Corkage and Racism

Corkage and racism… These aren’t two words you’d expect to find in a binomial expression. But they are the words that flashed like burning embers in my mind the other night at Sotto in Los Angeles when two couples (right out of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, facelifts, fake tans, shiny teeth and all) sat down and plopped a magnum of a wine that rhymes with joke (you know what I’m talking about), a Brunello I’ve never heard of, and a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table (no joke).

Before I get to explaining my thought process, let’s begin by revealing how offensive it is when restaurant goers do not follow the etiquette of proper corkage.

Lettie Teague wrote this excellent corkage guide a few years ago. And I also really like this guide by Jack Everitt on his site Fork and Bottle.

When it comes to corkage, there are three things that everyone seems to agree on: 1) find out what the corkage policy is before you visit the restaurant; 2) bring something truly special and ideally rare (not something readily available) and offer the sommelier a taste; and 3) order a bottle comparable in value from the list (and leave a generous tip for your server who’s check is reduced as a result of the corkage).

The couples that came the other night already knew that we have a two-bottle limit. They thought that they could get around this by bringing a magnum (two bottles in one) and a 750ml. (It reminded me of a story about an undertaker who got a ticket for using the carpool lane with just him and a cadaver in the van.) It was as if they were saying (and in fact, they were shouting at the top of their lungs): we love the food (and the A-list celebrities) here but we think the wine list sucks and we can’t drink your crappy wine…

And here’s the part where their attitude became racist in my view.

Our wine captain informed them that the magnum counted as their two bottles of wine and so they were forced to order something from our list. Otherwise, how could they get their drink on between smoke breaks?

A server brought them the list and I approached the table and asked the hair-plugged gentleman who seemed to be in charge of alcohol consumption, very politely, “may I answer any questions about the wine list for you, sir?”

He looked up at me and said dismissively, “no, I think we’ve got that covered.”

He ordered a glass (yes, just a glass!) of Lioco 2009 Indica (Carignan and Grenache blend from Mendocino by one of my favorite Californian winemakers, Kevin Kelley).

It was then that I realized that his fear of “the Other” — in this case, southern Italian wine — overwhelmed any ounce of civility that his parents may have imparted to him during child rearing.* (In case you’re not familiar with the concept behind our wine program at Sotto, it’s devoted to southern Italian wine, with a short list of Natural wines from California.)

On the one hand, here was this slick angeleno, with his trophy wife and his Santa Rita Pinot Noir. On the other hand, our wine list must have conjured every southern Italian stereotype in the western canon.

Granted, our list is esoteric by any measure. Even Italian wine professionals will tell me that they don’t recognize many of the wines I have sourced for the list.

But his gesture was a sweeping dismissal: it was abundantly clear to me that in his view, there was no wine from southern Italy that he could possibly drink.

And that, my friends, is racism in flagrante delicto.

When you work in a restaurant, you have to de-sensitize yourself to rudeness. It’s part of the deal. But this is where I draw the line…

Thanks for reading and please treat your servers and sommeliers well!

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as constituent in self-consciousness. He wrote of pre-selfconscious Man: “Each consciousness pursues the death of the other”, meaning that in seeing a separateness between you and another, a feeling of alienation is created, which you try to resolve by synthesis. The resolution is depicted in Hegel’s famous parable of the master-slave dialectic. (Wikipedia)

13 thoughts on “Corkage and Racism

  1. When I was at Pizzeria Mozza, it was disheartening to see diners bring in some run of the mill Cabernet Sauvignon when we have a great and affordable wine list. My favorite was the dipshit from the O.C. with the trophy wife who had me pour his high octane Cab through a crystal aerator he brought with him.

  2. The Other vs Same is the basis for some great film and television; including some of favorites. I sometimes forget that this concept was so well developed. Thank you for illuminating this part of human nature in a provocative way. This is most definitely something that many of us deal with and have for much of our lives.

  3. I know how you feel. I have a co-worker who will drink nothing but Cali Cab and hates Italian wine. He has the tastebuds of a slug, yet facies himself quite the connoisseur. He obviously knows nothing when he proclaims “look at the legs!”. I’m forced to grit my teeth and bite my tongue.

    There is nothing better than Southern Italian wine; one of my favorite regions.

  4. I lived in L.A. for 10 years. I was astounded by the number of well off people I met who never traveled and more importantly, had no desire to.

    To totally dismiss Southern Italy wines at an Italian restaurant blows me away. Why eat there?!

  5. thanks, so much, everyone, for the solidarity here…

    There’s so much value and quality in Southern Italian wine…

    But beyond the mystery of why people are still prejudiced against Southern Italian and Italian in general, I just can’t manage to wrap my mind around the attitude of “why should I drink wine from the wine list if I can bring crappy wine I bought at Ralph’s?” Why go out to dinner if you don’t like restaurants (and wine)?

    Arlene, we’re psyched for your new blog and project! :)

  6. There is so much prejudice in food and wine. I can’t tell you how many times I run into French people, for example, who deny that good wine can be had elsewhere (Ornellaia, Sassicaia anyone?).

    Anyone else who holds sweeping blanket opinions about anything always speaks from a place of ignorance.

    I second the question asked by Arlene Gibbs: if you don’t like Southern Italian wines, why eat at a restaurant that has a specific focus on Southern Italian wines?!

  7. Tracie, this makes my blood boil — this “racism”. It happens every day here on the eastern wine trail, aka vale of tears, and it happens in Italy as well, of course. The South is, according to the wife of a maker of Venetan plonk that I know, “Where the bad wine comes from.” And she a woman of the Mezzogiorno.

    Good, relevant post.

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