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Shitshow Testimonials From New York Sommeliers

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In honor of Shitshow Week Eater asked a small group of sommeliers to share their best wine-related shitshow stories. Below you'll find stories of crying, topless diners, employees hiding wine in the toilet, and a tale of trickery involving a sword-wielding wino named Joffrey. Enjoy.

bill_fitch.jpgBill Fitch | Beverage Director, Vinegar Hill House and Hillside
I worked at a restaurant in Portland, Oregon in the 1990s that had 1000 European wines and many eccentric patrons—such as a splendidly deranged, pompous and medieval man named Joffrey (not a joke) who would literally check his sword at the bar when he entered the establishment. He had promised to order a bottle of '85 Mouton when he next came in for lunch and we all got sort of excited to smell it. He came in to order it, my elder colleague went down to get it, only to find that the last bottle had, quite mysteriously, been guzzled and put back on its rack empty.

Joffrey fancied himself the equal to any sommelier and to us neophytes he seemed to have the chops to prove it, but he lost our esteem when my colleague filled the Mouton bottle with Cahors, stuffed in the Cahors cork, carefully fitted the Cahors capsule on the Mouton, and presented the wine to Joffrey. He sniffed the La Coutale cork (or whatever it was) and regaled us all afternoon on the arcane splendors, perceivable only to the subtlest of olfactory intellects, of the esteemed Pauillac for which he paid full price.

Is that what you mean by shitshow? Or is it more like when I got my first father-in-law a job at the same restaurant helping in the kitchen and he clogged the toilet with wine labels? One night, from the upstairs balcony I happened to see him, already drunk, surreptitiously swipe a half bottle of Drouhin something or other, put it under his sweater, and make for the bathroom. Furious at myself since I'd gotten him the job, I rushed down to berate him, but he had already slithered back into the kitchen. I wondered where he had put the half bottle and finally found it in the toilet tank, corked and floating. Months later the plumber came to fix the toilet and found dozens upon dozens of wine labels that had soaked off and clogged up the pipes.

alexis_brock.jpgAlexis Brock | Former Sommelier, The Modern
New Year's Eve, 2008. I had just moved back from three years working as a sommelier in Melbourne, Australia, and started my post at The Modern. Of course I was prepared to work the floor that evening but I was not prepared for what ensued.

1:47 a.m., 2009. After many wine pairings, glasses of fizz poured from jeroboam and too close for comfort 'bisous' from tipsy regulars, it was apparently time to start counting bottles for inventory. I found it somewhat masochistic that this had to be done so early in the a.m. on the 1st, but who was I to object only two weeks into the job? My colleague and now dear friend, Carson Demmond, and I dug in — first with the Eurocaves, then the 'wine wall' adjacent to the bar and finally, deep in the bowels of the MOMA. Sometime around 3 a.m. we paused to reflect on the fact that neither of us had had anything to eat in hours. Bottles were miscounted, vintages became blurry, and tears began to flow.

It was 5:34 a.m. when we finally spilled out into Midtown, desperate for street meat. With no schwarma-slinging cart in sight I shuffled up the block onto an empty Fifth Ave and flailed my arm in the air. Screeching around the corner, Abu the cab driver pulled to a stop. I flung myself into the back seat and slurred my address. He confirmed it, slurring back. Yes, he was drunk. Wasted, in fact. Too exhausted to care, I lamented the fact that I had not even toasted the New Year. Then he said it: "You want drink?" With no hesitation, a gigantic "YES" popped out of my mouth and a flask was presented. I thought I had seen everything in New York, but no. He pulled over across from the library on Fifth and we proceeded to polish off our booze. We talked about life, the work of New York's best (cabbies of course), and my ill-tempered Beverage Director boss who made me work into the morning.

I got home at 6:45 a.m. with mascara scars from the cellar tears, but I also had one of the best experiences of my existence. Abu, I may never see you again, but thank you from the bottom of my heart for punctuating my sommelier shitshow-of-a-night with the best comic relief a girl could dream of.

Ashley_Santoro_headshot_1.jpgAshley Santoro | Wine Director, Casa Mono and Bar Jamon
Irving Pl. in Gramercy is more or less the Gaza Strip when it comes to shitshows. I've seen everything from projectile vomiting to a man jerking off in the vestibule during service to a woman who insisted on dining topless. I've had a woman chase me around the restaurant with a spoonful of olive oil and I've had to chase a man off with a screwdriver and a bat.

As for wine-related shitshows there's the guy who tried to fight me over Vega Sicilia. This gentleman was an EXPERT in Italian wine and BIG collector and wanted to make sure I was well aware of this before wanting nothing to do with me. After a 10-minute inspection of the wine list he ordered a bottle of Vega Sicilia, pronouncing Sicilia in his best Italian accent and pointed to the price when showing me the exact "see-CHEE-lee-ah" he wanted. As I approached the table to present the wine (which is from Ribera del Duero in Spain mind you) he grabs the bottle to tell his guests all about this amazing wine from Sicily that they're about to enjoy. Then he turns to me, and in a condescending tone, asks me if I've ever had the chance to taste an Italian wine as good as the one he's about to drink. I respond and tell him how much I miss working with Italian wine, being that the list at Casa Mono is exclusively Spanish, and I commend him on his selection. This is followed by dead silence and then complete denial. The wine, he says, is from see-CHEE-lee-ah. I try to politely tell him that we actually don't serve Italian wine. He defends himself by telling his friends that the wine is actually a collaboration between Italy and Spain and that I am just a hostess and probably not even old enough to drink. So, I topped off his "frappato" and added his $600 see-CHEE-lee-ah to the check.

Madrigale.jpgMichael Madrigale | Chef Sommelier, Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud
About two years ago the music that we were playing at the restaurant started becoming a bit stale. The staff and I were going batty hearing Nouvelle Vague cheekily cover punk rock anthems and dusty numbers such as “You say tomato and I say tomahto.” We complained and management arranged that a DJ come in and start developing a brand spanking new playlist to get things back on track. He was taking a bit too long delivering the iPod, so one night after cracking under the pressure of one of Boz Scagg's choice dittys, I decided to go rogue. I ran downstairs to grab my iPhone, made a playlist on the go and plugged the thing in. It was 6:00 clock so I started with some easy listening for the pre-theatre crowd. A little Steely Dan here, some George Benson there. At 7:30 the tuxedoed operagoers had collectively emptied out of the restaurant without any issue nor complaint regarding the music. It was now the prime time seating and I was ready. The playlist changed a bit. More current, more bouncy, more music to uncork bottles of Red Burgundy by. I saw heads nodding at table 42 when the Talking Heads "Take me to the River" came on. I saw Charlene do a little dip while running the Coq Au Vin to the tasting table in the back. Smiles abounded. I felt like DJ Jazzy Jeff of 64th street. I was thinking, hey, I should talk to DB and offer my services to set up the music for all of the restaurants, maybe even help with the new places overseas. Then, as I was talking about the pluses and minuses of whole cluster fermentation to a handsome two-top, there was the sound of a roaring Moog synthesizer and Prince... "DEARLY BELOVED, .WE'RE GATHERED HERE TODAY TO GET THROUGH THIS THING CALLED LIFE." So song just explodes through the dining room like it was 12-gauge shotgun. Guests turned around and covered their ears. The GM's face was beet red and he gave me the dirtiest look imaginable; he knew it was me. I scrambled to speakers and fumbling all over myself to pull the wire out of the iPhone. Back to the Boz Scaggs.

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