I brought a beautiful bottle of Champagne to dinner the other night, at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville, California, and I was reminded of why it’s sometimes better not to bring that great bottle. Ad Hoc, by the way, has a somewhat ad hoc feel—a nice enough room, with high ceilings and a fresh coat of paint, it nevertheless feels largely without character. The restaurant’s concept, on the other hand, is wonderful: For a fixed price, you get a four-course meal served family style. The salads come in salad bowls with tongs, the entrées on platters, the cheese on a cheese board, and so on. And the food is unfussy, unpretentious, and absolutely delicious. In a sense, the format makes a good bid for capturing what’s best about eating at home—the relaxed, casual feel, the option of digging back into the bowl for another helping, the sense of sharing among friends, the freedom from making choices about this or that menu item. And for that reason, it makes me want to bring wine.
The waitstaff is terrifically positive about wine from outside (that’s not always the case), which makes sense: What could be more natural than bringing wine to a dinner party? But the other night, in the company of my wife, L, and our friends H and C, who were celebrating their anniversary, the bottle I brought showed me something about myself. It was a Pierre Peters blanc de blanc—divine stuff—and it wasn’t quite cold when we arrived, so I asked to have it iced immediately. And while it sat in the bucket beside us, I was so anxious to get it open that I was distracted from the conversation. I was worried that people would want to start drinking but that the wait for the Champagne would hold them up. I was so worried, in fact, that I rushed things a bit and asked the waiter to open the bottle when, in fact, it probably could have used another few minutes.
And then, because I was so wrapped up in my little bottle experience, and in wanting a taste, and in wanting the others to discover what a treat I’d brought them, I seethed with annoyance as the server filled all our glasses almost to the brim. The wine was hardly cold! Just give us a splash, so we can get going, and let the rest chill a little more! And why fill everyone’s glasses, anyway? To make us drink it faster and thus buy more wine?!
Empty thoughts, I mean to say. A little beside the point. A sign of a mind too wrapped up in its own, private dramas to be present with friends. Not least because the wine really was divine, even at that temperature—and just perfect with the food. But the food and the friends were the point, finally; the being together, the good fortune of getting to eat at a great restaurant, the living and breathing in that moment in that place in that time on Earth. All the rest, the anxiety about temperature and timing, was precisely the kind of thing the wine journey should eventually teach us all to avoid.