January 2, 2013

Dinner at the Ritz - a tale of questionable taste

- As written by T.Philp and published in the autumn 2012 edition of Footprints magazine

Across an otherwise empty room, I curiously watch as a dinner party of eight well-dressed guests orchestrate a flurry of circulating wait staff.  Dinner at the famous Hôtel Ritz was a priority for Jacquie and I while in Paris several years ago, and so dressed to the nines along with my lovely wife, we take our places at a romantic table for two in the grand dining room.  

Our intent was to stay the night, in one of the hotel’s famous rooms that lie just beyond the Hall of Temptation.  This seemingly endless corridor is home to numerous objects of desire including rare jewels, designer garments, and assorted artifacts.  Each item is locked just out of reach, within the flanking rows of glass display cases.  Those with bottomless pockets or a gross lack of self-control are more than welcome to purchase these treasures.  For Jac and me, the sight was enough to fuel our sense of imagination for many years to come.  

My profession had me displaced in France, teaching British clients who would make the short commute from the Channel Islands each day.  I had my own flat in the city and a car at my disposal.  The arrangement also stipulated that the company would fly Jacquie from Toronto to Paris once per month for a short visit.  This particular occasion was her first time in the historic city but unfortunately work had thrown a wrench in to my plans to spend our anniversary at the Ritz.  Instead, we settled for afternoon tea in the garden and a dinner not soon forgotten.   

The events of this evening occurred at a point when my knowledge of wine was only beginning to blossom.  I knew enough to recognize the intricate actions and proceedings of the sommelier, but in truth, I failed to understand the significance of the wine.  I have also replayed this evening in my mind a thousand times, to the point where the truth is greatly obscured.  The reason for the constant need to recall this event is purely out of fascination and perhaps an element of hindsight.  Let me explain… 

From our table we could easily enjoy the uninterrupted ambience of this legendary establishment and yet remain close enough to keep tabs on the high-price patrons across the room.  After a round of cocktails, our first course arrived.  Judging by the presentation and taste, nothing at the Ritz is second best.  Even the linen serviettes were embroidered and pressed to perfection - I nabbed one as a souvenir.  

The sommelier resurfaced with what appeared to be a very old and dust covered bottle from the cellar.  He presented the label to the host of the party across the room and then carefully placed the bottle in its basket back on to his guerdon.  We watched in awe as the contents trickled from the bottle into a flask by way of an old hand-crank decanting cradle, a procedure that to this day I have only witnessed on this occasion.  The sommelier sampled the wine and then continued to pour a taste for the host’s approval.  This was obviously a very special bottle and certainly a rare occasion for his fortunate group.  I sat in envy. 

To the shock of the entire table and a slightly defensive stance from the highly trained wine steward, the gentleman hosting the dinner party turned the bottle away. 

Declining a bottle of wine is a perfectly acceptable practice.  Unfortunately though, most people do it for the wrong reasons.  If the bottle is not what you asked for or it is flawed, i.e. it tastes like vinegar or smells of sulphur or wet cardboard, you should return it.  In fact, most knowledgeable staff at better restaurants won’t even present the sample taste if they suspect that the bottle’s contents are in question.  Understand as well, that if the wine does not suit your ‘personal taste’, it is very poor etiquette to send it back.  Over time, the pronounced fruit character of wine begins to fade, giving way to more earth driven sensations such as leather, cedar, and spice box to name a few.  In terms of colour, white wine takes on a deeper hue while all reds become less vibrantly so.  Needless to say, when the host of the party in question turned this particular bottle away, the conversation at the waiters’ station and within earshot of our table became unquestionably direct. 

My limited knowledge of the French language at the time posed no barrier to the situation; the tone of their voices told the entire story. The wine was Chateau Petrus; the vintage, I will never know, but when our waiter stopped by to replenish our water glasses, I inquired about the obvious concern across the room.  Was the wine flawed? I asked.  His response while cautious was also quite honest:  ‘No monsieur, the wine is perfect; the bottle is just very old.’  ‘An expensive loss, I’m sure.’ I commented.  ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it sells for over 5000 euros (francs at the time) and is the last example of that label in our cellar.’ 

The staff quickly cleared the still full decanter and empty bottle from the table and curiously left it with a gentleman sitting just out of our view – the owner perhaps? Mr. Al-Fayed… he was with another person, with whom he shared the deeply scarred wine.  

The loss of revenue in a situation like this does not bother me; hotels of this calibre make money hand-over-fist. Rather, I am dismayed by the obvious arrogance and wasted opportunity for this group to taste what others might only dream of enjoying. 

We finished our meals and wandered through the hotel before strolling under the streetlights along rue Saint-Honoré, stopping of course to see the famous chocolate waterfall.  Many years have past since this memorable evening and yet on occasion, I am still able to recall the sequence of events.  

The facts have become rather twisted over time and as I relive the story late at night, my mind slipping further into the subconscious, the tale evolves with an alternate ending.  You see, I have tasted this wine on countless occasions.  Our waiter that evening was perceptive enough to sense our keen interest and enthusiasm and kindly offered us each a single glass of the great Château Petrus…1945.  On each occasion, the vintage elixir has exceeded all of my expectations and to this day remains the greatest wine ever to stain my imagination.   

Reasons to reject a bottle of wine

- Not the requested label or vintage
- Signs of seepage upon presentation
- Pronounced aroma of barnyard or wet cardboard
- Other aromatic faults including onion, rubber, matchstick, rotten eggs
- Excessive oxidation indicated by the smell of cooked fruit or discolouration in a young wine


  1. "The staff quickly cleared the still full decanter and empty bottle from the table and curiously left it with a gentleman sitting just out of our view – the owner perhaps?"

    Or perhaps not, as revealed by the staff's parting remark: "You might want this one as well, Mr Kurniawan..."

    The Sediment Blog

    1. Haha, well played, but this was before Rudy Kurniawan left his mark on the industry. It may have been Hardy Rodenstock though...


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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine