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Wine Disasters

Sommeliers at Work Under Pressure

Working with wine can be as risky as it is rewarding

Stacey Lastoe By July 2, 2021
illustration of man at dinner table with many wine bottles
Illustration by Marina Anselmi.

A single bottle of sparkling wine contains enough pressure — 70 to 90 pounds per square inch — to inflate three car tires. As Ethan Richardson discovered, that’s a lot of pressure.

Richardson, a partner in New York restaurant ‘inoteca liquori, since closed, was stocking the bar fridges with Mionetto Prosecco, a bestseller, prior to opening for Sunday brunch. 

“I was just pulling bottles and putting them in the fridge and then all of a sudden I felt time slow down and I heard what sounded like this impossibly loud noise,” he recalls.

A bottle had exploded. “I always felt like detonated was the word that best described what happened,” he says. Which is not surprising, because if the glass is faulty, the force will shatter the glass and propel the cork outwards at up to 50 miles an hour.

When Richardson snapped to, he found himself covered in Prosecco — and bleeding, with a cut on one eyebrow and another below his eye. But, the total professional, he cleaned up, “staunched the bleeding and worked the service.”

It was just another hazardous day in hospitality.

Deep disappointment

Bottle explosions are, fortunately, rare. But sommeliers have to deal with other, much more common problems. Take the time that Matthew Feldman, the general manager of Seamore’s in Manhattan, catered a party near Larkspur, Colorado. As thanks for his and his crew’s efforts, they were invited to stay on for a drink.

The wine that came out was not just any drink. It was a bottle of Dom Perignon 1983, which at the time retailed for around $800. Not surprisingly, the crew suddenly felt thirsty.

But a sommelier took a sip and hesitated. “I hate to say it, but it’s corked,” he said, referring to the fault that can make wine smell like wet dog and taste like mold.

The host shrugged it off and went to get another bottle.

It was also corked. As was bottle three. 

And bottle four.

But never give up an opportunity when it presents itself – some of the catering crew drank it anyway.

“Unfortunately, I don’t want you to actually serve me the bottle,” he said. “I need an older man.” He then threatened to open the bottle himself if an older man wasn’t forthcoming. The newly-minted certified sommelier called over her acceptably male, middle-aged manager, and bowed out. 

And then there are the times when the problem is nothing to do with the wine, but with the guest who’s being served it, as Daniella Lauricella can attest. The newly-minted certified sommelier was just 21 when she snagged a job at a three-Michelin starred New York City restaurant, ready and able to pour and sell expensive bottles.

One night back in 2012, when the restaurant’s sister restaurant was short-staffed, Lauricella was summoned to help out. Because it wasn’t her primary place of work, she wasn’t familiar with the wine list, but she knew enough to recommend a Krug “Clos du Mesnil” Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1989 when a guest inquired about the restaurant’s Krug selection.

Priced at $3,000, the bottle was a big sale for Lauricella. But after she presented it to the guest, he forbade her from opening it. “Unfortunately, I don’t want you to actually serve me the bottle,” he said. “I need an older man.”

He then threatened to open the bottle himself if an older man wasn’t forthcoming. Lauricella called over her acceptably male, middle-aged manager, and bowed out.

“That’s fine dining for you,” she says.

Guest plus wine

Los-Angeles based Evan Charest, owner and director of operations at Severance Wine Bar and Mercantile Hospitality, knows all about the potent combination of difficult guests plus sparkling wine.

Charest, who used his severance from a corporate job layoff to open the bar — hence the name — says it soon became known as the bar that would saber Champagne bottles tableside upon request. Unfortunately, the spectacular display was too much for some. One night, a guest who Charest describes as having “indulged slightly too much,” took inspiration from the restaurant’s Champagne cart. 

“He decided he could do one better than our staff and proceeded to grab an unattended bottle of Krug,” says Charest. He also seized a full-sized saber.

“He opened the bottle all right,” says Charest. “He hacked the glass so hard the bottle exploded from the bottom.” 

Not only did the guest get showered with the Krug, but glass shards rained down on everyone in the vicinity.

“Thankfully,” says Charest, “No one was injured.” The embarrassed guest offered to pay for the pricey Champagne but it wasn’t the only thing he paid for. After watching the drama, the sabreur’s party had exited the restaurant, leaving him with the bill. 

Today, Severance Wine Bar still has that Champagne saber. But now, the Champagne cart is guarded by two staff members at all times. 

It takes the pressure off.

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