I do a fair share of complaining about wine service in Portland. Adam Chase does something about it instead.

Chase coordinates programs in New England and northern California for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, a London-based organization offering wine-education courses all around the world.

An advanced certificate class will begin in Portland on Oct. 15, and there are a fair number of restaurants and retailers out there that ought to cough up the registration fee to send at least one staff member to it. (An intermediate course will be offered this winter. More info is at wsetglobal.com.) Too many restaurants here either have lackluster wine lists or have interesting lists with not enough servers who understand them.

“The greatest purpose of this,” Chase said, “is to help people know what they’re talking about. Then servers can offer a wine that truly meets the customer’s needs, rather than suggesting a wine they’ve been told they need to move.”

Bingo. The easiest way to move product is to tacitly agree on a small handful of easily recognizable names and push them relentlessly. Variety and idiosyncrasy don’t generate consistent sales unless staff are behind the diversity and can communicate it.

Hence, the tyranny of the varietal name: “Chardonnay,” “Pinot Grigio” and “Cabernet” are listed prominently, with no sign of the region, climate, winemaker or viticulture. Shorthand rules, so unique wines with character need not apply out of fear of alienating a befuddled customer whose server knows little more than he does.

This is usually not true at the highest tier, where the chef or bar manager is committed to marriage between menu and list. Such establishments should focus on regular staff tastings so all the knowledge and passion are not concentrated at the top.

How about one white and one red during every pre-service meeting, with a beer or dessert wine thrown in every once in a while? This would be fast and comprehensible, and would nourish everyone’s passions, which would translate into truly memorable service – which would in turn guarantee higher tips and more repeat business.

“The server who constantly points people to Chardonnay and Merlot,” Chase said, “might be a nice person. But being nice isn’t the only part of being a good server.” Amen, brother. I’d take a nice enough server who took genuine interest in her kitchen’s menu and wine list over a boatload of trying-too-hard “how’re we doings?” and “you guys” “you all set with thats?”

So, the establishments that are most in need of improving their service are the middle-range restaurants where the wine lists often feel like afterthoughts. Take Boda, a fantastic “Thai street food” place with a notably underwhelming wine list. Boda – or Saigon, or Thanh Thanh 2 – would you please send someone to the WSET intermediate course and start selling good/inexpensive Riesling, Beaujolais, Torrontes and California dry Gewurztraminer, please oh please?

Some mid-range Portland restaurants get it right, like Otto Pizza, the “Rooms” and Local 188. These offer casual, normal-occasion food, along with menu-appropriate wine lists that simultaneously provide myriad choices to the wine savant and an inviting spirit of discovery to the neophyte. “Even people who don’t have a lot of wine knowledge,” Chase said, “will recognize an interesting list, and be drawn in.”

Chase said the best way to improve overall wine service is to cultivate confidence.

“In America, much of the wine education is delivered by distributors, and they’re going to teach what they’ve got (to sell),” he said. “The point is to give people the confidence to trust themselves, to continue to taste, and then to recommend the right wine, not just the wine they know well.

“Unless the server has tasted a wine, he’s not going to recommend it. I’ve seen so many restaurants where the lists are well put together, but the servers can only talk about one Sauvignon Blanc and one Pinot Grigio.”

Without education, the only way this can end for restaurants is badly. A younger generation of wine consumers is taking increased interest in wine, and they’re not just adopting their elders’ assumptions that if it says “Bordeaux” or “Burgundy” or “Barolo” (or “$60”) it’s going to be good.

Younger buyers are more willing to experiment, they’re less bound by geographic classicalism, and they’re going to push the restaurants they find themselves in to take active interest in wine culture’s continuing development. If servers just shrug and giggle and mutter “dry” or “fruit-forward” when these customers ask questions, they’re not going see those people again.

Restaurants at every level, be honest: Is your list in your hands, or those of your salespeople? Are your Chablis, Vouvray, Cerasuolo, Central Otago, and Bonarda on the list for bragging points or for sharing? Can your servers speak intelligently about Malbec and Chardonnay?

The WSET course is one way to gain the right answers to those questions and more.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]