There’s no way around it: Valentine’s Day is a polarizing holiday, especially if you work in restaurants. With customers navigating first dates and 50th anniversaries, passionate proposals and blowouts during the bread course, the dining room fills with a sense of anticipation—and tension. Few feel that more than the sommelier, who rarely gets the night off. Valentine’s Day service is riddled with dozens of unique challenges (one-day-only tasting menu, anyone?) but can also bring incredible successes, setting it up to be a very memorable night.
Wine Spectator asked eight pros from across the country to share hallmark service moments of years past: the awkward, the outright inappropriate and the truly, joyfully romantic.
Wine Spectator: What’s your favorite Valentine’s Day service story?
Jodi Bronchtein, wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Audrey and June in Nashville, Tenn.
McCrady’s, Charleston, South Carolina, 2016. Four couples sitting pretty close to each other started talking about how fantastic one of the wines was with each other as I poured the pairings. They started buying bottles for each other from me and ended up moving their tables together. It turned into an impromptu eight-top filled with laughter, stories and multiple toasts. It was organic and lovely and rare. I consider it one of the best service nights of my career, crying happy tears in the somm station listening to them.
Andrey Ivanov, president and CEO of Bliss Wine Concierge, formerly wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Lazy Bear in San Francisco
Ah, one that doesn’t involve a squeegee and shame? Well, there was one couple back in St. Louis a decade or so ago at Elaia that is memorable. They were in from out of town and were there to celebrate the anniversary of their divorce. It was a three-year-old tradition for them at that point, and they were by far the most entertaining and engaging couple of the evening. So often the evening is filled with nerves, pressure to not disappoint and people’s most evident neuroses. This pair didn’t have a care in the world. They absolutely crushed the tasting menu and laughed and drank themselves to a point that any other couple there was probably jealous of. How ironic …
Chris McFall, wine director at Grand Award winner SingleThread Farms, Healdsburg, Calif.
My best Valentine’s Day story was actually at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse [in Houston]. We had a really amazing team of sommeliers there; I looked back at some of the pictures of the floor charts and who was in what station, and man, oh man, there were so many amazing, talented humans on the floor. I worked there for a few years, and one year in my station, there were almost no wine sales, which was a very rare thing. And so my job for the evening was trimming the thorns off of roses, essentially, and handing them to guests. I think I sold a glass of Benziger Merlot that evening. It was like I was a somm without a job. I felt like the floral guy from the movie “The Town;” I was basically just taking the leaves and the thorns off of roses for the whole night. But I made people happy somehow, some way.
Charlie Broder, owner and wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Terzo in Minneapolis
Not sure it can be printed in a reputable publication like Wine Spectator, but I’ll summarize it: Terzo was in its third or fourth year of service, and we had a substantial evening on the books, clearly. Service was off to a smooth start and stayed that way until around 7:30, when I was informed by my bartender that B6-7 had “disappeared.” A short time later, a disheveled couple appeared from the restrooms, much to the awareness of everyone at the bar.
Clearly, they were having an intimate evening and proceeded to share that intimacy with everyone by continuing their PDA in a risqué game of striptease. I was unaware of the situation until I returned to check in; I noticed immediately this needed to be stopped and, as I went to address the situation, shirts were coming off, touching was happening …. At that point, I approached them and politely asked them to leave or put their clothes back on and to pull it together, which they did and left graciously 2 hours later.
All the guests at the bar were stunned—in an odd and comical way—and pleased with the complimentary glass of Barolo they enjoyed and the story they got to take with them. To this day, it’s one of the most surprising, confusing and funny interjections of needing to ask a guest for decency I’ve ever encountered. Clearly love was in the air.
Sabrina Schatz, director of wine and spirits at Award of Excellence winners Amada, American Cut and Dolce Mare at Ocean Casino Resort, Atlantic City, N.J.
Having worked in the casino resort industry for years, I can tell you that Valentine’s Day is always one of the most action-packed days on property. I’ve seen everything from wedding proposals to breakups, with a lot of flowers, stuffed animals and candy in between.
One of my favorite memories occurred a few years ago at one of our fine-dining restaurants. A gentleman came in and asked me to help him propose to his high-school sweetheart later that evening. He gave me the engagement ring in a box that we were to deliver after they ordered their desserts. The young couple happened to be seated at a table adjacent to one of our high rollers, whose drink was Louis XIII. They struck up a conversation with him after witnessing the white-glove presentation service and being intrigued by the process. They had never tasted Cognac, let alone Louis, so the high roller—being the wonderful, generous person he is—asked me to send them a couple of glasses to try it.
The young gentleman was super-nervous knowing that soon he will be on one knee so, instead of savoring the Cognac, he drank it as a shot! His girlfriend giggled, not realizing how nervous her boyfriend was or what was coming after dessert. When he surprised her with the ring, she was so shocked and overjoyed and she said yes … but the high roller wasn’t done just yet. Being the romantic he was, he had me send them out a bottle of Cristal 2008, as well as picking up the entire dinner check for them. The couple was absolutely shocked and couldn’t stop thanking him and us! It was such a joy to see how a really cute proposal was made even more special by a kind stranger!
Alexis Percival, managing partner and owner at Ruffian in New York City
I was working at a wine bar with an oval bar, like an island. No kitchen, no back room to escape to, and my coworker went downstairs on break. The holiday was on a Monday or Tuesday, and I was surrounded by dates. Cut to 10 p.m. and there are three couples left. They all start making out. And I am quite literally trapped. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe it. On the upside, I guess I did my job.
Robert Stelmachuk, wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Mott 32 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
I think the last time I totaled it out, over the years, I’ve had something like 120 proposals on Valentine's Day, of which I think 70 of them were ‘no … like dude, come on.’
I did work once where a husband and wife came in separately with their other significant others, not knowing. That was kind of awkward! But she came in with her lover and he came in with his lover. They both told each other they were out of town for Valentine's Day.
Harley Carbery, corporate wine director of Las Vegas–based Station Casinos, including Best of Award of Excellence winners T-Bones Chophouse & Lounge at Red Rock Casino and Hank’s Fine Steaks and Martinis at Green Valley Ranch Resort
Valentine’s Day is interesting in Las Vegas for sure! Many diners visiting from around the world, as well as many locals out for the special night!
One of my favorite Valentine’s Day stories happened a few years ago when I was working at Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand. A regular guest joined us with his friend and told me, “I want to drink what you would drink.” Luckily for me, I knew this guest well and his budget.
With the degustation menu, I selected: 1995 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay, 1990 Trimbach Clos Ste.-Hune, 1992 J.-F. Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne, 1982 Château Margaux, and 1989 Château d’Yquem.
A wonderful, romantic dinner for these guests turned into an amazing night of wine for myself and my team as we were fortunate enough to “taste” the wines that they did not finish, for educational purposes of course. Remember that there was only two guests, so there was definitely a fair share left over. A happy Valentine’s Day for sure!