Theatre in the wine world? Hamish Anderson talks theatre of the serve

Drinks: Wines

With wine under pressure from craft beers and cocktails, perhaps we need to introduce an element of theatre to the serve

I am just back from a week’s holiday in the Dolomites. Even with the current exchange rate, eating and drinking in Italy is a gastronomic and financial pleasure when used to London pricing. We stayed in the same hotel for a week, and I got to know the restaurant’s sommelier as we worked our way through the Alto Adige and Trentino listings, rarely spending over €40 a bottle and drinking brilliantly.

On the last night the Tuscan section, which I had been eyeing all week, got the better of me and I ordered a bottle of Ornellaia: a wine I could not afford, but that was at such a ridiculously low price I could convince myself I was saving money by drinking it.

The transformation in the sommelier was total, having opened countless bottles of Pinot Grigio all week – most of the guests were British – here was some proper work. Our glasses were replaced by giant vessels, the bottle was produced and the cork reverently pulled, smelled, examined and offered to me for another opinion.

By this time, the tables close to us knew something was happening. Next, he produced another enormous glass and proceeded to pour a sample for himself. It was held up to the light, swirled, swirled again, sniffed, more sniffing and finally tasted. The whole process was accompanied by a commentary on the wine’s magnificence and the condition of this particular bottle.

The final touch, which transfixed my son, was, after precise cutting, an intricate piece of folding, attaching the cork to the bottle neck with the foil. We then got to taste it and my opinion was sought, by this time most of the tables in our half of the room were glancing at us. The wine was delicious, which was a relief as to have sent it back after the show that had been staged would have been difficult.

Further discussions confirmed what I had suspected all week: charming as our sommelier was, underneath the confident exterior there was not a huge depth of knowledge. He was, though, a master showman and his performance had captured the attention of the room.

I do not want to return to the days of tastevin stuffiness when the act of serving was almost more important than actually having good wines on the list. However, with a wine order under pressure from other alcoholic drinks, adding theatre to its service seems imperative.

Craft beers have brilliant can and bottle designs, while G&Ts now have seemingly endless visual garnishes. Similarly we have seen a resurgence in food drama, whether it be the visceral, carnivorous duck press at Otto’s or
simply serving soup from a jug at the table. Wine needs a similar lift.

This can be supplied by equipment: the right glass, ice bucket or table-side decanting trolley as I saw the other day – or by an individual providing a flash of inspiration at the table. Failing that you can always fall back on foil origami.

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Hamish Anderson

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