Wine: Charlie’s Way 

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In far too many restaurants, wine service is simply an afterthought, a necessary evil of a restaurant’s profit center. In others, it’s almost like religion is to some people: overly formal, staid and intimidating.

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So how does a restaurateur strike a balance? Edmund O. Lawler’s book Lessons in Wine Service From Charlie Trotter ($24.95) provides some provocative and valuable answers. If I ran a restaurant, I wouldn’t let a member of my service staff even touch a bottle of wine without first reading it.

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You could fill this paper recounting the accolades and awards that Charlie Trotter’s eponymous Chicago restaurant has garnered in its 20-plus-year history. Trotter opened his restaurant—considered by many to be America’s best—in 1987 with a wine inventory valued at about $30,000. Today, the wine list boasts more than 1,800 selections. A single magnum of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru 1945 sells for $35,000, more than his entire cellar was worth in ’87.

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But in Lessons in Wine Service, Trotter emphasizes that a great wine program isn’t just about the number of collectibles on a list. For Trotter, great restaurant wine service is about passion, enthusiasm, professionalism, and most of all, a commitment to excellence. He believes that this commitment can and should be a cornerstone of service in every restaurant, regardless of how grand or small.

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Trotter is 100 percent committed to his guests. He insists on giving them not just a good dining experience, but an exceptional one. For many, a visit to Charlie Trotter’s is a once-in-a-lifetime event. He demands that it be memorable. And so, for example, he’ll do something I’ve never heard of in other restaurants: He’ll adjust menu items on the fly to improve a dinner guest’s experience.

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With 1,800 wines at hand and a list designed to complement Trotter’s cuisine, a customer can find wine to pair perfectly with everything on the menu. That’s not an issue. But former Trotter’s master sommelier Larry Stone recounts a situation where a guest had ordered a rare bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild along with a lobster dish, an odd combo to say the least. Stone says, “On the fly, Trotter sauced the lobster to accommodate the wine.” It’s not unusual for a sommelier at Trotter’s to pass wine notes along to the kitchen where pigeon or rabbit, for instance, might be substituted for fish to better pair with a wine. “There’s an unlimited number of ways a dish can be adjusted to a wine,” Trotter says. “We can add or reduce the amount of acid; we can tweak the degree of earthy tones in a dish … When the guest orders a certain wine, we can work the food around the wine.” This is all but unheard of in most restaurants, where the chef’s ego wouldn’t allow for such modifications. Charlie Trotter’s is all about agility and flexibility.

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Every service staff member at Charlie Trotter’s—even food runners and receptionists—attends weekly wine seminars and tastings so that they can assist customers with wine queries and recommendations. They are trained to “read the guests” and their needs. Some are wine experts; others are rookies. The staff must adjust accordingly.

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Sommeliers at Trotter’s taste every wine before serving it to a guest. This eliminates problems of corkage, taint and so on. In addition, they’ll offer interested guests personal tours of the wine cellar. I’ve had this happen only twice in Utah: Once at Metropolitan, and once at Stein Eriksen Lodge.

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This merely scratches the surface of the best book on wine service I’ve ever come across.

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