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Every Trick Your Waiter Uses to Rip You Off on Wine

A sprawling wine list can be overwhelming, and if you don't know much about wine, there's a good chance you're going to get swindled.

Anonymous

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.

Until recently, I worked for years as a server and manager at a very exclusive high-end restaurant in Los Angeles. People don't come to this place to eat dinner; they barely even look at their food. Everything there—everything—is about your image: who's watching you, who's walking in, what you look like, and what you're drinking. That means it's really easy for your waiter to upsell you on wine.

This place has a sprawling wine list, so it's extremely overwhelming for people to look at. It's four or five pages. If someone comes in and they know their wine, then go straight to the bottle they want. But most people don't know what to do with a list that big, and they want to hear descriptions, and they want to look good in front of their guests, so they will easily get sold.

It's just the easiest scam. The thing is that these descriptions that we give people, and this backstory about the wine's origin, make the wine actually taste better to them even though they're not necessarily real.

Because this is California, people really want to try the local wine, and it's going to be cheaper, but I would always try to get them to go to the Old World—Italian, French, and Spanish—because that means more expensive, which means a better tip. In order to do this, I'd just use the certain key words that always work when describing any wine: velvety, rich, medium bodied, or smoky, or spicy, or chocolate notes, or cherry notes. Terroir was a word I would throw around. I'd just talk about the soil and the earthiness and chocolate and tobacco—those are the enticing words, because they're kind of sexual, and so people just eat up these descriptions and they believe whatever you say. Even if the wine isn't medium bodied and doesn't have cherry notes, they'll taste it and believe what they want to.

We would go to wine trainings, but we'd only half listen, and we'd hear these tidbits about the wines, their personalized stories, something about some chateau in France or in Italy, but then we'd just use an embellished, romanticized version of that story to sell a different wine. I'd just say something like, "They invited us there and let us stay at their chateau on the vineyard and taste some really amazing wine, and they produce a really low amount, so it's a really special bottle, and that's why it's such a high price." And the thing is, they probably did invite us, but we didn't go.

If they seemed open to continuing, we would bring out the "sommelier," which was usually just another waiter.

It's just the easiest scam. The thing is that these descriptions that we give people, and this backstory about the wine's origin, make the wine actually taste better to them even though they're not necessarily real.

The first thing your waiter wants to do is convince you to buy a bottle. Our cheapest bottle was $64. Glasses could be anywhere from $15 to $25. So if they want our cheapest glass of wine, I'd say, "Well look, if you guys are each going to each have two glasses of wine, then it actually make more sense to get a bottle," and once they agreed to that I'd upsell them. I'd say, "Well actually, for a little more money, this bottle is amazing. If you really like this kind of wine (let's say they wanted a bottle of sauvignon blanc), I would definitely go with the Sancerre instead. It has the same grape, but it's from France." And they're like, ''Ooh, French." I swear, the European thing is the trick. Sancerre just sounds more sophisticated than sauvignon blanc; Bordeaux sounds more exotic than merlot. Of course, in my opinion, the sancerre was better than the American sauvignon blanc, but it was also a lot more expensive.

If you come in and know nothing, there's a good chance you're going to get swindled.

Usually people would start with a cocktail and we could kind of lead them into $100-bottle wine. As things would progress, we would try to sell them more expensive bottles of wine, and if they seemed open to continuing, we would bring out the "sommelier," which was usually just another waiter. Once they had expensive bottles, we'd just try to wine and dine them and give them this whole awesome experience, which really would make the wine taste better.

Sometimes people would even be drinking corked wine and have no idea. I definitely sold wine that I knew was corked—just because I knew how shitty our storage system was—and people could always send it back, but most of the time they never said anything, because if people don't know enough about wine, they just think that's how it's supposed to taste.

If you come in and know nothing, there's a good chance you're going to get swindled. I would definitely educate yourself, especially if you're going to a restaurant that is high end, or an Italian or French restaurant where you're not necessarily familiar with the names of the wines—in which case you'll probably have to rely on the waiter to guide you in the right direction.

How do you avoid getting ripped off? Make sure you stick to your price range—that's important. And know the grapes that you like or the taste that you like. If you know you like a certain grape, say pinot noir, stick to the American version, because if you wind up with a pinot noir that's a Burgundy, it can be 10 times the price. And if a waiter says something about a wine you're unaware of, just ask what grapes are in it.

In many instances, we would sell customers better wine when upselling them; it was just a lot more expensive than it needed to be. In the end, it's all about personal preference, but in my opinion, you can always get great wine at a much cheaper price—of course your waiter isn't necessarily going to tell you that.

As told to Brad Cohen


This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2016.