Sunday, October 6, 2019

The difficulty of finding the right Wine's Average Market Price



The difficulty of finding the right 

Wine's Market Price





Trump 25% additional duties on wines
from France, Germany, Spain and the UK
by ©LeDomduVin 2019 

(Trump photoshopped credit to u/qda on reddit)




Like the stock prices, wine market prices always move up and down due to the fluctuations of supply and demand. Fortunately for us, they remain generally more consistent as the fluctuations for wines are not as wild and sudden. And to a certain extent we could even say that, as wines get older, for most high-end wines, prices tend to go up rather than down (especially with great vintages bottled in large formats). 

Yet, prices also go up and down due to the world economy (the major countries economy should I say) and, sometimes, also due to the decisions made by their leaders or governments. On that matter, for example, Trump decided a few days ago to add additional duties on some European Wines (for various reasons), and consequently, the market prices for these specific wines sold in the US market will rise. 

Taken aback by this decision, in this instance, I somehow felt the sudden need to write a post about wine's market prices, and the difficulty to find the right ones among the various major websites and apps offering them. As many of you (in the US mainly) might not be able to overcome the urge to check the prices of their habitual vino on their computer as soon as the duties are effective, I thought it would be a good time to write on this subject. 

Regarding the additional import duties, the official document titled “Section 301 Investigation – EU Large Civil Aircraft – Final list of products” has been written in response to an investigation stating that: “The U.S. Trade Representative has determined that the European Union (EU) and certain member States have denied U.S. rights under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement and have failed to implement WTO Dispute Settlement Body recommendations concerning certain subsidies to the EU large civil aircraft industry. The U.S. Trade Representative has determined to take action in the form of additional duties on products of certain member states of the EU.”

The paragraph “section 7.” of the document states that: “Wines from France, Germany, Spain and the UK will be subject to an additional 25% ad valorem import duties, for all wines other than Tokay (not carbonated), not over 14% alcohol, and in containers not over 2 liters, effective October 18th, 2019.” 

Basically, all wines (except Tokay and champagne/sparkling), containing 14% alcohol and lower, and coming in carton box or bottle of 2 liters and lower (which obviously includes magnum size) will be affected by the 25% additional import duties. Which understandably means that your usual bottle of wine from any of these 4 countries (sold in the US) will be slightly more expensive and might trigger you to look away for better values within the prices you use to pay for these bottles before. 

Those who have the financial means, might not mind the added import duties and will probably continue to buy their favourites, even if at higher prices. But those who don’t (meaning the rest of us) will surely mark a hesitation at the sight of the increased price for our regular bottle of vino. 

These additional import duties will surely and greatly affect the markets on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 4 stated countries (France, Germany, Spain and the UK), producers and wine merchants will see their order from the US decrease and thus volumes sold in the US diminish. And in the US, importers and distributors will have to pay an additional 25% on all wines they will receive after October 18th, a budget they surely did not anticipate when they bought/ordered their wines few months prior the announcement (especially wines bought "En Primeur" like Bordeaux). A bump to the cost prices, which will consequently be reflected on the shelf’s prices at your local retailers and affect most US customers drinking wine within $10-$15 more especially. 

Although we all surely would prefer to pay $10 or less for our regular bottle of wine, most of us usually pay within $15-$20, the typical “sweet spot” for everyday drinking. But on October 18th, the price for that same bottle will suddenly hike to $18.75-$25, and we will surely not look at it the same way, having promise ourselves rarely to exceed $20 normally. 

Some may say that it is only $3.75-$5 bucks more and that it is not a big deal!!! However, if you buy a bottle daily, or at least as regularly as 2 or 3 times a week, it will add quickly to roughly $50 more per month (or $600/year), the price of 2.5 bottles at the previous price per month, and unavoidably put a dent in your wallet and your monthly wine budget. 

Hence the importance of checking prices online (more attentively than usual) to find the right market price that suits your budget. But which website could you use to find a good reference market price? 

In a wine market constantly evolving, on a daily basis, with more online tools and Apps at anyone's disposal appearing, nearly every year, it has become (in my opinion) more and more difficult to choose among the various websites and define what is exactly the Average Market Price of a wine as a reference. 

Most of you will tell me: "Easy! Just go on Wine-Searcher and take the Average Market Price of the wine you're looking for as a reference!" And I will agree if it was that simple, yet, it isn't, and I will try to explain to you why. 

Let’s go back in time first. 

Prior to the mid-90s, there were barely any sites on the internet for regular consumers to compare retail or auction prices. At the time, wine retailers based their prices on cost, of course, some adding margins exceeding 50% (greed, located in remote areas, having the market monopole due to lack of immediate competition, having excess expenses, etc…), but most had to have savvy market knowledge to figure out their selling prices and remain competitive while still making decent margin closer to 30-35%. The later visited their competitors (or had somebody doing it for them) and/or attended the auctions and other wine events to remain aware of the market trends and prices. With no internet tools, listening to word-of-mouth was a given. Information was also conveyed through long discussions with the suppliers and distributors, taking on the role of informants depending on their relationships with the retailer, during on-site tastings or friendly visits. 

In 1995, the replacement of the old internet system (NSFNET – 1985-1995) by new networks operated by commercial service providers, brought the internet to the public on a much larger scale and opened it to commercial traffic. A virtual door to the world was now opened for new communication ways and commercial opportunities, which have since tremendously impacted our daily life, our culture and the way we see and look at the world. 

A couple of years later, websites started to mushroom everywhere on the web in all imaginable fields and subjects. Communication and information as we knew it via TV, radio and paper press, rapidly evolved into discussion forums, blogs, social networking and even online shopping. 

By 1997 and especially in 1998 and 1999, as technology advanced rapidly, this expanding network connecting people to the word gave birth to websites which became benchmarks in their respective industry, essential and indispensable professional tools easing the job to find and compare brands and prices. 

By early 2000s, algorithms became more powerful and thus more performant and could compute even more data than previously. At the time, the data were fed by either the algorithm's genitors and/or by the people entering and/or downloading the data (e.g. Wine-Searcher collected data, in the form of excel list of retailer's wines with retail prices, from participating retailers, which constituted the listing on their website).

And despite advance technology, even with AI helping, it is still the case nowadays. Sites like Wine-Searcher can only gather what has been given to them, meaning that the prices are not generated by computers. AI can anticipate and eventually predict on its own and even generate its own data to be fed on, yet most data like prices are still decided and generated by humans. Meaning that compared to computers, the human mind is influenced and twisted by many factors and strategic thoughts making most price listings on prices search engines like Wine-Searcher and Liv-Ex somewhat unreliable, more especially their Average Market Prices.    

Although other wine prices search engines websites existed prior the following ones (e.g. winery’s websites, retailer’s websites, etc…), in the wine industry, these pioneer websites were called: Wine-Searcher (1998), Wine Market Journal (1998), Liv-Ex (1999), Wine.com (1998), and back then (even still now) constituted the backbone of wine info, services and price tracking. It was rather simple and quite straight forward at the time. 



wine-searcher logo courtesy of wine-searcher.com



Founded 1998, in London, which was the world hub of wines back then, Wine-Searcher mainly focused on providing retailer’s prices, from local retailers at first, then expanding it gradually to the whole world (even featuring auction prices now). And although few knew about it and using it at first, within a couple of years after its birth, it rapidly became the essential market price tracking tool of all importers, distributors and more especially retailers in the early 2000s (especially in the US where consumers used to buy their wines on price rather than on quality, provenance, producer or brand). Wine retailers could now track and compare their prices against their peers and eventually adjust them to fit the image they try to convey (e.g. large retailers with less expensive and more commercial brands usually practising lower prices and discounts, while wine boutique stores focusing more rare bottles, limited production and less commercial, smaller, independent wineries and vintners). It was a breakthrough which revolutionized the market prices and the way retailers behaved toward one another. Nowadays wine-searcher.com is still the leading search engines for retailers and even pre-auction wine prices (personally, as a Wine Market Analyst, I use it every day).




Liv-Ex logo courtesy of liv-ex.com


Back then in the late 90s, I was working as a Head Sommelier and Wine Buyer in a restaurant in the British Capital, which was THE place to buy wines from all around the world. Wine was imported, exported, bought, sold, exchanged and shipped for restaurants, retails, auctions, private collections, and also for investments, a new emerging trend putting the wine at the same level as Art, Antiques and rare collectable luxury products. Wine was sold not anymore for its intrinsic taste, value and characteristics, but for the profits, it could generate. It became a product of speculation. And Liv-Ex was created in 1999 to track the price movements of the most traded fine wines on the market. It rapidly became the industry’s benchmark, providing info about the trading prices (like the stock exchange):

1. The buying price (understand how much people are ready to pay to buy a wine?), 

2. The selling price (understand how much people want for their wine for sale?)

3. And the market price (enabling traders to compare the buying and selling prices with the market price and define if it is a good deal or not. 

Personally, I use the offspring of Liv-Ex, called "Cellar Watch"






Wine Market Journal logo courtesy of winemarketjournal.com




Also in the late 90s, Wine Auctions becoming an unavoidable way to buy old vintages of famed Chateaux and Domaines as well as rare bottles of iconic wineries with limited production, the need for a website regrouping the auction’s results as well as informing about trade values and market prices became an evidence, and in 1997 Wine Market Journal was created.  WMJ has been collecting every single trade prices of every bottle of wine at every major auction house in the world ever since. It is the leading and most authoritative auction prices website, as its historical data are unmatched by any of its competitors. It is a great tool to find prices and market trends, especially for old and rare bottles scarce or unavailable on the market. 





Back then, these 3 websites constituted the core of wine searching and price browsing online for both consumers and professionals within Europe and the US. Pioneers in their own field, they have inspired the tsunami of wine search engines websites and (more recently) apps which followed and are now crowding the web, transforming the simple experience of searching wine prices online as a real nightmare and even to a certain extent questioning their reliability. 



wine.com logo courtesy of wine.com




Wine.com

On the other side of the Atlantic, back in 1998, as rules and procedures to wine shipping to other states within the US were relaxed a little (**), American wines competed with an increasing demand for European wines getting more recognition with American consumers. With rapidly growing imports of wine in the US from Europe, but also South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the need for a large online wine retailer to facilitate access to these wines became somewhat of a necessity, and wine.com was created.

Visually attractive and user-friendly, wine.com was created to revolutionize the way people discover, buy and enjoy wine. As per Wikipedia: "Wine.com is a San Francisco based online wine retailer that offers the largest selection of wines in the world. Wine.com sells over 2 million bottles per year, with a stock of more than 17,000 different bottles of wine, shipping throughout the United States."







But first and foremost, prior taking some examples, regarding the data fed super algorithms and AI, understand that no matter how good the algorithm or AI of your preferred wine website or app is, it will never be accurate nor reliable, as you cannot remove the human factors (errors, made intentionally or not) and the twisted mind of men out of the equation (greed, deception, lure, etc...).

As said above, prices are still generated by humans. And fortunately, you will tell me, and I would agree; but these human factors (errors and twisted minds) are what makes it so difficult to find the right websites with the most accurate market prices. 

And although I have been heavily using the four websites sited above over the last 16 years for wine search and price tracking, and highly recommend them for many reasons, their average market prices are far from being accurate for the most part due to these factors. Let me try to explain my point of view, as it may open your eyes on certain things about wine market prices on websites you’ve always trusted blindly. 


In my opinion, the Average Market Prices of all wine search engines online are not correct nor reliable, mainly because of the difference between the fishy lowest prices and the highest prices (sometimes astronomically high):


The Lowest Prices are usually for bottles that are (most likely):

  • In bad conditions (low level, damaged label/capsule, badly stored, etc...) 
  • From unreliable provenance (god knows where it comes from and in which conditions it was stored previously)
  • Potential counterfeits (the wine world is flooded with fakes and counterfeits at all level)
  • The sole and unique bottle available in that store (potentially presenting all the above)
  • Inexistent (i.e. despite the merchant or store promoting it, when you try to order online call or physically go there to check, the bottle is either not available or has been sold... such coincidence... 
    • Surely a lure to attract more people to their website or store 
    • and have the most novice wine buyers fall into the trap
  • Or, on last resort (and only if you are really lucky), the bottle(s) really exists, and the price is so low because:
    • The price was never changed according to the market trends, and in that case, you might get a real bargain reflecting the trends of a few years ago 
    • The merchant/store wants to get rid of that particular bottle (even sometimes at loss compared to its original cost, eventually for the reasons cited above)   


The Highest Prices are usually for bottles that are (in general): 

  • Super rare or even unavailable on the market (old vintages, big formats, limited production)
  • From top producers with limited production/allocations (e.g. DRC)
  • Received top scores from wine critics (100 points, best of the vintage, etc...)
  • Still too young and deserve a few more years (i.e. raising the prices very high dissuades buyers, prices might be readjusted according to market trend (or not) a few years later when the store/merchant is finally ready to sell them)   
  • Or, like for the lowest prices, 
    • a lure to attract more people to their website or store by promoting such a bottle at such price 
    • a good marketing stunt as even if people criticise such practice, they still talk about the store/merchant...   





Let’s take some visual examples.


Wine-Searcher















💢Work in progress - to be continued soon💢




(*) If interested in the list of products subject to the additional duties, you go to this website and read or even download it here. And if you really want to read more details about "Section 301 - Large Civil Aircraft", you can go to the official website of the "Office of the United States Trade Representative" here.

(**) Which wineries and retailers will sell and ship wine directly to consumers varies from state to state, winery to winery and retailer to retailer. (Note that it is illegal for consumers to sell or ship wine without the assistance of a licensed third party.) In most states, consumers may have wine shipped to them directly from a winery, though most states prohibit consumers from ordering wine from an out-of-state retailer. Today it is illegal for a state to permit consumers to buy wine directly from an in-state winery but not from an out-of-state winery, but a state's right to regulate retailer shipping is less clear, and most states will allow consumers to have wine delivered from a local retailer, but not from one beyond the state's borders.
(source wine-spectator.com, read the full article here)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

AIWC - Asia International Wine Competition


AIWC - Asia International Wine Competition




AIWC - Asia International Wine Competition - Logo


Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to participate, as one of the Wine Judges, in the AIWC 2019 (Asia International Wine Competition), held in Hong Kong. 

I had the chance to participate back in 2017 and 2018, and once again, Adam Levy (the creator of AIWC) and Beth Dorrough (Adam's "right arm" and co-organiser of the AIWC) kindly invited me to participate in the event this year too.



Royce Cellar in Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) Hong Kong
©LeDomduVin2019 (storefront)



The event was held at Royce Cellar in Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon), in Hong Kong. A modern wine boutique store and wine bar, where customers can browse a very eclectic selection from the Old World and the New, including some of the most prestigious Chateaux from Bordeaux as well as some of the iconic Domaines and Producers of Burgundy, Rhone and Champagne, mingling with some of the top wineries of Australia, New Zealand, USA and beyond.



Royce Cellar in Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) Hong Kong
©LeDomduVin2019 (inside)



From what I could see on their shelves and wine fridges, they can accommodate any customer's needs, offering a wide range of wines (white, red, rosé, sparkling, sweet, fortified) and even some spirits, as well as Saké, at both ends of the price spectrum and in various formats too.



Royce Cellar in Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) Hong Kong
©LeDomduVin2019 (shelves)



The old Sommelier and ex-wine-boutique-store manager in me were very pleased to see such an enticing display of great wines in such a modern, yet comfortable, bright and inviting environment. The bar at the back end of the store and the private salon at the basement floor create a cosy atmosphere, which further enhances the visual experience.      



Royce Cellar in Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) Hong Kong
©LeDomduVin2019 (the bar)



Although the competition started at 10am, I arrived about half an hour early, as I like to do, (in case they needed help and could make myself useful), only to discover that the store was already full of people. And that's when I realized that not only wines but also beers and spirits will be tasted that day. Amongst the people were the store's staffs of course, but also some helping-hands to assist and aid the AIWC team with the preparation of the bottles and glasses for the tastings, and of course, the judges, all veteran specialists in their own field (wine, beer and spirits), from different horizons and backgrounds.

A welcoming copious breakfast of Viennoiseries and mini-sandwiches, as well as coffee and tea, had been set up for those of us who might want to have a bite and something to drink prior getting started with the competition's tastings. And, although, I need to admit that, usually, I prefer not to eat or drink prior to a tasting as it normally decreases the sensitivity of my tastebuds, (tastebuds being fully functional and more sensitive in the morning, usually around 10-11am, especially when starving due to lack of food or liquid for a few hours), I could not resist the temptation to discreetly devour some of these goodies... too appetizing!!!



AIWC's Adam Levy giving the wine judges
a quick briefing prior to starting the tasting
Royce Cellar basement room ©LeDomduVin 2019



Once sated, Adam and Beth invited us to go to the room at the basement (where the wines will be tasted, while beers and spirits will be tasted upstairs within the store and at the bar on the ground floor), to have a quick briefing on the process and the rules of the competition, prior to starting the tasting.     


The AIWC is a truly interesting and eyes-opening wine competition where wines are basically tasted blind and judged based on their Quality-Price-Ratio (or QPR as commonly referred to in the wine trade). QPR is basically a conceptual measure of the perceived value of a wine, in this particular case, the judge's opinion of the wine's quality weighed against its price.

So basically, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a wine buyer, (i.e. one of your customers or clients or even yourself), and with your wine tasting skills and experience as well as your knowledge of the market and its eventual changing trends, decide whether the wine is good or not based on its quality-price-ratio and, at the end of the day, your willingness to buy it. 

In short, is the wine worth the price you will pay for it? And will you buy it?

The answer often falls into 4 main categories:

  • Good (or occasionally geat) value for money, I'll definitely buy this wine at this price... 
  • Hum... Not bad, I could definitely see myself sipping on that wine occasionally at this price...
  • Hem... This wine is ok (occasionally good), but not at this price... no thanks... 
  • Yuck... This wine is outrageous... Next!



The QPR Dilemma - Quality-Price-Ratio
by ©LeDomduVin 2019



To prevent from any biased answers, the wines are tasted by a minimum of 2 judges and brought in front of the judges by flights of 3-10 glasses of wine of the same grape variety (i.e. all Pinot Noir in the same flight), some from the same origin, but not always, usually coming from different regions or even countries (i.e. Pinot Noir from New Zealand and Oregon in the same flight), and not from the same vintage either. Yet, it also happens that some wines in the same flight may not be from the same grape variety either...

So, how can you judge them, will you say?

Well, the answer to that question is quite simple:

Each wine must be tasted for what it is and worth what you're willing to pay for it!!!



QPR = Quality vs Price by ©LeDomduvin 2019




Let me clarify by giving you the AIWC rules (*) as explained by Adam (you can also check the AIWC website here for more details on the rules)


  • AIWC (Asia International Wine Competition) medals are awarded on a merit basis by a majority vote. 
  • The judges are instructed to grant no awards or medals when, in their opinion, the wines are not ones they would import, distribute, buy or sell in their businesses based on product and price category. 
  • Judges are asked to evaluate the wines in silence until all panel members have finished their evaluation and then open a discussion to reach a consensus. 
  • Judge votes are recorded by an AIWC staff moderator. If there is a significant difference among the judges’ votes, panellists are encouraged to reach a consensus and, if needed, seek counsel from the Head Judge Adam Levy. 
  • Award levels are Double Gold, Gold, Silver, and Bronze. 
  • Double Gold: Phenomenal Product (Must be a unanimous decision by panellists) 
  • Gold: Buyers “Love” It 
  • Silver: Buyers “Like” It 
  • Bronze: Buyers would purchase it 
  • Double Gold award winners will be re-tasted by all panellists to establish which brands may be eligible to receive a ‘Best of Category’ endorsement in its pricing category

I think now you have a better understanding and a clearer idea of how this competition is conducted. 😊



So, now, let get on with the tasting, shall we?



Leigh-Ann Luckett, Director of Operations
at Madison Fine Wine Auction (MFWA) ©LeDomduVin 2019



After the quick briefing, they divided us into two panels of judges. Seating at one of the judge's tables, I was joined by my "partner-in-crime" for that day, Leigh-Ann Luckett, Director of Operations at Madison Fine Wine Auction (MFWA). Leigh-Ann also participated as a wine judge at the AIWC previously, so we were acquainted already and somewhat knew each other personality and palate, which immediately set a relaxed atmosphere for both of us. Understandably, it is easier to taste and reach a consensus with someone you know, appreciate and feel comfortable with, than with someone you don't. We were the panel number 2.



AIWC Asia International Wine Competition Tasting Session
©LeDomduVin 2019



While we were catching up on things since we last met, I glanced at the table set up with the usual suspects, the unavoidable tasting tools: a spittoon, a bottle of water, an empty glass for the water and a stack of tasting sheets on which the judges will be writing their notes and comments and eventual awards.

As this is a blind tasting, the tasting sheets bare nothing but a few numbers (Wine number, Wine ID and Wine Price), with only an indication on the type of wine mentioning the grape variety that will be tasted per flight (see below an example of AIWC tasting sheet **).





The first flight arrived on the table, the competition could start. Like in any wine tastings, the judges taste the wines, write their comments and establish, on their own, first, if the wine is worth an award or not. Leigh-Ann and I have rather similar palates and thus similar thoughts and tasting sensations, which eased the process to reach a consensus on the QPR of the wines and eventually led us to give some awards. 

Immediately as the flight arrives on the table, an AIWC moderator confirms the details already stated on the tasting sheet (flight number, grape variety, region or country of origin), and, also,  if a wine is missing, as it happens that, although originally planned to be tasted, some wines might be faulty, corked or oxidized, and therefore have been removed right before the tasting (thus after the tasting sheets were printed).   

The AIWC moderator also provides the vintages of the wines about to be tasted. It allows the judges to have a better idea on how to approach the wine, to process to the sensory examination and evaluation, in order to assess it's quality-price-ratio (QPR).

For example, if the moderator says "the first two wines of the flight are both Australian Cabernet Sauvignon from 2016 vintage", then the wine judge's mindset will be focusing on these particular details as he/she tastes and assesses the wine, by, carefully and methodically, examining the sensory qualities (visual aspect, aromas, texture and flavors). And if the moderator also provides the region of origin (i.e. Margaret river), then it is an extra bonus clue for the judges, who will further refine the focus of their mindset to taste, examine and evaluate the wine.



Sensory Examination & Evaluation of Wine
Graphic by ©LeDomduVin 2019



In most case scenarios, the mindset of a wine taster proceeding to the sensory examination and evaluation of wine during a tasting (a person's internal way of thinking and his/her primary opinions while tasting in silence first, prior to expressing his/her comments to others) works in the order indicated in the graphic above (clockwise):

If we take the example above, a 2016 vintage, Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River, Australia, then here is how and what the wine taster is thinking going through these 4 main steps, prior to finalize his/her sensory examination and evaluation of the wine.

1. Origin
  • Country: Australia - The wine taster is thinking: New World - Ripe Fruit - Bold Taste
  • Region: Margaret River - Western Australia - Thinking: Renown for its fine Cabernet Sauvignons - Classic
  • Climate: Warm, temperate, and although referenced as a Mediterranean climate, it is, in fact, more Bordeaux-like - Thinking: cooler climate than Southern Australia, therefore more freshness and elegance than Barossa (for example)
2. Wine Type / Grape Variety
  • Cabernet Sauvignon - grown in Margaret River - usual characteristics: red wine, medium to full-bodied, rich in flavors and quite complex, with a good tannic structure and good acidity too, yet more rounded and lighter on its feet (less heavy) than it's Barossa counterparts (for example) (Leeuwin Estate Cab is my personal reference and preference) 
3. Vintage

  • 2016.... in Margaret River for Cabernet Sauvignon... Well, hem... I'm a bit stuck here... help?!? And that's generally the main problem of most wine tasters during wine tastings, as, you may have very good overall knowledge about the region of origin, the climate, the terroir, type of wine and the grape variety, but you may lack the info about the vintage, more especially if you only have notions and never really read anything about it. Meaning that, personally, ask me about Bordeaux or Burgundy, and I will tell you everything I know about the vintage's specifics and variations of and within these two regions; yet, ask me about Margaret River vintages and, like in a cartoon during an awkward moment, you'll probably will hear the sound of an eagle flying in the sky (a red-tailed hawk actually, watch the reason why here 😉😁).    
  • So, I just read a few articles about the 2016 vintage in Margaret River, and, unfortunately, it was a difficult one (and it does not mean that all Margaret River wines in that specific vintage are bad by the way, some are surprisingly good...) Read what James Halliday says about it here (and in case you do not know who James Halliday is, do me a favor and get yourself educated here)  

4. Taste

So, with a mindset on the country, region and grape variety, and no clue about the quality of the vintage, the time has come to taste the wines. The judges of the panel have two ways to do it,

  • either by tasting and comment on the wines, one by one, tasting the first wine (in silence), writing their comments on the tasting sheet first, then consult the other judges of the panel for their comments, evaluate the QPR (i.e. Is it worth it at that price?) and reach a consensus to attribute an award (or not), then do the same for the 2nd wine, and so on 
  • or, by tasting all of the wines of the flight at once, and write their comments on the tasting sheet first, then talk about all the wines at once, and evaluate their QPR by comparing them (i.e. This wine is a much better buy at this price than the other one and deserves bronze? silver? gold? or double gold?), then reach a consensus to attribute an award (or not)
Leigh-Ann and I chose the first way, as it is somewhat easier to taste each wine individually and taste them for what they are, rather than comparing them as, in my opinion, it could influence your judgement on the quality of the wine and you may lower your rating or downgrade the award, or not give any award based on these differences, which, in my opinion, isn't fair.

Don't get me wrong, we eventually end up also comparing them a little at the end, even with the first way, of course, no choice, but I truly believe that we are less influenced when the wines are tasted individually.       

Meaning that, for example, if you taste an average Pinot Noir at $20 and compare it to a very good Pinot Noir at $35, you might be tempted to give no award for the one at $20 and give silver or gold to the one at $35. While, if you taste them individually, you might consider that the one at $20 is not that average (after all) within this kind of price range, and although the one at $35 is very good, it is kind of expensive and at the end of the day not necessarily worth paying $35 (it is all debatable, but this is just an example, after I let you judge the way you think is better 😊).

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that, in this type of competition where wines are tasted blind, it is better (in my opinion) to taste them individually to determine their QPR and evaluate what they really worth, rather than comparing them. 

Not sure if we were too strict, but Leigh-Ann and I did not give many awards, needless to say not much gold, and only one double gold. But that said when you reach our level of wine-buying experience, your palate pays more attention to the obvious flaws of the wines, and often become less tolerant, more uncompromising towards these flaws.

Flaws that are too often accepted, at a lesser professional level by the "wannabe-wine-professional-hipsters" and other "supposedly-posh-wine-connoisseurs", like being a distinct part of the character of the wines. Like excuses to convince themselves that the wine is good when actually it isn't, ring the bell?



Wine Hipster vs Connoisseur by ©LeDomduVin 2019




- "The horse manure and other faeces notes of this natural wine make it so enticing",
- "Well, what? Are you kidding? This wine smells like shit...?!?"
- "Yes, but it is a specific kind of shit, I can smell like... and some... and a hint of...."
- "Ok, spare me the details, this wine smells like shit and is probably bad, but obviously I can't convince you otherwise...(sigh)... Are you always that Hip with wines?"

Basically, the more experienced and professional you are, the more sharpened are your senses, and thus you'll end up being more restrictive on giving accolades and awards, and more difficult to please as with experience, especially when judging wines, flaws are not a "je ne sais quoi" which enhance the character of the wine, they are flaws! Full stop. 


Going back to the competition tasting, once done with these 4 steps, the judges can now discuss with each other and exchange their opinions on the quality of the wine and together assess the QPR of the wine based on its price. As, as the graph above clearly suggests it, no matter how good the wine is or how much you like it, or not, everything revolves around the price! As, in the end, what really matters is the price and your willingness to paying that price or not!

And, for most of the wines presented at the competition, the tasting conclusion ends up being (most of the time): "I like the wine, but not at that price... too expensive, and better wines are available in this price range or lower... I'll rather buy something else!". 

Yet, and fortunately, some of these wines received some awards as a reward for their intrinsic qualities, and more especially for their quality-price-ratio (QPR) for being exceptionally good values for money in their respective category (region, grape variety, wine type) and price range.

Once finished, the tasting sheets of all the judges/panels are collected by the AIWC team, which, in turn, compare the judge's notes, then verify and confirm the awards, which are available on AIWC website. (***) 

What a great day! And what a great competition to participate in, too. Thanks again to Adam Levy (the creator of AIWC) and Beth Dorrough (Adam's "right arm" and co-organiser of the AIWC) for inviting to participate for the 3rd year in a row. Thanks to Leigh-Ann Luckett for being my "partner-in-crime" for that day. A great experience! Highly recommended.




Adam Levy (creator/founder of the AIWC Asia International Wine Competition)
and Dominique Noel (a.k.a LeDomduVin) in Royce Cellar (TST)
©LeDomduVin 2019



Well, wait a minute, that's it, finished? and you didn't eat?!? (will you say...)

But of course, we did. Adam and Beth are taking very good care of their judges. We took a break to go to a nearby Chinese restaurant, called Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) (****), which was actually really good I must say. All the judges (wine, beer and spirits) sat together, which called for interesting subjects convivially discussed while enjoying dumplings and other Hong Kongese and Chinese delights paired with some of the gold and double gold awarded wines and beers from the morning session. 



Adam Levy and some of the AIWC team and judges
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019



Beth Dorrough and some of the AIWC team and judges
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019


Beth Dorrough and some of the AIWC team and judges
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019 (2)



Some of the AIWC team and judges
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019 (1)
 


Some of the AIWC team and judges
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019 (2)


Love Craft beer (tasted at the AIWC competition)
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019



Pasteur Street Brewing Company Passion Fruit
Wheat Beer (tasted at the AIWC competition)
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST)
©LeDomduVin 2019



Master Gao Lunar Eclipse
British Style Imperial Stout Beer
(tasted at the AIWC competition)
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST)
©LeDomduVin 2019



Some of the food, wines, beers and spirits
(tasted at the AIWC competition)
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Kevin O’Leary 2017
Pinot Noir Reserve Series
(tasted at the AIWC competition)
at Tai Woo Restaurant (TST)
©LeDomduVin 2019


What a great lunch! Good food, good company, good wines, beers and even some spirits, good atmosphere, what else to ask?

I would like to apologize to all the people in the pictures above and below for not mentioning all your names, first because we met for the first time that day and I'm very bad for remembering people names on the first day, and secondly because you were far too many for me to remember all of them. (*****)

After lunch, we went back to Royce Cellar to finish the afternoon session of the competition. Once finished and our testing sheets given back to AIWC team, we were authorised to enter the room with the samples to see the wines we tasted that day...



  
Wine Samples tasted at the AIWC 2019  (1)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Wine Samples tasted at the AIWC 2019  (2)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Wine Samples tasted at the AIWC 2019 (3)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Wine Samples tasted at the AIWC 2019 (4)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Wine Samples tasted at the AIWC 2019 (4)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Judges at AIWC 2019
and a happy couple about to get married soon (1)
©LeDomduVin 2019 




Judges at AIWC 2019
and a happy couple about to get married soon (2)
©LeDomduVin 2019


Judges at AIWC 2019
and colleagues in the real-life
©LeDomduVin 2019


Judges at AIWC 2019 in deep thoughts ;-)
tasting some of the samples afterwards
©LeDomduVin 2019


AIWC 2019 - The team and the Panel of Judges for Wine, Beer and Spirits
behind the bar at Royce Cellar (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019



AIWC 2019 - The team and the Panel of Judges for Wine, Beer and Spirits
behind the bar at Royce Cellar (TST) ©LeDomduVin 2019 (black teeth smile)


I'm finishing this post on a high and happy note with these pictures of the joyful and smiley people who constituted the team and the judges for the wine, beer and spirits tasted that day for (respectively) the AIWC (Asia International Wine Competition), the AIBC (Asia International Beer Competition) and the AISC (Asia International Spirits Competition).

Talented and seasoned people, all expert in their own field, respectively wine, beer and spirits, for whom I have much respect. I really hope to see you all next year, if once again Adam Levy and Beth Dorrough kindly invite me to participate in the competition, which I will do with great interest and enthusiasm.

Thank you,


That's All Folks! for today, but stay tuned for more post like this one coming soon.

Santé! Cheers!

Dominique Noel (a.k.a. LeDomduVin)



(*) Rules fully or partly taken from the briefing as well as from the AIWC website here

(**) This AIWC tasting sheet example was created for the purpose of this post only and all original design of AIWC tasting sheets copyrights belong to AIWC (this is just a gimmick of the tasting sheet we had during the tasting used as a visual to complete the paragraph above the picture. 

(***) If interested you can find out which wines received the awards for the 2019 Competition on the AIWC website here

(****) The restaurant we went to for lunch is called "Tai Woo" Restaurant, located at 14-16 Hillwood Road, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon. Find more about it on their website here

(*****) If you recognize yourself in any of the pictures, please email me and I will add your name to the corresponding picture. (or remove the picture if you prefer...) Thank you 😅



More about AIWC - Asia international Wine Competition at  https://asiainternationalwinecompetition.com/

More about Royce Cellar at https://www.facebook.com/Roycecellarhk/


AIWC, Asia International Wine Competition, Tasting Events, Wine Competition, Wine Tasting, Wine Education, Wine Knowledge, Illustrations, #lesillustrationsadom, #ledomduvin, ©LeDomduVin, Wine Store, Wine Experience, Wine Judge


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Clash of Cultures: The service's differences between Western and Chinese restaurants


Clash of Cultures:

The service's differences
between Western and Chinese restaurants
(and some personal experiences...)




Sino-Western Clash of Cultures by ©LeDomduVin 2019




Recently, I went to an upscale Chinese restaurant with my kids and the food was great, tasty and flavorful, but I must admit that the service was weird and unusual and left me intrigued...

Thinking of it, I'm not sure if it is a question of culture or a lack of knowledge?

I mean, is the service in a high-standing Chinese restaurant always like that? or is it a question that the staff (of this particular restaurant) does not have the "Savoir-faire" (the "know-how") or did not necessarily receive the proper training?

Or, is it my background as a seasoned Chef Sommelier and Restaurant Manager in upscale French and western restaurants that influenced me to mainly notice the flaws in the service provided to us during our dinner that night? (*)

I'm not sure and I can't decide. I guess it is probably a bit of both. You'll tell me after reading how was our dinner experience last night, to which I included some blunt opinions and personal experiences relating to this Sino-Western Clash of Cultures. I let you judge. (**)

Meanwhile at the restaurant...


We arrived at the restaurant on time and were greeted with open arms, which I appreciated, being a "white guy" (a "gweilo" as we say in Hong Kong, a Cantonese slang designating westerners) going into an upscale Chinese (Cantonese) restaurant, as sometimes we don't get any greeting at all (culture or education?).

That said, I had no greeting whatsoever in plenty of western restaurants too. So, I guess it just depends on the personality and mood of the first person you see on your way in (receptionists are not always the most agreeable persons among the restaurant staff, while they normally supposed to be, it is usually a dry, frowning, unsmiling face welcoming you in some places...). 

My children probably helped with the joyful greeting we received, by making an impression, being mixed kids with Afro-curly hair and tanned skin (their mum is Afro-American), which always seem to generate a smile on the face of most Hongkongese and more especially Chinese people we meet... also generating an uncontrollable need for them to touch their hair (it was a bit offensive for my kids when we first arrived in HK, as they are not used to be touched by strangers, but we have been living in HK for 8 years, so now, they don't mind it so much anymore... here again just a question of culture and curiosity).

The receptionist invited us to follow her to the restaurant main dining room where a waitress joined us and showed us our table (so far, so good).

We sat down, they put the towels on our laps, brought us some warm/humid towel on the side to be used to wipe our hands (the usages here in HK and China allow you to also wipe your face with it too if you want to). Poured us some warm water in our cups and asked us if we wanted also some tea or any other drinks, while another waitress gave us the menu (so far, so good).

Then things started to get a bit more complicated...

The person assigned to take our order started to make some suggestions from the "à la carte" menu, pretty much immediately after we were given the menus (***). A practice I'm not acquainted with, as usually the Maitre D' or the waiter/waitress gives you a breather to take, at least, a minute or two to look at the menu, prior giving suggestions. She was insisting on this and that, while I was telling her that I would like to have a look by myself first, then decide whether I will take her suggestions or something else in a moment. I was also asking her if she had a set menu, as it probably would be better for my kids and give them the opportunity to sample more things.

But, she ignored my requests and continued on her promotion of the "à la carte" dishes, without really letting me have a look first (nothing more annoying than an insisting and over-enthusiast upselling waiter/waitress while you haven't had the chance to look at the menu yet). A little annoyed and overwhelmed by the situation, (and as I didn't want to lose my cool in front of my kids), I said no to a few of her suggestions at first, trying to guide her into something more of our liking, then abdicated to a few of her suggestions, saying that we will order more food later if needed, while thinking that I would have prefered to take the set menu rather than "à la carte".

So, let's stop there for a minute to reflect on what just happened. This situation could have happened in a western restaurant too. I do not believe that it is necessarily a Hong Kongese or Chinese thing. But, there again, thinking of it, most Hong Kongese and/or Chinese I know have for habits to seat down and usually order pretty quickly (and HK restaurant's staff knows that). On the contrary, we, westerners, unless in a rush, usually prefer taking our time to look at the menu, order some drinks while deciding what to eat and appreciate the beginning of a dinner with colleagues, friends or family, which will surely last for a few long hours eating, drinking and conversing on various topics, redoing the world all over again ("refaire le monde" as we say in French) until satisfied.

Well, let's face it, we were not in a western restaurant, and I didn't want to make a big fuss about it, as all I wanted was to spend quality time with my kids, and I just took for granted that it was maybe this particular restaurant's way to take food orders... or maybe she is just zealous by nature (still a bit annoying and upselling in my opinion, but why not, after all - although in a less annoying and pushy way than that - I have been there myself, countless times, during my years in the restaurant business).

She had left only a couple of minutes ago, when I realized, looking at the menus more attentively this time, that they had a set menu she (probably) purposedly ignored or avoid to show me. Looking at it, I thought to myself that maybe it was not too late to change my mind and order the set menu as I wanted to, rather than going for her suggestions. The set menu offered more choices and thus more food to experience.

I raised my hand, a waitress came but she didn't speak English (and I do not speak either Cantonese or Mandarin, even after 8 years in HK, needless to say, that I've tried, but I'm useless at both, my pronunciations and tones being totally awkward and thus incomprehensible to the natives...). 

She called someone else. A waiter dressed all-in-black came (the Maitre D', I'm assuming). I asked him if it was still possible to change for the set menu instead. He went to check, then came back with a negative and surprising answer: "Sorry Sir, the food has already been prepared and its already on its way" (but we just placed the order a few minutes ago.... ?!?).

To my surprise (and dismay at the same time), although just ordered minutes ago, the first dish arrived in front of us. Not only they take your order rapidly, but they serve the food as fast. There again, nothing to do with western restaurants where one has to wait (or even languish sometimes) for his/her first dish to arrive on the table, carefully crafted by meticulous chefs, to whom we (customers) must abide by their rules and whatever time they think is needed to be satisfied by their "chef-d'oeuvre" (masterpiece), while eating the bread and butter at our disposal to prevent fainting with hunger.

No choice anymore, the kids and I had to dig in and discover the first one of the upsold dishes we didn't really choose ourselves. It was a transparent, gelatinous soup with white stuff floating in it, including two heads of baby green asparagus and an unknown brown "aliment" to add a dash of colour on top.

Yet, prior to sinking my spoon into it, I took a picture of the bowl and its content (always ready for an eventual post on Facebook and/or Instagram, you know what I mean... - sigh -) and also took a few pictures of my kids to mark this special moment together (we don't go to the restaurant very often, or very rarely should I say....).

The two waitresses (a waitress and a Chef-de-rang actually, clearly distinguishable by their outfits) left the bowls in front of us without announcing the name of the dish or saying a word before disappearing from our table. Which is something that I couldn't help to notice as I usually like to hear the waiter/waitress say the name of the dish and eventually describe what is in it prior starting to eat it (like in every normal restaurant). Moreover, rare are the customers remembering immediately the exact name of the ordered dishes seen on a menu minutes before, without giving the menus a second glance or ask the waiter. So, announcing the name of the dish while putting it on the table, should be a given in all restaurants around the world.  

However, here in Hong Kong (and even in China), in Chinese restaurants, I often experienced "the silence of the waiter/waitress" (could be a good title for a movie...) not even releasing a whisper of whatever he/she just put on the table, (not communicating on anything else either for that matter). 

And I can say with a certain assurance that it is a question of culture and traditions, following a rule widely applied to all businesses (not only restaurants) by most Chinese people (Asian in general in fact) in order to keep the face and do not disrupt intentionally or accidentally: 

"Only speak if only spoke to, especially with superiors, senior managements, important guests, VIP, customers and foreigners, otherwise, don't say a word, be respectful and be invisible". 

Strange habits, but rather pleasant and discreet compared to the haughty and unconcerned (sometimes even annoyed or frustrated) attitude some waiters/waitresses, Sommeliers and Maitre D' may have in some western restaurants. (And don't get me started on that I have thousands of stories to tell). 

Back to the dish, of course, needless to say, that in the confusion during the order taking, I totally blanked on the name of the dishes that were chosen for us, and therefore, prior tasting whatever was in the bowl in front of me (as I like to know what I'm eating) I called a waitress to ask her. She didn't speak English (could be annoying but it is the case in most Chinese restaurants here in HK and of course in China, after all, I'm the alien here, and moreover a permanent resident of Hong Kong, therefore I should at least know a few words to get by... but no, I'm useless as I said earlier above). She called the man-in-black, the Maitre D' (here again just an assumption as I had no clue who or what he was). 

Confused and somewhat unconfident, he said: " Sir, what can I do for you?" 

I replied: "Could you please tell me what is the dish and what's in it? " 

Bewildered, he said: "hmm... let me check... wait a moment..." 

It is at this moment that I realized (and thought very loudly in my head), that despite the question of culture and habits, the staff of this restaurant had probably never received any proper training whatsoever (in my opinion). Understandably (and as I worked in the industry for so long), I may accept that, (and although they should), a pass-boy or a waiter/waitress may not know what is the name of the dish or what is in it, but from a Maitre D' it is unacceptable, especially in an upscale restaurant where you supposedly pay for the food, the decor, the atmosphere, etc... but also and more importantly for the service (it is the old Head Sommelier and Restaurant manager talking here...). A Maitre D' like that would have never lasted in my team, I'm telling you (maybe a little harsh I know). I was about this close [...] to call Denis Courtiade 😊 (****).

He came back and said: "It is a braised winter melon soup with crab meat" and he disappeared as quick as he came without leaving me the time to say anything. I could have said anything that went through my mind at this moment (as I do so occasionally, my bluntness never served me well...), but as he was gone, thus I just mumbled a "thank you" to myself, started eating and continued the conversation with my kids. Despite the irritating difficulties to get the name of it, the dish was really good I must say.

As my daughter was only wearing a simple summer dress and started to feel cold (it is always cold in the restaurants in Hong Kong, actually, it is always cold, as summer as winter, everywhere in Hong Kong for that matter, whether you're in an office building, a mall, a supermarket, etc... the air conditioner is always running, full throttle, no matter what...). So I asked for a small blanket to put around her shoulders. The waitress obliged my request and presented the blanket to my daughter who declined it, for the time being, saying that she was ok for now ("the indecision of an 8 years old little girl" - sigh - this also could be a good movie title 😉). I told the waitress we will keep on the empty seat at the table just in case she needs it later.

My son told his sister to drink the Jasmine tea we were drinking to get warmer, but she replied by saying: "I don't like tea". Probably while I was too busy talking to my kids (my son facing me and my daughter to my right), the blanket we kept on the empty seat to my left had disappeared. Probably another waitress picked it up, and without asking us anything. These little details (plus all the ones cited above) were tickling the edge of my nerves. Not only the service was weird (for my taste and experience), but there was no communication whatsoever either coming from the restaurant brigade.

Things were happening around us without our knowledge or consent. Now, don't get me wrong, I have been working in the service industry long enough (28 years already) to know that the best service a restaurant can provide is usually the most discreet and most attentive to the customer's needs, where the service staff moves swiftly, efficiently, discreetly and in the less intrusive way possible while being respectful and courteous (and even funny in some circumstances), adapting to the every customer's needs (maybe I'm a bit old school, but that's at least how I learned it and that's how I like it done). But, that night, in this particular restaurant, the service lacked attentiveness and things were done in a manner too uncommunicative for my liking. 

Customer's respect can only be gained with attention, acknowledgement and consent (in my opinion). Unless the customer is a total douchebag, yet, even with this type of customers, the service staff has to be attentive, patient, polite, respectful and courteous enough not to aggravate the situation and create more complications, and disturbances for the other patrons around. 

That said, although it should happen everywhere, this type of service mainly occurs in high-standing restaurants where patrons have high expectations of an impeccable service inline with the prices they pay. Understandably, if you go to your local eatery (bar, brasserie, pub, etc..), you surely won't get the same kind of attention and service, but there again you are not paying the same price as in an upscale restaurant... (so no point to compare them), but it does not mean you won't receive a good service at your local eatery either.

Personally, I had the best dining experiences in small local restaurants in France, in the Basque country and more especially in Spain (*****). And surprisingly enough (or not so surprisingly in fact), I have been quite disappointed by quite a few highly recognized high-standing restaurants, probably because my expectations were too high, especially when paying the bill. Don't get wrong, I'm not saying that all Michelin and non-Michelin high standing restaurants are not worth trying if you have the chance and a wallet big enough to afford them, I'm just saying that in some of them if you set your expectations as high as the price you'll pay at the end, then you might end up disappointed. 

Just saying and I won't elaborate on that... but eating barely nothing of something unrecognizable and somewhat tasteless or weird served in a specifically designed plate has never been my thing... Fortunately, restauranteurs and chefs have returned, over the last 10 years, to a more substantial and nature-friendly cuisine preserving the essential and original aspects, colours, aromas and flavours of all the ingredients and elaborated with more local and seasonal products (nature-friendly as I was saying...). 

Some Chefs never derivated from that path, crafting an authentic cuisine with authentic products, and those are usually the best. I'm not saying that trends, evolution and progress are bad things, and I do not want to denigrate the other chefs either by saying that. However, it is true, and it is a fact, that the chefs who are constantly changing their methods (and thus derivating from the authentic path) in search for more innovative technics and more complicated dishes usually end up as fashion victims (like the fashionable Molecular Cuisine, a big thing back in the 2000s, which faltered and vanished nearly completely from the cuisine scene), despite a few rebels who converted to fusion/molecular/contemporary cuisine and are still trying to fit in an industry that has decided to go back to more authentic and classic with a twist type of cuisine.          


But let's not talk about the food no more and let's go back to the service with a recap of the service flaws of that night (so far):

- pushy and slightly zealous, upselling order taking, without necessarily hearing what I wanted (I'm sure she meant well and was just very excited to recommend whatever the Chef wanted to push that day... rings the bell?)

- super fast arrival of the first dish with no description of the name or the content of the dish

- a clueless Maitre D' who does not know the name of his dishes or the ingredients they contain (without asking a colleague)

- things disappearing without being consulted first or having us saying anything

- a service basically weird to a fault (but as previously mentioned it is maybe a question of culture)

- no communication whatsoever (but there again it could just be the language barrier)

That's quite a few already, unfortunately, it was not the end... (sigh)


The second dish arrived on the table, and no word on that either when it was put on the table, fortunately, it was obviously recognizable as a piece of slowly cooked beef with some kind of sweet barbecue sauce. A dish which caught my eyes when I had a quick glimpse at the "à la carte" menu. Well presented and tasty too. I did not call the Maitre D' this time, no point.

Then suddenly my daughter, who was drinking the hot water which tasted like rusted metallic pipes and chlorine (the reason why my son and I asked for some tea, as, at least, it masks and somewhat enhances the taste of bad tap water), changed her mind and asked if she could taste the tea. I oblige her request by pouring a little in her cup. And very proudly she said: "Yes, I was right, I don't like tea!" (8 years old... don't ask...). 

A waitress saw the low level in the cup, came and pour more tea in her cup while I told her that she didn't want any, she prefered to drink water, but she didn't stop and fill up the cup. I asked her for another cup to put the water, she just nodded and disappeared.... and never came back with the extra cup. So I pour my daughter's tea in my cup and refill mine with it. Immediately after, and without leaving me the chance to pour some water into my daughter's cup, another waitress passing by grabbed the teapot on the table and went to pour some tea for my daughter. I stopped her in extremis, explaining that she didn't want any with some hand gestures (it usually works better than words, especially when you do not speak the language), her, as well, nodded and disappeared.

You see, in Hong Kong and China, in most restaurants, a customer's cup should never be empty, it is part of the usages and the culture (I guess that it is the same with wine in western Europe, a glass of wine should never be empty 😊), and usually the Chinese restaurant staff tend to be over-zealous on that matter, and if not the staff, the Chinese host or colleagues you are eating with, will do it too. I guess it is courteous and polite to take care of filling the cup for others. Nothing abnormal with that when you have a bit of education and "savoir-vivre". Which is not always the case in some western restaurants where sometimes your glass of water and/or wine may have the time to dry up before seeing another drop of whatever it was filled with previously.

I went once, a few years ago, to a supposedly posh restaurant in Beaune (Burgundy) where the waiter, the Maitre D' and even the Sommelier passed by our table dozens of times without acknowledging us or even refilling our glass of water or even wine (which is worst), yet the Sommelier, was in a very important conversation with a table nearby for the past half an hour and couldn't possibly have time for our table, and for the other tables around us for that matter. We waited a very long time in between each course, service was somewhat inexistent and they barely noticed us on the way out. For the price we paid that day for the food we ate and the few bottles of wines we drank, it would have been better to go in a brasserie eating a simple "Steak Frites Bearnaise", instead of going to a supposedly Star Michelin Restaurant and come out with such a disappointing experience. (Sounds familiar?)

The third course, "Sweet and Sour Pork",  arrived a few minutes apart from the second course, and no announcement for this dish either. It didn't matter anyway as I gave up on trying to make them understand that it would be good for us to know what was served. Instead, I was enjoying my conversation with my kids and the food was very good, so I couldn't complain. And in any case, I would not have been able to, not speaking either Cantonese nor Mandarin, and them barely speaking English. I also gave up on trying to make them understand that my daughter did not want any tea... (sigh). 

The 4th dish and the dessert followed quite rapidly too, the roasted chicken was delightful, and the desert, a soup of mixed mango and coconut, was refreshing (but not to my taste actually). 

To conclude, I can say that the food was really good, overall, and the presence of my kids was fun and both greatly compensated for the obvious flaws of the service. Fortunately, also, the table behind us was quite loud, which added some atmosphere to what could have been a very quiet dining room otherwise, as the other tables around were not saying a word.... especially a table of two, at the far end of the room, that ordered a bottle of wine to accompany their food, but was too busy on their phones the whole dinner to speak to each other (and to appreciate the wine they ordered too, as the level in the bottle after their glasses were filled never move the whole time).... a sad sight in my opinion... as I do not see the point to go to a restaurant with your lover or your better half (married or simply girlfriend/boyfriend) if it is not to speak to each other, might as well stay home or do something else separately in that case (in my opinion), but I guess their conduct is the reflection of the society we're living in these days.    

The service was not so bad, but it definitely lacked training, know-how and refinement, but at least it was discreet, fast and relatively efficient, which is not always the case (as stated 2 or 3 times already above) in some posh, supposedly refined and atrociously expensive western restaurants where the service is sometimes arrogant, pompous and disdaining, often slow and not necessarily pleasurable at the end (and where you don't get much in the plate either). Don't get me wrong, fortunately, it is not always like that. Not all upscale Chinese or Western restaurants are at either extreme of the example described above, most are usually in between, which balanced the patron's dining experiences, and usually accounts for a nonchalant: "...not bad this restaurant!" on the way out.

For the last words, I will say that what I found really annoying in upscale restaurants, in general, is that, sometimes, you don't get the quality of service or even food, you've paid for. And in my opinion, it happens everywhere all over the world, more often than none, and we, all of us, have dozens of stories of bad experiences in upscale restaurants, dealing with the attitude or frustration of the waiter, being served the wrong dish, or the wrong wine, or waiting indefinitely for the food to arrive, or raising your hand while Maitre D' and waiters and Sommeliers are passing by but nobody seems to notice, etc, etc... And my advice to you will be to never raise your expectations too high as you might be disappointed (and it goes for pretty much everything in life).   
    
At the end of the day, I had, once again, a clash of cultures in this Hong Kong upscale Chinese restaurant, in terms of the service (culture? traditions? language barrier?, etc...) and how it was provided to us, but I mostly understand why and probably will return to this restaurant as the food was really good, well presented and enticing. While I had major disappointments in upscale western restaurants, without understanding why (at all, which is even more annoying for an old seasoned Sommelier and Restaurant Manager like me), where I will never go back again (even in those where the food was good). Rings the bell?    


That's All Folks!!! for today, but stay tuned for more posts and stories like this one in the near future.

Santé! Cheers!

LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noël)


And below, find the explanations for the parentheses in this post

(*) I need to admit that, when in a restaurant, while I usually try to adopt a laid-back attitude about it and keep my observations for myself, I usually can't help myself looking at the service and noticing the flaws, it is a bad habit and a professional default with me.

(**) Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or actual events is purely coincidental, ... ...or not, after all, as you may have experienced the same exact things in similar places with similar people... 😊 ... sounds familiar, isn't it?

(***) The menus came in both paper and digital, basically, we could read from a regular menu with hardcover and several pages inside, a separate printed page for the set menus and the iPad containing the digital form of the cited menus and therefore making the paper version useless, but I guess some people like to have both)

(****) For those of you who didn't get the joke, Denis Courtiade is a French Maitre D' (probably THE best Maitre D' in the world), director of the worldly renown restaurant "Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée", surely one of the most glorious 3 stars Michelin restaurants in Paris. He even has his own Wikipedia page, that says it all 😊 ... https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Courtiade

(*****) I previously wrote a few posts where I talked about some of my favourite restaurants in Spain, if interested you can read them here and here. I even wrote about my experience at "El Bulli" here.

However, if I had to dress a list of the restaurants where I had the best experiences in my life so far, food and service-wise, the followings restaurants will definitely top this list:

France

Cordeillan Bages restaurant, Pauillac (Bordeaux, France) www.cordeillanbages.com

Le Saint-Julien restaurant, Saint-Julien (Bordeaux, France) www.le-saint-julien.fr

La Tupina, Bordeaux center (Bordeaux, France) www.latupina.com

Le Saint-James, Bouliac (Bordeaux, France) www.saintjames-bouliac.com

L'Hostellerie de Plaisance, Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux, France) www.hostellerie-plaisance.com

Le Jardin des Senses, Montpellier (Languedoc, France) www.jardindessens.com

Le Café des Baux, les Baux de Provence, (Provence, France) www.cafedesbaux.com

La Ferme aux Grives, Eugenie-les-Bains (Southwest of France) www.michelguerard.com


Spain

Arzak, San Sebatian, (Basque country, Spain) www.arzak.es

Kaia Kaipe, Getaria, (Basque country, Spain) especially for the wine list www.kaia-kaipe.com

Akelare, San Sebastian, (Basque country, Spain) www.akelarre.net

El Nazareno, Asador Nazareno or Salones Nazareno, Roa (Ribera del Duero, Spain) (the most incredible "Lechazo" slowly roasted baby lamb, I ever ate in my life) http://www.asadosnazareno.es

Irreductibles, Gratallops (Priorat, Spain) www.irreductibles.org

Restaurante Marqués de Riscal, Elciego (Rioja, Spain) www.restaurantemarquesderiscal.com

and least but not last:

El Bulli restaurant, Roses (Catalonia, Spain) www.elbulli.com (but that was before, and it was restaurant to at least try once in your lifetime, whether you like this type of food or not...)