Soapbox: Why oh why don’t barmen know anything at all about wine?

Drinks: Drinks
Other: Service

Ask ‘em about obscure spirits and they’ll bore you for hours. So why do barmen still know next to nothing about wine?

You know how it goes: the longer you spend working with something the more obscure your tastes can get. So a classical music expert might trumpet the cause of Mahler while the novice is still coming to terms with Beethoven’s 9th.  So, it seems, with bars. First we got bored of vodka, then it was fruity cocktails. Rum and coke? Soooo late 90s! And so on, to the point that many have now managed to convince themselves that an open-minded consumer should be persuaded that sipping tequila is the way forward… Really? I mean really?

The white knight in this tale could (and should) be wine. Easy to sell, easy to appreciate and much easier to prepare than thyme and sesame margaritas, wine permits a bartender to be at his or her most creative with the commodity that customers appreciate most: personality. But the problem is that bartenders aren’t prepared to push wine because they don’t know enough about it and apparently aren’t prepared to learn.

Take, for instance, the following encounter, which happened to me in a multi award-winning bar before Christmas: after looking at the dramatically overpriced cocktails, I asked the bartender for a glass of red wine, and he replied by offering me the choice of a ‘Spanish Grenache’ [isn’t it Garnacha in Spain?] or a ‘Chilean errrr… [quick glance over his shoulder]Merlot!!’ A Merlot is what it is!’ Great. With such a spellbinding choice I eventually plumped for the former. The guy showed literally no knowledge or interest in what he was serving me, while paying levels of microscopic interest to my companion’s martini. The wine was warm (stored by the coffee machine), served in a crap glass and had been open for long enough to have started climbing the foothills of Mount Vinegar.

.People are eager to learn about 

 wine, and bars should fuel that desire 

The truth is that, as far as most bartenders are concerned, wine isn’t sexy – not, at least, like cocktails (our man’s treatment of the aforementioned martini bordered on the carnal) or champagne (you don’t fantasise about upending a lightly oaked bottle of Tempranillo over the waiting body of a naked supermodel). And the prospect of leaving behind the comfort of brands for a seemingly never-ending quagmire of individual producers and terroirs is too daunting for most.

All this would be fine if the consumer showed no interest in wine, but that just blatantly is not the case. Pick up a copy of every national newspaper on a Saturday and Sunday. Count the wine columns. Then, count the spirits/cocktail columns. People are eager to learn about wine, and bars should feed that desire by making sure they’re delivering a top-class wine list that they are able to sell and proud to purvey.

A key problem is that almost all wine training is done by the big wine distributors whose main focus is on restaurants or designated ‘wine bars’. (Don’t you loathe the term?) What is needed is a fresher, sexier approach to wine training that would appeal to bars and bartenders and trickle down to the consumer. Some companies already do this well (Bibendum comes to mind) and it’s time for the rest of the wine industry to catch up.

If the training shortfall is not addressed we will be left with the status quo: dreary, samey wine lists packed with safe options from one supplier, proffered (and this is the criminal bit) by the very same people who sneer at chain bars for pouring Smirnoff and Gordon’s!

Liam Davy, Match Bar Group

Apart from Britney and X-Factor, what makes you scream with rage? Email [email protected]

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March / April 2008

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