Thursday, September 26, 2013

An Italian Sommelier’s Diary: The Nightmare Table

The scene is an urban setting somewhere in the Western half of the United States. A wine waiter is working a large party of folks who are celebrating. Maybe they have just come from the Emmys. Or perhaps the stars aligned to have all these people in a room at the same time, partying. Our sommelier is called over to a table of seven, four women and three men. At which point I will yield to the wine steward, who will relate the following events in his own voice.

I saw them coming, led by a matriarchal woman with her golden cane. I had seen them in from time to time, but this time she looked different. She looked old; she walked like she might have had a stroke. But there was something that reminded me of her from times before. She had that look in her eye. Evil.

Her husband, I’d seen him in with his pals. Once with a younger woman, maybe a niece. A very close niece. I thought it was nice he was taking his now invalid wife to dinner. At the end of the night I would think differently.
They had two couples on either side of them. One had just returned from Italy for a month. “But we didn’t visit any wineries.” Somehow, though, they had become experts and as the night unfolded they would assert their expertise over the table and me.

And to the other side of the table another couple. I don’t remember the man, it’s like he was invisible. Nice enough, but no latent impression. But his wife was unforgettable. She came in drunk. And she proceeded to fan the flames of inebriation the whole night until she became a fire breathing dragon.

And the uncoupled woman, tall, dark, large. There was something about her that was not quite aligned. Maybe because she was the odd one out? Maybe she had her costume on and who she (or he) really was wouldn’t be revealed. I know that she was the 2nd quietest one. She drank what I put in front of her. She didn’t know, but she didn’t question my selections. The others more than made up for it though.

If you have ever been a server, you can see these patterns when you know sometimes it just isn’t going to work out. I should have seen it coming. But my mamma and papa taught me to be tolerant and considerate. That comes with service.
It was a set menu, with wine pairings. There was a sheet with all the information at each seat. I came to the table and welcomed the party, as I did with all the tables. But this table, they were fishing, and the older man set a hook in me. “What makes these pairings so special?” he asked. Word had it they once had an Italian restaurant. Word also had it that the landlord had bolted the doors to the restaurant when they didn’t pay their rent.

I remarked that the chef had prepared for the night this menu and asked me to pair the food with appropriate wines, which I did. I could feel the hook going in deeper.

The wife, the one with the cane and the evil eye, grabbed me and pulled me closer. I could see her hair was falling out. “I’ve been to Italy many times,” she said. “You need to dazzle me.” Fortunately at the time, I had to excuse myself to pour a flight of wines to the other tables.
When I came back to the table to pour their flight, they wanted to ask me about the order. In the ensuing commotion, someone moved a glass while I was pouring and in correcting my movement I tried to go into the glass. But the glass was moved, a hand tried to move it back, two glasses hit and wine and shards went everywhere like a little explosion. I rushed off to get towels and more glasses, leaving the bottles on the table.

When I arrived back, the drunken women was pouring a single vineyard cru into her water glass, filling it up. I attempted to exchange the glasses, but she shot sharp shards from her dragon eyes. It felt as if I had been hit by a powerful wind, so I retreated, post haste. I had to leave the room to catch my breath and composure. I almost tripped on the matriarch's cane.

The owner came up to me asking me what was going on. I explained. “They are good customers,” he said. “Pull yourself together,” he barked.

At the end of the meal we brought out a dessert and a sweet wine. “We don’t do sweet wine,” the matriarch leaked. When I explained this was how an ending in Italy would be with kind of menu, she looked directly at me with her one evil eye and repeated, “Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time. We don’t do sweet wine, young man.” I excused myself and took the special dessert wine.

It’s odd how one party can alter the mood of a whole room. Actually, it shook me so much that when I called my dad that night back home in Lenno, I asked him if this coming to America was such a good idea. My dad, he lives simply by the lake, now, and has a lot of time to think. And this is what he told me.
“Son, you can always come home. But you know what is here waiting for you. Where you are now is about learning lessons. Life lessons. It isn’t about serving wine in pretty glasses to movie stars. By now you know they are just people too, and when you see them in person, they aren’t so perfect. But if you can learn how to get through the service; it always isn’t so nice. But there is always something to be gathered. One day you will look back at these off nights and they will be your greatest teachers. How you react, how you become, is more important than how they act.”

My dad, how I love him and my mother. I miss them, but he is right. I am here to learn the lessons, to serve, and to become a person, for better or worse.

Tomorrow night is a new sun rising. Tomorrow night we will try again. And again. Until I get it right.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Mennagia said...

It is a testament to your patience that you can tolerate people like this. Service is service though. Everyone has to serve somebody or something, as they say. I would have had either to leave or pour some inexpensive wine over her head.

The Turtle Restaurant said...

It is good you have such supportive parents and it is also good that you allow yourself to vent. This type of customer ruins their own evening more than mine, but lord, I have to go out side to scream sometimes.

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