Do You Deserve Good Service?

It is my belief that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that get good service when they travel, and those that don’t. I have often wondered why some people report getting great service at an establishment while others report quite the opposite at the same place. I think I finally have the answer. A bit of background:

My wife and I like to travel a lot, and we enjoy staying at fine hotels and dining at high-end restaurants from time to time. Before we try a new place I read a lot of reviews, from both professional and amateur reviewers. After our trip, I often write my own reviews of our visits. When I post an entry, I read other recent reviews to see how our experiences compared. What amazes me, over and over, is how many people complain about receiving poor service, when our experience has been exactly the opposite.

It happened again this week. We just returned from a 4-night stay at a high-end resort in Scottsdale, and we spent the majority of our time on property, enjoying the pool scene and the wonderful restaurants and bars. Every single staff member we came in contact with was professional, prompt, friendly and accommodating to our requests. We commented on the plane home how wonderful the service was, and how it helped justify the price we had paid to stay there. Yet when I read other recent reviews, from just a couple of days earlier, I was surprised by those who felt the service was poor, slow, or impersonal. How can the same employees provide different levels of service to different guests, just a few days apart?

My hypothesis is that, to a certain degree, the guest plays a large role in determining the level of service he or she will receive. How else to explain it? Countless times over the years, I have observed fellow guests in hotels, in restaurants and on cruise ships. I have watched and listened as they dealt with hotel staff, waiters and shipboard personnel. It is amazing to me how often these guests are rude, demanding, demeaning or downright boorish when it comes to interactions with service personnel. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the service professionals feel about dealing with these kinds of guests. Most will simply try to handle the situation to the point where the guest gets some level of satisfaction and finally goes away. It is unlikely that the guest will be “delighted” with this result.

Watching these types of interactions, I always feel empathy for the service provider. It is hard enough dealing with nice customers all day, much less the challenging ones. So what do we do that seems to result in more satisfying experiences when we dine out and travel? Here are a few tips:

Present a positive and friendly face. I know, it sounds pretty rudimentary, but you would be surprised how many surly people step up to a hotel registration desk or greet an arriving waiter. Make eye contact. Smile. Exchange pleasantries. Don’t always be in such a hurry to get your room key and move on. The initial impression you make with at the hotel registration desk may make or break your stay. The conversations you have here can lead to superior service. Ask questions. Ask for recommendations. Learn a little about the person assisting you, such as where he is from or what other sister properties she has worked at in the past. Ask the waiter what dishes he recommends. Even if you do not choose his suggestion, you have valued his opinion, and he likes that. Engaging with the staff on a quasi-personal level is always a good thing to do.

Make use of their nametags. My kids used to be embarrassed when I talked to the checkers at our neighborhood grocery store and called them by their first names. I said “if they didn’t want to be called by their names, they wouldn’t wear the nametags.” We try to learn the name of every service professional we come in contact with, whether they are wearing a nametag or not. We also encourage them to call us by our first names, rather than our last name. It’s friendlier that way, and that helps establish a more personal connection. And it makes sense that people will try harder to please people they know…even if they really don’t know you. Once you learn his or her name, remember it. Call her by name when you see her coming next time. Everyone likes to be remembered, and this will encourage her to remember you. Use her name when dealing with other staff members on site: “Susan recommended we come talk to you.” Now the new staff member feels compelled to help you even more because a colleague has referred you. And now you have a chance to make a new connection.

Ask nicely. Again, this sounds like standard practice. But not everyone does. And guess what kind of service people get when they are rude or demanding? Exactly. If you have a request, find someone who may be able to help you. Hopefully this is someone you have already met and whom you know on a first-name basis. Ask “is there any way possible for us to be able to do X?” Sometimes it just won’t be possible, and you should be okay with that. (Most service people actually want to make you happy. If they cannot accommodate your request, giving them grief does not make things better for you.) Sometimes your request won’t be possible, but the server will have another idea that you had not thought of. This constitutes a win. And sometimes, they will make your request happen just as you wished, at which point you should be grateful and most appreciative. The scope of the service, and the favor, will depend on whether tipping is required.

Do the unexpected. When we cruise we take small gifts (usually a small bag or box of candy from our hometown) with us and hand them out to key staff members at the beginning of the cruise. While tipping is expected or required at the end, we have found that these small gifts at the beginning pave the way to a great week ahead. Not only do the crew members appreciate the gesture, but they tell other crew members about the nice people in Cabin 712. You would be surprised how far this can go. Anyone can hand over money, but the act of bringing a local gift, however small, can make other people go out of their way to please you.

Finally, when something goes wrong, don’t lose your cool. In the travel world, things always go wrong; it’s part of the business. As stated above, service professionals (especially at higher-end places) usually want to do their best to delight you. But sometimes it is out of their control. Maybe it is past 4pm and your room is still not yet ready. Maybe the table you requested is not available. Maybe they ran out of the entrée you desired. Resist the temptation to make this a huge issue, thinking it will somehow get you something better or for free. In my experience, making a stink only serves to label you as “that obnoxious couple from Cabin 712,” and that word will get around. Instead, gently express your disappointment, but accept the result, and move on. The staff will appreciate that you did not cause a scene, and many times they will find another way to make it up to you. But let that be their idea, not yours.

Service is something we all get when we visit a restaurant, hotel, or other travel venue. But there is no guarantee that it will be good. While there are always going to be factors out of your control that affect your experience, there are also things that you can do to increase your chances of having a great experience. Happy traveling!

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Harvest 2014 is Underway!

16 Tons (as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing)

16 Tons (as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing)

Despite the fact that one of my neighbors is still shooting off 4th of July fireworks every evening, harvest started in the Napa Valley today. Yes, that harvest. The grapes. The grapes that make the wine that makes all this (making circular gesture with my hand as I gaze out over the valley) so amazing.

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin sabers open a bottle to bless the grapes

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin sabers open a bottle to bless the grapes…

Thanks to a mild winter, warm spring, early bud break and warm humid summer (i.e. global warming), the folks at Mumm Napa Valley started harvesting grapes from their Game Farm vineyard in the

...and then showers the grapes with wine.

…and then showers the grapes with wine.

Oakville appellation today. Starting at 6am, they picked 16 tons of Pinot Noir grapes, which is above normal as far as yields go, although down a bit from last year’s 18 tons, according to winemaker Ludovic Dervin. Today’s harvest is 2-3 weeks ahead of the usual schedule (and two days ahead of last year), but the recent spate of high temperatures and high humidity made the early harvest of this vineyard necessary.

Mumm's finished product, part of the celebration

Mumm’s finished product, part of the celebration

Mumm makes sparkling wine of course, and unlike the grapes used to make Napa’s famed Cabernet Sauvignon wines, Mumm’s grapes are picked at lower Brix (sugar) levels, when they have higher acidity. Most of the Cabernet makers won’t harvest until mid-October, weather permitting, as they desire as much hang time on the vine as possible to make their sultry, opulent (expensive) red wines.

But now that Mumm has kicked things off, other wineries will soon be picking also, starting in the Carneros region (the southern part of Napa) with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. For us locals, it means we’ll see spotlights in the vineyards in the middle of the night as workers hand- and machine-pick the valuable fruit. It means we’ll see a lot more trucks and tractors on the road, not to mention thousands of those ubiquitous white grape bins.

The famous Wicker Peterbilt

The famous Wicker Peterbilt

And it also means I will undoubtedly hear the flatulent sound of the airbrakes on Ron Wicker’s reliable old Peterbilt at 6am as he hauls 24 tons of grapes at a time up the valley to waiting winery workers.

This is magic time in the Napa Valley, make no mistake about it. The energy and enthusiasm in the air is palpable, and everyone who lives here, or visits during this time, feels it. While outsiders may wonder “Doesn’t the whole idea of harvest get old after awhile? I mean, you do it every single year”—it doesn’t. Each year is a new beginning; the chance to make a new vintage of wine. Each harvest is full of calculations, watching the weather, guessing the right time to pick. It’s a logistics game for many, as you have to have the right workers and equipment at the right vineyard at the right time, or you may miss your window of opportunity. Winemaker Dervin, for example, only decided two days ago that harvest would begin today.

Mumm team members pop open their splits of sparkling wine...

Mumm team members pop open their splits of sparkling wine…

Adding to the energy of harvest is the amount of teamwork involved. I was fortunate to be invited to Mumm today as they celebrated the first harvest with 100 members of the winery staff. Most of these folks will spend the next two months working extra hours in order to process and ferment

..and then promptly douse each other.

..and then promptly douse each other.

the huge volume of sparkling wine that Mumm will produce this year. The blessing of the grapes and the celebration that I witnessed this morning will be repeated up and down the valley over the coming weeks, and every team at every winery will experience the adrenaline rush that is harvest.

As a resident about to experience my fourth harvest, I am still awed by the way everything comes together to put fermented grape juice in bottles. It takes an amazing number of people and machines, art and science, skill and luck, to make some of the best wines in the world. It also takes a community, and an infrastructure to support that community, or none of this would happen. So for me, and for thousands of others who live in wine country, today is a day to rejoice, to be thankful, and to get down to work.

Harvest is on. Hallelujah!

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You are drinking Rosé this summer, aren’t you?

20140605-102915-37755310.jpgSummer is here and the temps have creeped up and, at least in my backyard, it’s pretty toasty out when wine o’clock rolls around each day. (And yeah, yeah, I can already hear some of you sniping about how you think I start drinking wine at breakfast, etc.) Anyway, at 5pm, when most of the year we are cracking open the chardonnay, you’ll now find me uncorking (or unscrewing) a bottle of delicious rosé. And I am not alone.

For many years in this country, rosé wines were shunned while our European breathren and sistren reaped all the benefits of these delicious wines. Why?

Well, many people blame our indifference on the fact that, for a long time now, the most prominent bottle of rosé found on grocery store shelves has been Sutter Home White Zinfandel. While many call it a rosé, and technically it is, it actually is more of a blush wine. What really sets it apart from a true rosé is its sweetness. Rosé wines are fermented dry, or nearly dry, and certainly do not possess the soda pop-like qualities of Sutter Home’s famous offering. Unfortunately, many American wine drinkers drank their fill of White Zin, grew tired of the sweetness, assumed that all pink wines were the same, and gave up on rosés altogether.

What is a rosé wine? It’s basically a wine made from a wide variety of (mostly) red grapes but the juice from those grapes is only left on the skins long enough to impart a light red or pinkish hue. This method also eliminates, to a large degree, the tannins that are normally found in red wines, which come from the skins, stems and seeds. Once removed from the skins, the juice continues fermentation as if it were a white wine, usually in stainless steel tanks as opposed to oak. The resulting wines are dry, crisp and fruity, perfect for quenching your thirst on a hot summer afternoon or evening, and quite complementary to food.image

Another great thing about rosés is that, contrary to the red wines made from the same grapes, these wines are (usually) extremely affordable. I have been enjoying some sensational rosés of late for less than $16 per bottle. (The Charles and Charles rosé, which lists for $11.99 a bottle, could be had for $8.45 a bottle this week by buying six with your Safeway club card.)

So head on down to Safeway or Whole Foods or your nearest wine shop and buy 3 or 4 different bottles to try. I am currently enjoying the three bottles pictured herein, but there are countless other labels on the market. Drop me a note with your favorites, and I will give them a taste. Hey, all in the name of research!


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“My Breakfast With Bob”– a non-report on a wine writer session with Robert Parker, Jr.

2014 Wine Writers Symposium 041

While there were many highlights to last week’s Wine Writers Symposium at the Meadowood Resort in the Napa Valley, there was no disagreement that Wednesday’s 8:30 a.m. keynote presentation by Robert M. Parker, Jr. was the highlight of the event. Only a man of Parker’s stature could cause 45 wine writers, who had imbibed late into the evening, to be in their seats well ahead of the appointed start time.

Before Parker entered the room, The Symposium Chair got on stage to strongly suggest that we consider the session a treat to behold, rather than a reportable event. In other words, he didn’t want us to write about it, probably fearing that the cantankerous Parker would never speak to us ever again. (This was the first time Parker had ever addressed this forum in its ten-year history.) However, some of the writers in attendance either conveniently forgot or blatantly ignored the Chairman’s request, so some very well-written, detailed write-ups have hit the blogosphere today.

To read detailed accounts of the one-hour keynote, I direct you to the entries that my colleagues Richard Jennings and Katie Kelly Bell have penned. I, on the other hand, would prefer to give some observations and opinions on this highly-anticipated keynote. As a relative newcomer to the world of wine writing, it was fascinating to have a front-row (okay, second-row) seat as the king of the wine writing world addressed those who seek his crown.

As a quick history lesson for my readers whose lives are not consumed by wine, Parker started writing about wine in the mid-1970s as a sidelight to his law career. While there were other wine critics, he quickly built his fame through his wine newsletter, The Wine Advocate. He also created a 100-point scoring system to rate wines, which eventually became as controversial as it was revered. As his influence grew, it was soon possible to see that Parker’s ratings began to have a significant effect not only on wine prices, but on how wines were made. High scores allowed wineries to raise prices, and made owners millions of additional dollars. Low ratings, naturally, has a less-positive impact on prices. But what really started to rile people in the industry was what has been coined the “Parkerization” of wine.  Parker has an affinity for big, bold, ripe wines that are high in alcohol and get better with age, and eschews more nuanced and acidic wines. (This is an over-simplistic description, I realize, but you can read more in Wikipedia.) Because winemakers saw the positive economic benefit of a high Parker rating, they started making wines they hoped he would like, to get a better rating. This led to a feared homogenization of the world’s leading wines. Over time, new wine critics emerged, with differing palates and opinions, who started throwing stones at Parker and his empire. Parker threw the stones right back. And several of the people involved in the stone-throwing were sitting in the audience at the Meadowood with me that morning.

Among those in the room were Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of the New York Times; Jon Bonné, author and wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle;  Alder Yarrow, owner of Vinography wine blog; Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible; Jay MacInerney, author and wine critic for the Wall Street Journal; and Elin McCoy, author of the unauthorized biography on Parker titled The Emperor of Wine. Most had taken umbrage with Parker at one time or other, and recently several of the writers have taken issue with Parker’s steadfast promotion of big bold wines even as the world has moved to newer, lighter and more varied wines.

2014 Wine Writers Symposium 042Many in the room expected fireworks, but frankly they failed to materialize. Parker entered the room appearing disheveled, as if he had just gotten out of bed. That, combined with his fragile gait due to recent spinal surgery, gave many a sense that, like so many older wines, he too had passed his prime. However, his brain and mouth were fully synched and he presented himself with a surprising warmth and likability. Did he say some controversial and arrogant things? Absolutely. Is he opinionated and stubborn? For sure. Does he admit to having detractors? Oh yes. But he gave us the sense that he doesn’t have any trouble sleeping at night.

A 30-minute “off-the-cuff” talk by Parker was followed by a 30-minute Q&A session with the audience. The most interesting question as far as I was concerned was the one asked by Jon Bonné, who is a strong advocate of, basically, the wines that Parker doesn’t like. Bonné asked a long question, carefully worded to avoid raising any ire, but trying to get Parker to agree that there is room for more diversity in wine varietals. Parker actually started his reply by saying “I basically agree with you,” and then went on a 4-minute diatribe whereby he basically disagreed completely with the approach of making lower-alcohol wines that won’t stand the test of time.

During the course of the hour, Parker stated that he hoped we would all be successful as wine writers, which on the surface is noble and magnanimous, but he also stated that he hoped the wine writing profession would not decline once he is gone. We all winced at that one.

And finally, Parker ended by wishing that wine writers could all be more civil toward one another, somehow joining together as wine lovers and abandoning some of the negativity that has populated wine writing over the past few years. He even offered us his office phone number as a sort of olive branch should we wish to talk directly to him about a contentious issue, rather than putting our vitriol in print. It was an interesting way to close an interesting discussion.

Overall, I believe the assembled writers felt honored to have the opportunity to hear Mr. Parker speak in person to a group of peers, but I am not sure that a whole lot of opinions were changed. But my general belief is that controversy in wine writing, like in many aspects of life, is a good thing. If everyone had the same opinions, life would be pretty damn boring. Controversy sells magazines and newspapers (and blogs, I guess.) People want to read about and discuss disparate viewpoints. There is always room for another opinion…and if the wine world is about anything, it’s about opinions.

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Some great restaurants in the Napa Valley you may not know about

The_Restaurant_Interior0The recent publication of the 2014 Michelin ratings for restaurants in the United States once again shines a bright (and well-deserved) light on a dozen establishments here in the Napa Valley. To no one’s surprise, The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood (pictured at left) retained their 3-star ratings, and are in fact the only restaurants in the entire Bay Area to achieve the highest ranking from the famed travel guide. Although Napa County does not have any two-star winners, it does have five one-star restaurants, which include Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, Bouchon in Yountville, La Toque in Napa, Solbar in Calistoga, and Terra in St. Helena. Redd, a Yountville favorite of many, lost their one-star rating this year, but still churns out food that packs the place.

Oxbow Farmers Artessa Dom Carneros 017In addition, five restaurants received the “Bib Gourmand” designation from Michelin, signifying that travelers can obtain two courses of very good food and a glass of wine for under $40. The winners here include Bistro Jeanty and Redd Wood in Yountville, C Casa and Oenotri in Napa, and Cook in St. Helena.

With all this publicity, it can be very difficult to book a table in prime time (weekends, or favored dining hours) at these establishments unless you plan very far ahead. Last-minute visitors are often frustrated at their inability to secure a reservation at one of these top tables (with the exception of C Casa, which is a super-casual take-away stall inside the Oxbow Market.)

Many of my Bay Area friends ask me for restaurant suggestions when they come up to visit, having had trouble booking at one of the above-named places. Fortunately, I have been able to sample some great eateries throughout the Valley that offer great food, wine and service but still fly under the radar. For those looking for alternatives to the big names, I offer these suggestions, in no particular order:

Farmstead dinner 036Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch: Currently one of our favorites, this indoor-outdoor establishment across the street from Tra Vigne in St. Helena features great farm-to-table cooking, an emphasis on smoked meats (owing to Chef Stephen Barbour’s acumen in this area) and open architecture and design that seem to be inspired by Restoration Hardware. While there is no corkage fee here technically, they do charge $5 if you bring your own wine, which they donate to a local charity-of-the-month. A great deal any way you look at it.

photo (10)Ciccio in Yountville: Operated by the Altamura family (long-time grapegrowers and winemakers in the Valley), this is a small, no-reservations accepted hotspot featuring wood-fired pizzas and other Italian specialties. The menu changes often. They only serve wines made from their grapes (often sold to other producers), and corkage is a steep $25 if you bring your own. It was recently reviewed very favorably by the SF Chronicle, so it may get more crowded. On a recent Wednesday night visit it was packed and Redd Wood, across the street, was half-full.

Market in St. Helena: Located right in the heart of the Main Street shopping area, Market is a well-kept secret. It’s not big, and it can get noisy, but they turn out some amazing American food at moderate prices. Corkage is free, so bring your own. Dining at the bar is a popular option here, too.

Hurley’s in Yountville: Bob Hurley is a big, affable guy who loves food and enjoys serving old friends as well as new ones. Many locals frequent this small favorite right smack in the middle of town, which features patio seating when the weather is good. Hurley’s is known for its wild game week in November, and also offers late-night dining at the bar, which is a rarity in these parts. Perfect if you have been drinking wine all day and need a burger or fries to soak up some of that juice. A go-to spot for us, and we often go without a reservation and sit at the bar.

Il Posto Trattoria in Napa: Quite possibly the least-impressive venue for a restaurant in Napa, as it is located in a small, unattractive shopping center (at Wine Country Avenue and Solano,  just west of highway 29) featuring a paint store, UPS outpost, mini-mart and seafood shop. But what it lacks in location it more than makes up for in food and value. Still fairly easy to get into at lunch, but dinner is pretty busy, because locals enjoy it. Don’t let the lack of pretense drive you away; this is one of the great finds in Napa.

Fume Bistro, also in Napa: Just across 29 and one block south of Il Posto, hidden on the frontage road, Fume Bistro is another hopping locals place that serves great food in generous portions. Pizzas, chops, ribs, seafood, a full bar, amazing desserts, and all at great value. Amazing weekend brunch. Find it, try it, but let’s keep it between us.

slide-3a-signBistro Don Giovanni: Almost everyone knows this famed Italian joint right off 29 in Napa where the vineyards start. But it never makes the big lists, which is fine with those of us who like to get in regularly. It’s fairly big, with tables inside and out (and some great heat lamps), so even if you don’t have a reservation you can probably still get in if you wait a bit. Great pizzas, pastas, a reasonable wine list, and the world-famous butterscotch pudding. Mangia!

Tarla Mediterranean Grill: Located in the “West End” section of Downtown Napa next to the Andaz Hotel, this started as a very small restaurant but expanded into an adjacent storefront when business proved to be robust.  Great and authentic Mediterranean menu, with very reasonable prices, and an excellent selection of wines available by the glass (or bottle, of course). The owner, Yusuf, is very welcoming and will do his best to ensure you have a great meal. They are about to open a second restaurant called “Napkins” (what many locals refer to themselves as) so we will see how they fare with two different places going at once.

0540AngeleDay3Angele, on the riverfront in Napa: Another of our favorites, this French brasserie serves some great bistro fare in a welcoming, relaxed setting. Owned and operated by the Rouas family, who have supreme restaurant cred, this place turns out exquisite food, has a full bar, and features heated patio seating when the weather is good. The inside isn’t shabby, either. It’s relaxed, consistent, and delicious.

Norman Rose, on First Street in Napa: Part sports bar/pub and part locals hangout, this place is always packed, and rightfully so. Great comfort food using a sustainable approach, the game on TV, microbrews, a full bar and of course wine, all make for a delightful, loud, friendly place to grab a bite without needing one of those pesky reservations.

Okay, that’s ten recommendations, and lord knows there are many more good options I haven’t covered yet, so maybe I’ll get to those in another posting. The point is, don’t be discouraged just because you couldn’t get a table at Bottega or Bouchon. There is so much great food up here that is rarely talked about. You just need to do your research, or, if you are lazy….ask me. Enjoy!

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