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A Guide to Understanding the Modern Whale

And now, Levi Dalton, the accomplished sommelier behind the I'll Drink to That podcast, offers his thoughts on serving Whales. This is Whale Philosophy 101:

12Whale%20Week%20Logo_500-thumb.jpgMaybe the biggest whale sighting of the past quarter century occurred in 2000, when Erich Sager sat down at the bar of The Federalist in Boston, ordered a lobster sandwich, and proceeded to give the bartender multiple millions of dollars to open her own restaurant.

I happened to be there that day, working my double on the floor, and I saw the Sager Scenario develop. The key to that encounter, from what I could make out, was that the rules were bent. Sager came in between lunch and dinner, about 4 o'clock, and although the bar was open for drinks there was no food being served. But Mr. Sager wanted a sandwich, which the bartender got for him by wrangling with the kitchen staff to make him one outside of shift hours. And she was rewarded with a payout in the millions.

I developed my own style of service that day, watching that happen. A good sommelier knows there are really two restaurants in any one location: there is the restaurant that wants to say "yes" and there is the one that wants to say "no." Your job is to get to "yes," because that brings the Whales in. Whales like a "yes," and they want you to deal with the specifics of that. Which means cajoling, and pleading, and taking bullets when necessary. If a sommelier has built up scar tissue by believing in wines nobody else cares about, then that is a good sommelier. If that sommelier has also incurred exit wounds while looking out for a table, then that is an excellent sommelier. A War Hero sommelier.

But sometimes it isn't so much about the fight as the preparation. Does the chef like a glass of wine at the end of the night? Make sure a nice selection makes its way back to the line. You are going to need that favor back for a special request on the behalf of a regular. And it shouldn't just be a little bit of wine that goes to the kitchen, either. It should be an open bottle with a label that reads "expensive." This is important. Chefs know there are only two kinds of wine in the world: the expensive bottles that the sommeliers drink, and the stuff that they drink. They get cynical about this. Surprise your chef with good wine and you'll have a partner on your side when decision time comes. Maybe. Chefs are fickle bastards.

Also: don't cheat on your chef. I knew this guy who used to go behind the bar and pour Palliser Sauvignon Blanc into a Le Montrachet bottle under the counter before handing that package off to the chef. Eventually he was found out. Chefs aren't dumb. And I don't know what that wine guy is doing today, but I do know nobody has heard from him for a while. Maybe he is now sleeping with the fishes, all filleted up nice.

But back to the Whales. Whales like to be recognized. I remember one of the worst things I ever did was ask "Is this your first time joining us?" to a Whale I'd never seen before. Boy, he was pissed. Whales hate that. Whales like it when you use their name. I like to get it out there right away. "Hey, Mr. Whale, great to see you again!" This plus eye contact is a magic incantation. They used to say that you shouldn't try to shake the hand of a Whale, but all the best sommeliers these days are big touchers. Handshakes are passé, though. Hugs are more popular. Pascaline Lepeltier, Carla Rzeszewski, Laura Maniec: they give out hugs like busboys give out tap water. Hell, Mike Madrigale can barely talk to you if he can't hold your left bicep for emphasis. An arm squeeze from him is like an exclamation point. The way it works nowadays, the sommelier presses flesh first, and then pours second.

You should consider the room, as well. It's not true that Whales like a big grandiose room with a lot of elaborate decorations. A room like that is what tourists like. A room like that is what my parents like. My parents are not Whales. Whales like a contained square box of a room where they can easily see their friends, their enemies, and the other people who share the corridors of power. Usually the real Whale rooms are fairly nondescript, white walled boxes with a couple of shaded windows. Nothing crazy. If you don't believe me go and check it out for yourself sometime. Whales like to see what is going on. They don't like the lights down too low, because then they can't read the menu, and they don't like the music up too loud, because then people can't hear them talk. Sure there are Whales that enjoy booming music and dim lights: they go to Whale nightclubs. That is what nightclubs are for, actually. But if a Whale cares anything at all about wine, he isn't going to a nightclub. He (or she) is going to a restaurant.

And like I said before, there should be no rules in that restaurant. There is a captain I used to work with uptown. The guy is a magician. He wouldn't want me to say his name, I'm sure, but everybody who dines regularly in the power rooms of the Upper East Side will know who I mean. He'll open up the elaborate menu with all the different columns and sub-categories and prices and he'll say to the host as he hands this to them "Here at this restaurant there are no rules." Of course that's bullshit. There are a ton of rules. There are rules about rules in that place. But that captain sets the tone with his guests. He is telling them that he is on their side, and that he will fight for them. Which he does. And he is handsomely rewarded for the service. I have long suspected that he makes more money than anybody else in that (large) company. I know he put his kids through college. That's how the Whale economy works, which is something I learned back in 2000.

Find more of Levi's musings on the I'll Drink to That podcast and So You Want to be a Sommelier?
· All Coverage of Whale Week [~ENY~]

The Federalist

15 Beacon St., Boston, MA