d'Yquem to the Sommelier, saying I had only tasted one First Growth and a couple of Second Growth Sauternes and that one day, if I became rich, I’d like to try d'Yquem.
He told me he had tasted d'Yquem at age 17 and that wine is what convinced him to become a Sommelier. I thought that was a great story.
A bit later someone brings a tray of mignardises and the Somm appears with one more glass. I’m pretty sure we’re done with the wine pairings but he shows me a bottle of Château d'Yquem and pours me a small ration. I really wish I had noted the vintage but I was too blown away to pay attention to the details.
I bow down as best as I can while seated. “Thank you, thank you.” It went great with the final sweets. This is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me at a restaurant.
As we are leaving the restaurant he comes out with us to the parking lot to say goodbye. My wife surprises him (and me) by giving him a hug and a jealous man might say that he squeezed a bit too long and a bit too tightly when he hugged her back, but what the heck, he’s a Frenchman and he gave me my first shot of Château d'Yquem! I forgive him.
Rémi Cousin, Assistant Head Sommelier of The Fat Duck ... long may he prosper.
So, anyone else have some feel-good wine stories they want to share?