Wine Service Discovers Its Own Brand of Theater

Wine service is seen as the last vestige of the modern dining experience to resist innovation. Some are challenging that notion. From super soakers to port tongs to swords to body paint, Christopher Ross on sommeliers who are pushing the boundaries of service.

In an age of relentless culinary experimentation—wherein chefs have questioned the most fundamental assumptions about what food is and how it should be served—one last vestige of the traditional dining experience seems to resist innovation: wine service. Even as Ferran Adrià was spraying dry Martinis directly into guests’ mouths from a perfume bottle at elBulli and Grant Achatz was serving Old-Fashioneds inside ice spheres at The Aviary, sommeliers everywhere were still going about their business as they had for decades. Bring out the bottle, uncork it, pour it—what else was there to do, really?

But inventive minds in the restaurant business are beginning to find ways around even this most simple and straightforward of procedures in an attempt to infuse wine with a spirit of youthful fun and wonder, while at the same time sidestepping gimmickry. In some ways, it’s an effort to return to the earlier days of modern wine service, when the role of the sommelier was more subject to personal flourishes and less codified by mores.

“When I began, no one even knew what a sommelier was or did,” says Larry Stone, the pioneering and award-winning master sommelier, who’s currently director at Huneeus Vintners and owner of LS Vineyards in Oregon. “I’ve always believed in the drama of service.”

For Stone and his guests in the 1980s and ’90s, even the process of table side decanting carried with it an air of excitement and ceremony. “I didn’t think there were any limits, as long as the guests were having fun and the sommelier was too. Nothing is more contagious than pleasure,” he says.

Dustin Wilson, wine director at Eleven Madison Park, is leading the contemporary charge to rethink the possibilities for wine service. His forays into the field reflect EMP’s playful, inventive approach to presentation, one that often verges on the theatrical: Chef Daniel Humm has previously introduced dishes with a magic trick or inside a picnic basket, and now serves a Baked Alaska that’s set on fire on front of the guest. Wilson recently collaborated on a dish at EMP that is the restaurant’s first to incorporate wine into the course itself: diners sip a New York State riesling from a custom-made glass spoon—a nod to the Hungarian tradition of drinking Tokaj from a crystal spoon—that is plated alongside a pastry meant to capture the flavor of sweet wines made from noble rot.

It may also be the case that changing the letter of the law is less important than changing the spirit. Throughout nearly all human history, various traditions have attended the drinking and serving of wine, from the practice in Biblical times of pouring a guest’s glass until it overflowed as a gesture of generosity to the ancient Greek’s innovation of the toast. As long as the spirit of hospitality is truly present, the form is to some degree secondary.

“It’s a cool way to do an interesting wine service that plays on tradition,” says Wilson. “Sommeliers have a tremendous amount of knowledge, and that’s all fine and good, but we can be doing more in the dining room, being more creative with elements of showmanship, going beyond popping corks.”

The Michelin-starred Clove Club in London has also experimented with melding food and wine, treating them less as disparate elements to be paired than as the yin and yang within a single dish. One course of their illustrious tasting menu is a glass of 100-year-old madeira, which the diner sniffs and drinks, before the glass is topped with a broth made of wild duck and ginger, uniting the flavors into one sip.

Ironically, some of the most successful innovations are variations on older wine drinking traditions. Wilson’s other big hit was the reintroduction of port-tonging, an 18th-century technique that was first used to remove the tops of vintage port bottles with unreliable old corks. (See a video here.) By turning the port-tonging process into an elaborate, multi-stage tableside exercise—the sommelier heats a pair of tongs over a flame, clamps the neck of the wine bottle in the vise of the tongs, then brushes the same area with cold water to ensure a clean break of the glass via temperature difference—Wilson invested wine presentation with an almost giddy sense of awe and surprise. EMP’s sommeliers have even occasionally brought a spirit of playground mischief to opening bottles, using Super Soakers to blast open port-tonged Champagne bottles from a distance—and to ambush each other outside the restaurant.

Like port-tonging, sabering Champagne bottles is a relic of bygone years that’s become an increasingly common and popular occurrence in restaurants and bars. Few are as dedicated to its cause as Pearl & Ash partner and wine director Patrick Cappiello, who frequently sabers bottles at his restaurant, often adding an extra layer of drama by carrying out the act from atop the bar and using a shiny, skull-emblazoned katana sword. He first discovered sabering while working at Veritas, where decapitating bottles of expensive wine with a blade was part of a carousing late-night culture that felt miles away from the benign civility of traditional wine service.

“For people who’ve never been to Pearl & Ash before, they have a bit of a look of fright,” he says of the moment when he pulls his katana out. “Guests are often shocked. But once one goes, it inevitably becomes a rash.” Sabering has become such a part of the Pearl & Ash experience that it’s even birthed it’s own social media hashtag: #sabertown. “It’s an element that adds another layer to the dining experience for people,” says Cappiello. “People like knives and explosions.”

But Cappiello’s taste for sabering has less to do with bombast than with the opportunity to thaw the relationship between diner and sommelier, one that is sometimes still characterized by mistrust or discomfort. “The world has told us that the sommelier is supposed to be a snooty asshole with a cup around his neck who’s looking down his nose at your ignorance,” he says. “There’s a preconception that he’s always the oldest guy in the room and someone who wants to take your money—like a used car salesman.” Sabering—which is believed to have originated with Napoleon’s dashing Hussar soldiers—cuts through the Gordian knot of class, etiquette and formality that wine is often entangled in, reminding us that drinking is above all supposed to be about pleasure, a celebration of life and the senses.

Maxwell Leer, former wine director at Bestia in Los Angeles, takes this principle even further. Along with Adam Varvoulis (former GM at Trois Mec), he’s created a recurring series of parties at the bar Honeycut which they term “wine raves,” serving shots of wine and wine cocktails in an environment that borrows atmospheric elements of rave culture like neon lights, glow sticks and dance music. “The development of wine raves was a reaction to wine feeling stodgy, overwhelming, pretentious and exhausting,” says Leer. “I felt like everyone was being so serious.”

A manifesto on Wine Rave’s website could be mistaken for a psychedelic poem or an MDMA-laced rant, reading in part: “Wine Rave is a state of mind. Can you free yourself from color; it’s sensation as pleasure; as life. Stop swirling. Derobe. Become bioluminescent.”

It might sound slightly absurd—and that’s kind of the point. Like Cappiello, Leer and Varvoulis’s point of view is that if their methods of presentation do nothing more than make people laugh and crack a smile as they’re drinking wine, then they’ve succeeded.

But it may also be the case that changing the letter of the law is less important than changing the spirit. Throughout nearly all human history, various traditions have attended the drinking and serving of wine, from the practice in Biblical times of pouring a guest’s glass until it overflowed as a gesture of generosity to the ancient Greek’s innovation of the toast. As long as the spirit of hospitality is truly present, the form is, to some degree, secondary.

“Simplicity is the beauty here,” says Lucas Payà, wine director for José Andrés and former head sommelier at elBulli. He points out that at that bastion of forward-thinking gastronomy, where diners’ palates and notions of eating were being confounded with each succeeding course, the familiarity of a more conventional wine list was something guests could hang onto and take comfort in. “I tend to think of wine as a ‘finished’ product able to give you endless pleasure if you serve it correctly and frame it within the right food and your guests’ expectations.”

It’s a perspective that Stone, reviewing his own decades of experience, echoes. “Pulling the cork is never really the most important part of what a sommelier does,” he says. “There’s writing the list, the selection of glassware, pricing guidelines, style of service, how to approach the guest and so on. I always find improvisation more interesting against a background of formal training. Within the form there has been, and always should be, room for infinite variation.”