'Since the Table 4 Incident', Anthony Pieri writes, 'I have travelled the world working in various stages of the wine supply chain and currently live in Melbourne, Australia where I work as a Group Sommelier. I am pursuing the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier Diplomas.' He adds mysteriously, 'There is no iceberg lettuce in the house.' This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
E.M Forster said “spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” This baptism-by-fire, knuckle-grease rhetoric couldn’t be a more accurate distillation of my introduction to the world of wine as I stepped foot for the first time into a fine dining, European restaurant in small-town America.
The eggshell white walls were adorned with framed water colours and bathed in a soft glow of incandescent light. Soft music serenaded nothing more than napkin-folding and the scurry of mise-en-place. There were nine perfectly aligned, meticulously set tables. The butter was a perfectly piped pirouette with a single red peppercorn placed at the tip. The tablecloths were ironed. Each different type of wine had its own special glass. This speckled-face, naïve, awkward pubescent was way out of his depth.
As I tried to get a grip, my bewilderment was shattered by a man booming “good evening young sir.”
There he was, standing up to (maybe) my shoulders and 60kg soaking wet and wearing a jet-black suit, pressed white shirt and flawlessly polished shoes with his black tie folded thrice and loosely gripped in his left hand. His wrinkled, leathery scowl and thin blonde hair scrupulously combed over his balding head proved this wasn’t his first rodeo. His posture was perfect. He pivoted; looked me up and down with utter disapproval, shook my hand and introduced himself as Lawrence.
I waited tables that night after learning the menu he emailed. Table 4 ordered a bottle of Dierberg Pinot Noir and with as much counterfeit grace as I could muster, proceeded with the customary textbook drill of serving the wine, and carried on.
Five minutes later, whilst staring blankly and panicking at a homogenous monochromatic POS searching feverishly for an entrée button, Lawrence politely enquired about the wine on table 4 to which I assured him I was looking after.
He cocked his head in a split second of confusion before shooting a devilish death stare. He inhaled like a jet engine, thrusted his chest and bellowed at me in a rising crescendo to the top of his lungs “then why do our guests have empty wine glasses?! What do I look like to you, A WINE STEWARD?! GET. OUT. THERE! POUR. THE WINE! NOOOW!” of course salt and peppered with more expletives than a losing team’s locker room. The blood seemed to rush out of my face as the familiar uneasy deep-seeded feeling of doom overcame my body. No one had ever spoken to me like that before. I wobbled over to table 4 holding back tears with tingly, weak legs and hands equally as unsteady – and I poured the wine.
You see, I had no idea that after you pour the first glass, you have to continue to pour the wine again and again?! I bought ‘Lessons in Service’ and ‘The Wine Bible’ the next day, and surprisingly kept the job.
To this day, I have no idea what ever happened to that entrée.
Every night after service, the staff all sat around a table in the rathskeller with dredges of wine from the night. “I love the structure, tannins are so well integrated,” one would say, “so much finesse,” another would mumble. They all had a seemingly immense amount of respect for this grape juice. As I choked it down, I could only think to myself how on earth did the smell of a cigar-box get into the bottle, and why on earth would you want to drink it?
We also became regular patrons at the local wine bar. Adjectives were thrown around as lavishly as the tasting pours and we met with other hospitality people who were seemingly participating in this ritual of after-work banter and hedonism.
“I want a red so big I can chew it.”
“Have you heard about the vintage in California this year? It’s going to be fantastic.”
“What new Pinot’s do you have?”
“Nectarines, pears and beautiful vanilla oak, yum!”
“Dill! Smell it again, I’m getting dill!”
Lawrence would turn to me and explain in an Attenborough-esque demeanour that there was a place in France that had vineyards planted by monks in the 1300’s, and there was this widow in Champagne, and in 1855 there was a classification of wines in Bordeaux. Soil is important, Gewurztraminer smells like lychees and South Africa made wine.
Most interesting of all, a person who was a bona-fide expert in this stuff had a title! A sommelier – and all they did was talk about, sell, and drink wine all day. And there is this Court of Sommeliers, where if you study hard enough and pass the incredibly rigorous exams you can become a Master Sommelier. There was also an institute, and if you proved good enough to be invited, and pass all the exams, you could become a Master of Wine. “Nevermind,” they said, “you can’t possibly do both – it’s masochism.”
As I reeled from the post-trauma of the ‘Table 4 incident’ by which it became affectionately known, my bewilderment turned to intrigue, and I was constantly asking questions. The entire time Lawrence would sit there quietly and listen, he saw in my wide eyes that a fire had been lit.
Lawrence then started to constantly ask me questions about the world of wine. What is suissereserve? Name the first growths of Bordeaux. Name the grapes allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I would go to work early and stay late than anyone. Ten years later, I still call him to ask whether or not I should decant a Jeroboam of Dom Perignon for seamless service, or exactly how he got a broken cork out of a bottle with a piece of string and a chopstick. I still take his advice, and admire his audacity – both tableside and in life.
Turns out Mr. Forster, I know nothing about the shape of the spoon, and I have a strong-willed, patient, incredibly humbling man to thank for it.