I caught an interesting news item today that made me think about how things ought to be done in restaurants. A California couple was upset with Zibibbo, a pan-Mediterranean restaurant in Palo Alto, over a bottle of wine. During a recent dinner, the husband pointed to a bottle on the wine list, thinking he was ordering a 2009 Barbera D’Alba from Piedmont, Italy, which cost $52. The waitress apparently thought he was pointing to a different bottle, a 1996 Ornellaia Masseto Tenuta Dell Merlot, which goes for a much stiffer $400. She brought the pricey merlot to the table, the man eyeballed it casually, as many non-oenophiles do, and gave the go-ahead. The waitress opened the bottle and poured. When the bill came, the couple was shocked to see a $400 bottle of wine that they didn’t order. They complained to management, which declined (at the time) to reduce or remove the charge. After all, they had approved it. But was the waitress right to bring the expensive bottle without making sure it’s what they really wanted? Didn’t she have a kernel of doubt that the couple really wanted a $400 bottle? There’s no way to know without giving her a truth serum, which is why every waiter and sommelier needs to learn the devil horns trick.
Let me explain. I learned the devil horns trick from Gianni Cavicchi, sommelier at Café D’Alsace in New York (and named it myself ©). The devil horns trick involves going down the wine list with your hand in the devil-horns position, with the index finger pointing out the vineyard while the pinkie shows the price. "Oh, you like that vineyard? Excellent choice, sir." That way the name of the bottle and the price are always connected, yet you’re not calling the diner out for being cheap if he goes for an affordable bottle. It makes both parties clearly recognize the order, thus avoiding the confusion that this couple found themselves in.
Of course, another way would be for the waiter/sommelier to repeat the name, number, and year of the bottle to the diner before proceeding, instead of just agreeing to what’s being pointed at. We all know how the game of telephone works. When you repeat the message back to the speaker before spreading it, it all but eliminates purple-monkey-butt kind of communication errors.
As for Zibibbo, they did what I think is the right thing. They refunded a portion of the couple’s money and charged them $150 for the bottle, which was its original price. In the future, I’m sure both the diners and the restaurant will be very clear on what’s being ordered. Using the devil horns trick can help.