Today's interview is with Mark Spivak, the president of Sunshine Wine Concepts, a restaurant consulting service he founded in 1992. Based in Florida, Mark advises restaurants on wine selection, trains staff, lectures about food and wine, and currently hosts Uncorked! Radio on WXEL-FM, National Public Radio for the Palm Beaches. He has developed his wine expertise after over twenty years of restaurant experience holding many different positions; waiter, sommelier, dining room manager, managing partner.
He currently has two web sites, one for Sunshine Wine Concepts, and one for his online magazine Spivak on Wine.
Chicago Pinot: What are the general standards a restaurant should meet to provide excellent wine service?
Mark Spivak: Standards (and expectations) of wine service vary wildly, depending on the level of restaurant, the formality of the establishment, and---most importantly---the price. Most diners in America may be unaware of the details and requirements of formal wine service, but their expectations tend to escalate as they go up the price scale. I think what’s important is to have someone on the premises (waiter, manager, owner, sommelier etc) who has helped put the wine list together and has tasted most of the current vintage selections.
Chicago Pinot: What are common mistakes you have seen wine servers and sommeliers make?
Mark Spivak: Clean glassware is the biggest problem I encounter in virtually every restaurant I visit. Unless the restaurant has a separate dish machine dedicated to stemware, or unless the glasses are hand-polished at the bar, most glasses tend to have mineral deposits, smell like detergent, or be encrusted with food particles. In a situation like this, it hardly matters what type of wine you order.
The most common mistake in wine service, as in most other areas of human endeavor, is greed. On the staff level, this usually takes the form of over-pouring; many servers seem to believe that the fastest way to get the second bottle is to dump as much wine into the glasses as possible. Speaking as a former sommelier, I think the challenge is to stay focused on the needs of each customer as an individual.
Chicago Pinot: Do you see these mistakes made at different types of restaurants (i.e. small vs. large, formal vs. more casual, etc?)
Mark Spivak: As you go up the price scale, it becomes easier for the service staff to wait to hit the lottery. In restaurants with grand wine lists that are located in upscale venues (Las Vegas, New York, Paris) it’s not unusual for someone to spend $1000-2000 on a bottle of wine. It becomes easy to lose interest in everyone else.
Chicago Pinot: Wine Spectator recently polled its readers about, among other subjects, the ideal size of the wine list. What is your preferred size? Less than 100 bottles, between 100 and 500, more than 500?
Mark Spivak: The size of the list is less important than how carefully the wines are chosen. The average person who reads the Wine Spectator would probably be impressed with roll calls of the big names, verticals of Chateau Latour or Silver Oak, etc. In fact, a smaller list is much harder to put together; if you only have 50 wines on a list, every selection has to count. If you have 500, you can offer something for everyone.
Chicago Pinot: How can a server put a nervous or inexperienced guest at ease and him or her make an excellent, intelligent bottle selection?
Mark Spivak: Servers can put customers at ease about wine exactly as they do about food---by forming a rapport with the table, asking questions, getting to know their likes and dislikes. What type of wine do you like? What do you drink at home? The customer bears some responsibility here as well. If you feel comfortable with a server/sommelier, tell the person what you’re looking for and how much you want to spend. Most of the time, you’ll get the best bottle in the house at that price.
Chicago Pinot: What are the most important facts a server should remember about each bottle on a restaurant's wine list?
Mark Spivak: What does this wine taste like? What type of food does it go with?
Chicago Pinot: So much about wine is surrounded by grace and tradition. What are some nuances about wine service that distinguish the great restaurants from the good to average ones?
Mark Spivak: Wine service really isn’t rocket science. The basic principles are simple---be friendly, be informed, give the customer clean glassware, keep the wine at the right level in the glass. We talk about wine and food pairing, but wine actually is food---as much a part of a meal as a starch or a vegetable.