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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 20, 2008
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive


Hanlon’s Razor

Two of the most glorious substances on this planet are red meat and red wine.  I’m rarely denied either, especially on my birthday, which this year I happened to be spending in Atlantic City.  So, faithful to my opening promulgation, the first order of business was locating a bastion of carnal delight.  Gambling meccas, God love’em, are usually rife with steakhouses.  After perusing the casinos’ online menus I had it narrowed down to three.  The wine list would now separate the men from the boys. 

     Per my request, one of the establishments e-mailed me their wine list.  The game was over.  I hit the proverbial jackpot.  Their significantly limited French red section sported what I considered to be the ace in the hole:  the 1998 Chateau Latour for $295.  For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Chateau Latour is one of the best, (arguably the best), Bordeaux in the world, not to mention my personal favorite.  For me it has eternal sentimental value, being the wine my wife and I celebrated our engagement, marriage, and various other milestones with.  And while many of you would still consider it deranged to spend three hundred on a bottle of wine under any circumstances, believe it or not, $295 for the 1998 Latour, is beyond a steal.  A major wine retailer in NJ is currently selling it for $500.  Considering that restaurants typically charge two to three times the retail price for their wines renders this steal grand larceny.  But any way you slice it, financially, hedonistically, or sentimentally, it was a no-brainer for me.

     Five days after receiving their e-mailed wine list we were being seated for my much anticipated celebration.  The server arrived and offered me the wine list.  To my horror, my beloved Chateau Latour was nowhere to be found.  I explained how I was just sent a copy of the list five days prior which contained the Latour.  After checking she returned, seemingly befuddled, and in a somewhat hesitating manner said they just updated the list, and then something about increasing French wine prices, and how some other customer who likes Latour will also be disappointed, yada, yada, yada.  Bottom line:  no Chateau Latour. 

     So now, somewhat off kilter, and with few other good choices remaining, I completely switched gears and downshifted to a 2000 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino.  But the odds were still against me.  The server returned and displayed the bottle which I closely inspected.  I informed her that she was presenting me with the 2003, not the 2000 which was the one on the wine list…….not the e-mailed wine list mind you, but the alleged “updated” wine list which she just offered me in person.  She again leaves to go wherever servers go when restaurant foibles occur.  (In the interim by the way she endeavored to sell me an inferior California red for the same price of the Latour).  She returns again and now with even more hesitating and dithering speech, explains that the list is subject to which vintages are available, (even though it was purportedly updated within the last five days), then wavers on whether the 2003 would be the same price as the 2000, and finally lands on a firm conclusion that the price is the same.  I accepted the 2003 at the 2000 price and comforted myself with the fact that at least the wine was smoother than this establishment’s management of it.  I’m not even going to get into the fact that my porterhouse was a little overcooked and the haricot vert were hard.

     So what’s going on with this restaurant’s wine list?  A famous Bordeaux is listed at an unusually good price and then suddenly vanishes.  Then a wine of lower quality is offered at the same price as the Bordeaux.  Finally, a newer vintage of a wine is proffered in place of its older counterpart on the list.  Someone with more paranoid proclivities might start thinking bait and switch.  But Hanlon’s Razor asserts:  “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”  In other words, when inaccuracies occur that are not in your favor, the offender is more likely to be incompetent or careless than out to get you.  Although, my jaunt to Atlantic City also included being charged for a drink I didn’t order, an error on my hotel bill, (in the hotel’s favor), and being shortchanged by both a waitress and a cab driver. 

     Be it intentional or not, errors do occur on wine lists and this current example is just one of numerous flubs I have encountered over the years.  When ordering wine from a wine list always check the bottle when the server presents it to you.  This is not some hokey or pretentious ritual.  It is done so you as the consumer can safeguard yourself from being one of Hanlon’s Razors’ victims.  There are a number of items that must be identical on the bottle and the wine list:  the name, the year, and sometimes, the location and/or vineyard.  The name and the year are usually straightforward.  They either match or they don’t.  But when it comes to a wine’s provenance things can become a little tricky.  Sometimes a wine’s location is denoted in the name but there is only a small difference.  The wine list might offer a Barbera d’Alba but the bottle denotes Barbera d’Asti.  Alba and Asti are both regions producing Barbera but Alba is considered superior.  Or, a particular producer, from a specific region may produce wines from different vineyards.  Some vineyards are better than others so ensure you are receiving the one notated on the list.  Failure to be diligent about checking the label can result in you receiving a similar wine of less quality. 

     While in Turin, Italy I asked the hotel clerk to recommend an upscale restaurant where I could enjoy a good bottle of Barolo.  He mentioned a place down the street, the staff of which he obviously knew and exchanged referrals with.  He called ahead for me to ensure a reservation.  On our way out of the lobby he enjoined me to inform them that he sent me.  Upon arrival to the nearly empty establishment that I certainly didn’t need reservations for, I informed the waiter that our hotel had sent us.  As we were seated he said:  “You’re the man who likes Barolo.” He then asked “Why?” in a tone insinuating that I was mad.  (Barolo, by the way, is considered to be one of the best Italian wines and here I was in the capital of the province from which it hails).  After explaining its virtues I spied a notable one on their list from a phenomenal vintage.  He immediately told me he was out of that one and returned to the table with various bottles of lesser quality wines or inferior vintages, each one accompanied by a sales pitch as to their exaltations.  I couldn’t resist concluding that he assumed I was just another wine-ignorant tourist; an easy target for unloading his mediocre selections at inflated prices.  The good stuff was reserved for his friends and locals.

     A variant of Hanlon’s Razor asserts:  “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice.” Either way, Hanlon’s Razor can cut your wine experience off at the knees.

Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online

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