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Swellboy on… wine waiters

A once noble calling is being eclipsed by the cult of the bacchanologist

Swellboy on… wine waiters

November 16 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am used to hearing cocktail barmen referred to as mixologists, but the other day I received an invitation that promised the services of a well-known (at least I presume he was well-known) “bacchanologist” from the Connaught Hotel. My inner choleric codger harrumphed in mild irritation, while another part of me revelled in the versatility of the English language, which at the touch of a suffix creates not just a new word, but an entirely new discipline within the canon of the bibulous arts.

Professors of mixology and masters of the bacchanological sciences have been on the up ever since Tom Cruise starred in the mildly ludicrous Cocktail. I would hazard that as a career option, mixing drinks is now considered a fully-fledged profession ranking alongside, say, medicine or the law, and just a rung or two below television chef or talent-show contestant. But the question I keep asking myself is: whatever happened to the wine waiter? After all, I am not sure that Tom Cruise would have chosen to star in a movie where, instead of flinging bottles of spirits around, he would have had to intone solemnly on the merits of the tempranillo grape.

I only ask because I had a bit of a run-in with one the other day.

First, I am a difficult and demanding restaurant patron. Second, I enjoy a cigar after dinner and so it was that a friend and I appeared at a newly opened establishment, the name of which need not concern us here, because I heard that it had a cigar terrace. Now, if I’d had any sense, I would have headed straight to Mark’s Club and installed myself on what is quite possibly the most elegant and agreeable riposte to anti-smoking legislation that it has been my pleasure to visit. But alas I did not. So it was that we were installed outside on a terrace, fetched chairs, drinks, furnished with an ashtray, presented with a bill and left to get on with our Cohiba Behikes.

I was therefore surprised when a young man with not unattractive shoulder-length hair and a pleasant enough open-necked shirt informed us that we had to move, two metres in all, to what he called the cigar terrace. I asked why and he told me, with a straight face, that it was the law. The law? I was particularly impressed with myself for not telling him that I was awarded the title Havana Man of the Year in 2007 and that I knew a thing or two about smoking law. I restricted myself to pointing out that almost his entire restaurant staff had been very helpful in fetching us chairs, drinks, ashtray, bill etc and that, while doing so, they might have noticed that we were breaking the law of the land. And if we had been risking a police raid they could have been good enough to let us know as much before taking our money.

I then spotted a bunch of small metallic grapes on his slightly too slim lapel and I asked him why, if he was the wine waiter, he was such an expert on anti-smoking legislation. My friend adopted a more conciliatory tone and called him the sommelier, which seemed to restore some of his dignity and went part of the way towards putting us and our cigars back within the bounds of the law. He said that we could stay where we were.

I felt a little bad that I had been so obstreperous, but I also felt sorry that the once noble calling of wine waiter, once the king of intoxicant-related servers, has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the bacchanologist. Even the epithet bacchanologist is a cruel twist of the knife. Rusty though my mythology is, I seem to recall that Bacchus (and his predecessor in the job, Dionysus) was god of wine, wine-making, harvesting, and not, at least as I recall, the god of the shaken but unstirred martini, the Singapore Sling, the Moscow Mule, nor indeed the god of the mojito.

I remember once lunching with the great Mark Birley in George just before it opened, when he saw the wine waiter and, as I remember, dismissed him, saying that the wine waiter should be an impressive figure and this one was not. Looking back, I find this hard to fault. After all, if you are about invest a lump sum into a bottle of elderly grape juice, you really want a sense of occasion, and when it comes to occasion there is little to beat the sight of the traditional wine waiter bearing down on you carrying a leather-bound volume the size of a large family bible (circa 1764), his tastevin glinting in the candlelight and clinking against the buttons of his evening dress waistcoat, like the insignia of some lord mayor or Ruritanian order of chivalry.

Having worked in the wine trade, taken a few wine exams and drunk a fair bit of the stuff in my time, I know what a deadly serious business the wine snobbery thing is. It is a sacerdotal rite: the grave and weighty decision as to whether to go for the left bank or the right bank, the reflective silence as one’s eyes scan the list of vineyards and vintages, the token consultation of one’s fellow diners as to their choices of food, the solemn moment when the bottle is presented (which, if you are paying more than £170, should come with a small amount of dust or slight discolouration of the label), the moment of mystic communion with Bacchus as the intoxicating liquid is swirled around the glass and hoisted to the nose and then the lips…

Of course, there is much more in this vein: the susurrus of exchanged information between wine waiter and connoisseur; the decanting; the chilling; the pantomimic changing of one set of over-large crystal glasses for another set of over-large crystal glasses, better shaped to funnel flavour and aroma depending on grape variety and so on.

It is in short a noble calling for which dignity is vital, and I feel that it is beneath the dignity of his calling for a wine waiter to double as smoking monitor.

However, we live in a world where waiters sometimes dress as though they would be happy to furnish you with a gramme or two of cocaine “to complement your meal” and where the once Jeeves-like loftiness of the wine waiter has been eclipsed by the cult of the celebrity bacchanologist.

See also

People, Wines