In The Classroom

by Metro Wines Asheville

A virtual tour of the Loire Valley.

The Loire Valley is one of my favorite wine areas in France, particularly because of the flavors that the cool climate and the chalky, stony soil contribute. The best way to learn about it is to actually go there, although for those of you that, like myself, can't just hop over to Europe for a wine fueled, educational cruise down the river, the next best way is to come to our French Class this Sunday!

Our resident French Professor, Dr. Allison Weems, will take us on a virtual tour of France, region by region, starting with the Loire Valley. She will give us the basics of the French language, tailored specifically to travelers. Greetings, survival phrases, and basic wine phrases will all be covered.

While Dr. Weems is parlez-vous-ing français, I will go over some of the main wine areas and describe what you can expect to drink from town to town when you go over for real. I will talk about the unique terroir of the Valley and what that means for the wine in your glass. I'll cover the really famous towns that you really HAVE to visit on your Loire trip, and give you an idea of the flavor differences between them. What is the difference in style between Pouilly Fume and Sancerre anyway?

Email Dr. Weems to sign up at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and be on the lookout for "Vin Francais", an overview of the wines of France, coming soon to the Asheville School of Wine!
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Check out this great article on blind tasting in the Wall Street Journal!

And when you are ready to try out your own blind tasting skills, come to the Blind Tasting League. More information at


How to Blind Taste Wine Like a Sommelier

ONE OF THE MOST satisfying achievements of any oenophile is an ability to recognize a wine whose identity is concealed. Equal parts talent, training and luck, blind tasting is the elusive grail of the professional wine world. I've had some great blind-tasting successes—and many failures—but my favorite experience took place 15 years ago at the now-closed Montrachet, in New York.

The restaurant's then-wine director, Daniel Johnnes (now wine director of Dinex, the Daniel Boulud restaurant group) conducted a game called What's My Wine? The challenge was quite simple: Mr. Johnnes poured willing diners a glass and asked them to correctly identify the grape, appellation, region, vintage and producer. For each correct answer, Mr. Johnnes deducted 20% from the price of the bottle. Anyone who answered all five correctly got it free.
I answered four out of five questions correctly: Chenin Blanc, Savennières, the Loire Valley and 1995. I didn't name the producer, Nicolas Joly. I can't remember why. Perhaps it was too obvious. "Only about 2% of all the people who played the game got as far as you did," said Mr. Johnnes reassuringly when I recalled the competition during a recent phone call.

But when I recounted my almost-total triumph to a wine-savvy friend, he scoffed that people almost always guess wrong at blind tastings. "They only remember the one time they got it right," he said.

The practice purportedly evolved from a professional need to identify fraudulent wine (bottles didn't come with labels long ago). Today this type of tasting is considered the best way to assay the true quality of a wine. When a drink's identity is unknown, a taster can (theoretically) reach an objective conclusion as to its worth. Then there is the other type of blind tasting—practiced by professionals and amateurs alike—which is more of a parlor game meant to challenge and/or humiliate wine-drinking friends. Both kinds generally involve shrouding the bottles with brown papers bags, but anything all-concealing will do. I've even seen aluminum foil employed.

The reviewers at Wine Spectator certainly go through the exercise for the first reason, as executive editor Thomas Matthews noted in an email. It is important to avoid "the inevitable bias adduced by knowledge of price and producer," he said in an email. The magazine's critics review all new-release wines in independent blind tastings, he added.

Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Company in White Plains, N.Y., blind tastes with his staff for fun. It can be "very humbling," he said. He also does so to assess the quality of wines wholesale sales reps present, as his shop is small and he must be selective about what ends up on the shelves.

These evaluations are generally "price blind." That is, Mr. Posner might know the wine's name but not the price. Mr. Posner offered an example of one such tasting. A salesman brought him an expensive ($50) Pinot Noir along with other, less-costly wines. The pricey Pinot was disappointing while the cheapest, the 2012 Ramsay Pinot Noir ($12), was a hit. If he hadn't blind-tasted the Ramsay Pinot, Mr. Posner said, he probably would not have stocked it.

“ One can follow specific steps to improve the odds of a correct guess. ”

Sommeliers must also be proficient in the skill. This is particularly true for those who aspire to be master somms. In fact, a variation on this theme is an important part of the exam conducted by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an accrediting professional organization. Candidates must correctly identify at least four of six grape varieties to pass the test—something fewer than 10% of the would-be masters manage on their first attempt, according to the court's Seattle-based examination director, Shayn Bjornholm.

Some sommeliers, such as Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at Daniel restaurant in New York, like to eliminate preconceived notions as a means of checking their palate. For example, he said, "You expect certain things in a wine like Chablis—minerality, high acidity." If it's oaky, you might incorrectly think it's flawed, he said, adding that without a label, he is responding only to "the wine in the glass."

Winemakers frequently taste blind as well—not just their own product but others' too. Aaron Pott, an acclaimed vintner and consultant in Napa (Blackbird Vineyards, Pott Wine) said he rarely tastes his own as it always stands out, but he employs the method elsewhere, in part to avoid "cellar palate," i.e., becoming overly fond of his own beverage.

Mr. Pott also uses the technique for fun. He doesn't take blind tasting—or himself—too seriously. He recounted an event attended by 100 or so wine professionals who were offered the opportunity to participate in a challenge. Mr. Pott was the only one who volunteered—and he got every bottle wrong. But a week later someone brought to his house two wines that he blind tasted, and he "nailed them," he said. They were a 2005 JJ Prüm Kabinett Riesling, from Germany, and a 2000 Troplong Mondot, from St.-Èmilion, Bordeaux. Luck does figure in success: Sometimes a taster is on, sometimes he's not.

Although sampling widely is one of the best ways to become a better blind taster, one can follow specific steps to improve the odds of a correct guess. The first step requires a visual examination (something casual drinkers often forget). Certain wines are much lighter than others. For example, a Pinot Noir will almost always be lighter than a Cabernet. Same with a Pinot Grigio versus a Chardonnay.

The second step requires tilting the glass to check the liquid's viscosity. A viscous wine will usually be higher in alcohol, and a higher-alcohol wine usually comes from a warm climate.

Smelling and tasting are the third and fourth, and most important, steps. The aromas will tell you almost everything you need to know, and the flavor should confirm it. Aromas of red cherries and spice? Pinot Noir. Earth and black pepper? Maybe Syrah. (Of course, you need to study and drink a great deal to have these reference points.)

How well does the average wine drinker perform in a blind tasting? I decided to conduct one of my own for three savvy friends. I chose single varietal wines (blends are too difficult) that are widely available and true to place and type. They were about the same price ($20), save for the California Cabernet, which was more than twice the average price. (It's hard to get a great California Cab for $20.)

The whites included the 2013 Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner, from Austria, the 2013 Domaine Pastou Sancerre, from the Loire Valley, and the 2013 Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio, of Alto Adige. The reds included the 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Hills Merlot, from Washington state, the 2010 Laurel Glen Cabernet, from Sonoma and the 2011 Yann Chave Le Rouvre Crozes-Hermitage, from the Rhône Valley.

The results were surprising—or not. The most knowledgeable oenophile took the longest to evaluate each sample and had the most articulate descriptions and rationale, but he also got every wine wrong. The least experienced correctly identified two (Grüner Veltliner and Sancerre), and it turned out that he drank those "all the time," while the third taster nailed every vintage—and nothing else. Sometimes the guesses were close (Cabernet Franc instead of Cabernet Sauvignon) and sometimes they were quite far (Pinot vs. Syrah).

What do blind tastings prove? The professional version can definitely deliver an unbiased opinion—and aid in the discovery of some very good deals (such as the inexpensive Pinot Noir that surprised Mr. Posner). And the parlor-game variety that I practiced on my friends?

They can help you remember and recognize wines in the future, potentially adding to your connoisseurship. But that doesn't guarantee you'll recognize those wines if they're served blind again. As my wine-savvy friend can attest, accurately identifying wines in a blind tasting isn't just about knowledge but a bit of luck too.

See wine videos and more from Off Duty at
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Food and Wine pairing: an opinionated guide.

"So I'm having a cedar plank grilled salmon for dinner with a dill-yogurt sauce, which wine should I drink with that?" I get questions like this almost every day, and honestly it's a question that I love! I relish the challenge of finding just the right wine that will not overpower the food, but has enough going on to stand up to it. To find the wine which will not only go along with the meal without a fuss, but the one that will genuinely enhance the entire dining experience. A good wine and food pairing is one that makes both the wine and the food taste better than either would have by themselves. But how worried should we be about finding exactly the right wine to go with our dinner? Should we suffer through a bottle of acidic Gruner Veltliner just because the sommelier says it is just the perfect wine for pork? Must you drink a white wine with your crabcakes even though you prefer red wines? What are the rules with pairing wine and food, and if so, who is making these rules anyway?

The classic rule was:
White wines with white fish and white meats.
Light red wines with red and white meats.
Off dry or sweet wines with spicy food.
Strongly flavored reds with strongly flavored meat dishes.
Sweet still and sparkling wines with sweet foods.

I think this is a good place to start, but do not get stuck here! There is not a stone tablet somewhere with the hallowed words "Though shalt drink Cabernet Sauvignon when thy eatest steak" etched onto it. Not to say that Cabernet is a bad thing to drink alongside a delicious New York Strip, but there are many, many more wines that pair equally well with your beef (For instance, try an obscure Italian wine called Aglianico!). Don't feel like you must drink reds with beef and whites with seafood either. I find that lighter and more acid driven reds, such as Gamay Noir, Frappato, Zweigelt and a lighter bodied Pinot Noir work quite well with seafood and even shellfish. I almost feel that Salmon pairs better with a light red than a heavy white, but that's just my two cents! And then there are the so called "orange" wines; white wines with extended skin contact that pair well with everything from chicken to pork and even some beef dishes, due to their tannic nature. Also, don't forget about your dry roses! In my opinion there is not a better pairing for barbequed chicken and pork than a nice, meaty and fruity rose. Ask your sommelier or your wine shop guy and we will gladly help to suggest some pairings that you might not have thought of.

Also, I object to the thought that there is only one "correct" pairing for a food. And while I do feel that some pairings are "righter" than others, I feel that there is a huge gray area of wine pairings that might not be as good as some but will work just fine. In my opinion, there are very few wine pairings that just don't work at all. I guess the point I am trying to make is that a good wine pairing can really liven up and improve an already good meal, but it isn't something that one should ever stress or worry about. Drink what you like with food that you like. Don't take someone else's opinion over your own, you are the one who has to drink it after all! If you like drinking red Zinfandel with your pork chops, I'm sure it won't ruin the meal. But you should try it with a good Gruner Veltliner one day!
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Come out to the Wine Essentials Class on July 22nd!

Have you ever felt intimidated while describing a wine? Would you like to know more about starting a wine cellar? Would you just like to learn a bit more about wine in general? This is the class for you! Wine Essentials teaches, just that, all of the things that you should know to get the most enjoyment out of your wine, without getting too technical. We will cover the major grape varietals, demystify wine terminology, learn when and how to decant a wine, the basics of food and wine pairing and tips for starting your own wine cellar. We will even debunk some very popular wine myths, things that you thought you knew about wine but are absolutely untrue! Did you know that 1 out of every 5 wines sold in France is a Rose wine? What is the best way to tell if your wine is "corked"? Learn more tomorrow night!
Come out tomorrow night at 6:00 for an entertaining tour through the very essentials of wine and learn more about the wines you love!
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At the Wine and Food Festival's Chef Challenge

Andy announcing the news that we will be bringing blind tasting to the Asheville Wine and Food Festival! Photo courtesy of Julie McMillan.

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The Asheville Wine and Food Festival Chefs Challenge.

I was recently asked by Bob Bowles, the organizer of the Asheville Wine and Food Festival, to help judge the first Chefs Challenge on Tuesday. As a lifelong foodie, and a veteran of quite a few high-end, gourmet restaurants, I was incredibly excited to attend and see what amazing creations the Chefs would present. I was certainly not disappointed!

In my line of work, I am constantly judging the quality of wine. I meet with wine reps on an almost daily basis, and taste through an absolute deluge of wine. Trying to judge the quality of these wines and then decide which of them to carry in our shop is truly the best and most challenging part of my job! But I had never judged food before.

Fortunately, I was seated with some real professionals; food writers for the Asheville Scene Mackenzy Lunsford and Jess McCuan, and the head dietician for Ingles, Leah McGrath. You have probably heard her voice coming from the speakers while you are shopping at Ingles! It was truly amazing listening to them as they picked apart the various courses, noting the positive qualities as well as the shortcomings. I can easily say that this was the most well spoken dinner conversation I have ever been a part of!

Both chefs Chris Brown of Mountain Magnolia Inn and Chef Mike Fisera of Lexington Avenue Brewery did an amazing job of incorporating the secret ingredient, corn, into their meals. The desserts were particularly impressive, taking the form of a chocolate coated corn fritter and a sweet corn semifredo. Both were sweet and savory! I left incredibly full and happy.

Bob acted as the MC at the event. Ever the showman, he kept the mood fun and light, and the sense of excitement about the next course and the impending tallying of the votes was palpable!

It was a great honor to be invited to the event and I highly recommend getting a ticket for yourselves to the next Chefs Challenge on Tuesday July the 8th!

Until next time, happy tasting!
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The Grape Vine: Beaujolais—A New Day

Don\'t stick up your nose at Beaujolais! Read this great article in the Laurel of Asheville Magazine about the \"other red Burgundy\" by our own Gina Trippi!
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How to order wine like a pro in a restaurant.

So I recently read a great article in Food and Wine magazine called \"20 tips for ordering wine\". Definitely check it out! But it got me thinking about my old restaurant days and the sorts of cues that used to let us know that the person on the other side of the wine list didn\'t have a clue what he was doing. Here are some tips on how to order wine in a restaurant that will help you (and your Sommelier) get the right sort of wine in your glass!

1. Learn your wine terminology. This is a big one! It\'s incredibly hard for your sommelier to recommend a wine you will like if you don\'t know how to describe what you are looking for. Learn how to describe the kind of wine you are looking for with terms like tannic, acidic, big, rich, fruity, earthy or light. To learn these terms and what they mean, check out my earlier blog entry called \"Learn your wine tasting terminology!\". One term to avoid in a restaurant, however, is \"dry\". Unless you are looking for a Riesling or another grape that is frequently made in a sweeter style, \"dry\" is really a useless descriptor, since most wines are dry.

2. Avoid sniffing the cork. It just smells like a cork. Whenever I see someone sniffing the cork before grinning and exclaiming \"Excellent!\", all I take away is, \"I\'m a little pretentious!\". Now I may get into trouble for this one, I have known some experts who claim that you can detect some faults by smelling the cork (I can\'t), but in my opinion, it is always better and easier to smell the wine itself. You\'re drinking the wine afterall, not the cork! To make sure the bottle of wine you ordered is satisfactory, smell your glass or take a sip. Look for traces of old, wet cardboard, wet dog, and all things dank. This could be TCA taint, also known as \"corked wine\", which occurs in around 7% of all wines with corks according to a 2005 study. If you have a bad wine, send it back with confidence! Although, don\'t be the guy that sends back bottle after bottle because he doesn\'t like the wine! Nobody likes that guy.

3. Be open to trying something new. A lot of the better bottles of wine that I have encountered in restaurants were not picked out by me. I love asking the sommelier for their recommendations, especially if you trust her palate. As long as you didn\'t have your heart set on a specific wine, ask your somm what they are excited about, what they recommend, or what they are drinking at home now. You might get some nerdy stuff, but they will definitely be interesting! There are too many amazing wines out there to just drink Chardonnays and Cabernets every night!

4. If getting a recommendation, let your sommelier know the price you are looking to spend that night. I always appreciated knowing my customers price range, it helps to narrow down the wine list, and I didn\'t have to worry about shocking someone by suggesting a $500 wine or insulting another by suggesting a $20 one. Don\'t let your somm bully you into spending more than you want either. I used to really enjoy the challenge of trying to find a good wine at a lower price that fit the flavor profile of what my guests were looking for!

5. Always tip 20% on your wine purchase, unless you are given bad service. I have read a number of articles concerning how much to tip on wine with some experts saying 10% and others 15%, but the fact is that odds are your server or sommelier is probably expecting 20%. I have actually received tips where the guest showed their math on the receipt, with 20% for the food and 10% for the wine. It just makes them look cheap. I\'ve also heard a lot of people asking about how much is appropriate to tip on an expensive bottle of wine. I still expect 20%. If you can afford to buy a $1000 bottle of wine, you can afford to tip on it. Keep in mind most servers tip out their support staff based on their sales, not their tips! If you tip low on a very expensive bottle, your server could potentially lose money!

Hopefully this gives you a little bit of an insider\'s view of wine service in restaurants. If you follow these steps, you will look like you know what you are doing, find a wine you will like better, maybe try something new, and everyone will be happy!

Until next time, happy drinking!
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Bring the Asheville School of Wine to your next event!

We are finally going mobile! Our team of highly trained wine consultants will come out to your next party or event and do a wine tasting, discussion, class, or even a blind tasting. We have already done a wine tasting of obscure Spanish wines at a home in Asheville, a blind tasting event at a Biltmore business, and assorted wine tastings for the board of directors of some local non-profit groups. Call or email us for ideas and pricing and set up your event today! Call us at (828) 575-9525 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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Learn your wine tasting terminology!

In order to talk accurately about wine, it is important to to understand the basic flavor components that make it up. Terms like tannin, acidity and dryness can be very confusing and difficult to describe. Is that wine sweet or is it just fruity? Do you dislike this wine because it\'s too acidic, or is that bite you are feeling a result of the tannin? Here are some fantastic exercises to let you experience those wine descriptors yourself, and start accurately describing the wines that you taste. You can try all of these in your home, mostly with things that you already have laying around your kitchen. Try out these exercises which were designed by a trio of experts and prepare to start describing wines accurately and confidently!

Happy tasting!


The following from

Wine-Tasting Exercises: Body

What Defines Body In Wine?

“Body is the sense of weight or richness or heaviness, and even the feeling of viscosity that a wine leaves in your mouth,” says Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, author of Great Wine Made Simple. Generally, the more alcohol in a wine, the more body it will have, which means that wines from warmer climates (which produce grapes with more sugar to be converted into alcohol) tend to have more heft. Sugar, oak and the overall concentration of flavors in a wine can also add body.
How Does Body Affect Pairing?

“A key principle for pairing is to match body with body, so that the wine’s not too heavy or light for the dish, and vice versa,” says Robinson.

“Wines have different weights and richnesses, mostly due to alcohol. Milk can vary in the same way, but of course that’s due to fat,” says Robinson.

4 glasses
1/4 cup each of skim milk, 2% milk, whole milk and heavy cream

Taste the milk in ascending order of richness, beginning with skim and ending with heavy cream, considering the texture of each and the sensation in your mouth. The skim milk should dissipate very quickly; the cream will coat your tongue.

Wine-Tasting Exercises: Tannins

What are Tannins?

Tannins are compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems that contribute to wine’s structure, complexity, texture and ageability—especially red wine. Tannins create a drying and slightly bitter sensation in the mouth, usually toward the back of the tongue. Tannic wines pair especially well with rich foods and substantial meat dishes because they cut through fat; fat also softens the perception of tannin, making the wines more approachable.
Wine-Tasting Workout: Tannins

3 mugs
3 black tea bags
Hot water

Pour 8 ounces of hot water into each of the mugs. Place one tea bag in each of the mugs and start a timer. After 2 minutes, remove the bag from the first mug; after 4 minutes, remove the bag from the second mug; and after 8 minutes, remove the final tea bag. Let the tea cool.

Taste the teas in increasing steep-time order, swishing the liquid around in your mouth before swallowing. Notice how the teas are perceptibly more astringent as the steeping time increases.

Wine-Tasting Exercises: Acidity

What is Acidity in Wine?

Acidity in wine comes from the natural acids (tartaric, malic, etc.) in the grapes themselves, or acids that are added during the the winemaking process. The acidity in grapes varies greatly depending on the variety, as well as sun exposure, climate and the soil in the vineyard; grapes grown in cooler areas tend to have higher acidity. When drinking a wine, you’ll feel the effects of acidity mostly on the sides of your tongue. Overly acidic wines will cause almost a stinging sensation or taste sour.
How Does Acidity Affect Pairing?

Acidity makes your mouth water, cuts through the fat in rich foods and refreshes the palate.

Five 4 ounce glasses of water
1 orange
1 grapefruit
1 lemon
1 lime

Set aside the first glass of water.

Squeeze the juice of 1/4 orange into the second glass; into the third, squeeze the juice of 1/4 grapefruit; into the fourth, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon; into the fifth, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lime.

Taste in that order, starting with a sip of plain water, to experience increasing levels of acidity. Experiment by adding more juice to each glass to see how the acidity increases. Notice the point at which the juice becomes too sour.

Wine-Tasting Exercises: Sweetness

What is Sweetness in Wine, and Why Does it Matter?

Sweetness in wine is measured by the amount of residual sugar (RS) in the liquid after fermentation. “Sweetness can only come from one thing in wine, and that’s sugar content,” says Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm. Acidity can mask some of the sweetness in wines by balancing out the sugar, as in German or Alsatian Riesling. Sugar can also contribute to a wine’s body and texture.

16 ounce glass with 8 ounces of water
2 lemons
1 cup of sugar

Squeeze the juice of the lemons into the water and stir.

Taste the mixture; it will be very tart.

Stir in sugar 1 teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition. You should notice when the juice achieves the right level of sweetness and balances the acidity of the lemon.

Wine-Tasting Exercises: Aromas & Flavors

What Accounts for a Wine’s Aromas and Flavors?

A wine’s flavors come from the grape variety, as well as the climate and the amount of sun exposure and type of soil in the vineyard. Different winemaking techniques will extract various flavors, too.
What’s The Best Way to Describe a Wine’s Flavors and Aromas?

The truth is, everyone smells and tastes different aromas and flavors in wine. It’s a very subjective judgement. That said, the more tasting experiences you have, the more easily you’ll be able to pick out those flavors. Having your own flavor vocabulary can come in handy when ordering wine from a sommelier or talking with a salesperson at a wine shop—and, most importantly, when pairing wines with food.

Pencil Shavings
Lime Zest
Orange Blossom Water

Put on the blindfold and have someone set out the aromatic items in front of you in any order.

Smell each item. “Aroma accounts for the majority of our taste, anyway,” says Bjornholm. Not only will this exercise give you a better idea of what you like, but it will also increase your Rolodex of flavors to have on hand when tasting.

Wine-Tasting Exercises: Oak

What does it mean for a wine to be oaked?

Oak barrels used in winemaking develop their toasty, caramelly, vanilla flavors from being fire-charred. The barrels can be toasted to different levels, depending on the winemaker’s preference; those barrels can hold wine while it ferments or while it ages. Some producers favor old oak over new oak because its effect on a wine’s flavor, tannins and structure is more subtle.
Wine-Tasting Workout: Oak

Box of Cheerios

Crush up Cheerios and smell them. According to Joshua Wesson, the toasty, wheaty notes of the cereal are very similar to those in oaked white wine.

Skewer a marshmallow and roast it over a flame on a gas stove until it’s charred. “In red wines, oak leaves the impression of campfire smoke or the smell of a burnt marshmallow,” Wesson says.
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IRS cracks down on restaurant servers.

For all of our server friends. Here is a great article by Mackensy Lunsford about new IRS rules concerning automatic gratuities. Looks like you may be paying more taxes soon, or avoiding the auto grat altogether. While I can\'t do anything about the IRS, I can help boost your sales and help you make better tips! Come to our first class \"Wine Sales and Service for the Restaurant Professional\", starting June 10th at 12:00-2:00pm and 6:00-8:00pm. I will share everything that I have learned from 10+ years in the restaurant industry as a waiter and also as a sommelier. In the meantime, good luck out there!

IRS cracks down on restaurant servers

Mackensy Lunsford, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Internal Revenue Service wants to make sure it gets a slice of the cash tips that restaurant workers pocket. To crack down on unreported tips, the IRS in January put into place new rules regulating how servers get paid. The new laws may change what you see on your bill next time you go out to eat.

New laws say that automatic gratuities — charges often added to bills of parties of 6 or more — are taxed as service charges, which is bad news for some servers. Automatic gratuities are usually added to protect servers from being under-tipped when handling large groups.

According to Joseph Henchman, vice president of legal and state projects at the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research think tank based in Washington, D.C., the IRS wants to make sure servers don\'t pocket tip money to earn tax-free income, something that some tipped workers admit to doing.

Carla Gilfillan, a server at Asheville\'s Outback Steakhouse, says the act of pocketing tips is not uncommon, so she\'s not surprised by the crackdown. \"The government wants their money,\" she said. \"Especially when you have a tipped employee, there\'s really no way to prove that we\'re under-claiming. I think the government sees that as a lot of money they\'re missing out on.\"

To help curtail this small-scale tax evasion, the IRS is now drawing a sharper distinction between tips and service charges (to read the new rules, see the box on Page A1). Automatic gratuities are now classified as service charges and factored into hourly wages. Now, employers have to run tips through their payroll system and factor them into hourly wage rates, delaying payment by up to two weeks and causing paperwork headaches for restaurant owners.

Most servers are accustomed to getting paid out in tips at the end of each day, so getting servers to work large parties, said Henchman, will probably be harder. Additionally, it adds to the cost of running restaurants, which were previously eligible for tax credits on tips, but not for service charges, under the new rules.

\"In the restaurant industry, the margins are really thin,\" said Henchman. \"A lot of restaurants fail each year because it\'s a tough industry. It\'s very competitive, and it\'s hard to make money doing it. I think a lot more thought should have been put into the consequences for a rule change like this.\"

To the IRS, it\'s just a clarification in the best interest of tax administration, said Henchman. \"But one that will make life a little bit harder for both restaurants and their waitstaff.\"

A broken system?

Currently, servers mostly rely on their tips for income. In 1991, according to restaurant worker advocacy group ROC United, the minimum wage for tipped employees was $2.13. More than two decades later, this amount has not increased — even when indexed against inflation. Is there an alternative? ROC United studied the impact of raising the minimum wage for servers. (See their findings in the graphic at right).

According to ROC United, prior to 1966, tipped workers received the same minimum wage as other workers. It was not until 1966 that employers were allowed to pay tipped workers a sub-minimum wage, set at 50 percent of the full minimum wage. From 1966 on, customers were expected to foot a substantial portion of employee wages. 1991 was the last year that the sub-minimum wage saw an increase to $2.13.

Further, in 1996, the National Restaurant Association, under the leadership of Herman Cain, negotiated with Congress to permit an increase to the full minimum wage as long as the tipped minimum wage was frozen at $2.13, where it has since remained. As a result, the United States is the only nation where tipped workers must depend on those tips for most of their income.

That\'s worth noting as chain restaurants such as Outback, Olive Garden and Carrabbas report that they have discontinued the automatic gratuity, a practice that sometimes could be a point of contention for servers and diners.

Gilfillan, for her part, is no fan of automatic gratuities, which she said can sometimes put a too-low value on servers\' labor. \"Where a lot of times, if there\'s not an auto-grat, they\'ll just tip you 20 percent anyway,\" she said.

But servers say the automatic gratuity helps prevent under-tippers, and even Gilfillan admits that the new laws have caused her to miss out on a tip with a large party of middle schoolers, she said. \"Middle schoolers don\'t know how to tip,\" she said.

Raising the average

Corinne Romanowski, a server at The Lobster Trap, an independent restaurant in downtown Asheville, previously added a 20 percent gratuity to parties of six or more. But that system has been discontinued by the management of the restaurant.

\"By the time gratuities trickle through the \'new\' system, (servers) are left with 12-14 percent or less,\" explained Kim Murray, owner of The Lobster Trap. And that\'s not at all worth the paperwork, she said. \"It leaves management with the choice of losing money to take care of the server appropriately, or only give them what\'s left after being taxed twice on that gratuity (service charge). No one wins in either instance.\"

\"It\'s not worth the money,\" Romanowski agreed. \"It\'s better to just take a chance and hope that they\'re good tippers. After being taxed, what I\'m going to get back is usually less than what people would give me.\"

According to Romanowski, other staffers like hostesses need her to get big tips, too.

Romanowski tips out a portion of her sales to restaurant employees that help her out, including busboys and hostesses. \"Say a party of seven spends $300 and they tipped me a very minimal amount, I\'m still going to have to tip out the same percentage on the table, even though they didn\'t tip me,\" she said. \"If that\'s a really big table, that\'s going to hurt.\"

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hosts and hostesses are number four among the ten lowest-paying jobs in the U.S. In fact, of those ten, six jobs are in the restaurant industry, with fast-food cooks making the least of all workers. Waiters and waitresses don\'t crack the top ten; their mean income of $20,880 puts them at number 19.

Still, Romanowski said, some days are better than others. \"I can have two nights where my sales were just about the exact same, but my money will differ hugely,\" she said. \"Our whole profession is really a gamble, and you just never know what you\'re going to make in a night.\"

Gilfillan said that, at Outback Steakhouse, printed on the checks for tables of more than eight are calculations for tips of 15, 18 and 20 percent, though it stops short of recommending that you pay any amount.

Sometimes people ignore those suggestions, she said, but getting stiffed on a tip is the reality of being a server. \"It does happen,\" she said.

Gilfillan doesn\'t agree with the law. But the fact that restaurants even need to add gratuity to checks speaks to a bigger problem, she said.

\"It\'s a problem independent of this law,\" she said. \"People not valuing our labor as restaurant workers. The bigger-picture problem is that we feel like we need to be able to add gratuity to checks, because people can\'t be trusted to take care of us.\"



Under the IRS ruling, Rev. Ruling 2012-18, a sharper distinction is drawn between tips and service charges. Both are taxable but tips are reported and cashed out that day. Under the new rules, to be a tip:

(1) the payment must be made free from compulsion;

(2) the customer must have the unrestricted right to determine the amount;

(3) the payment should not be the subject of negotiation or dictated by employer policy; and

(4) generally, the customer has the right to determine who receives the payment.

Automatic gratuities don\'t meet these criteria, so they would be classified as service charges. Employers would have to cycle these charges through their payroll system to distribute to servers, delaying payment by up to two weeks, and factor them into hourly wage rates.
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Nineteen Eighty Six

So I have a friend in Portland who used to manage a restaurant. One of his regular customers was a very nice man who loved to talk about the size of his wine cellar. He spoke of it often, and it was a point of great pride for him. So one day, he came in with a few business associates of his whom he was trying to impress. He had brought an older vintage bottle of wine from his cellar, and requested that three glasses be brought to the table. \"Bring a glass for yourself.\" he said with a sly wink.
They all sat down at a table and my friend placed the glasses around the table. From out of his bag, the man produced a bottle and proudly said \"Nineteen eighty six!\" before placing it on the table like it was a trophy. My friend was shocked when he saw the bottle. It was a 1986 vintage red, from a California house known for producing inexpensive jug wine. It was no longer red. As my friend was pouring the wine around the table, the viscous, brown liquid could hardly be referred to as wine. Don\'t forget to pour yourself some!\" the man said.
My friend did as he was asked, and left the table with his glass. It looked like varnish and smelled like paint thinner. After a rousing \"Cheers!\" from the table, the man went to work on his wine. His companions did so as well, reluctantly. Shooting glances at each other as they tasted it.
The man had made a very common mistake about aging wine. He was under the mistaken impression that ALL wine gets better with age. It turns out, he had been buying cheap grocery store wine by the case, and was then storing it for twenty years or more! Most of those are meant to be consumed relatively young, and are absolutely not suitable for aging, really at all! This is a case where a little wine knowledge could have averted a disastrous attempt to impress some new clients!
After the meal, my friend went by to ask how the evening went. The man said that the food and service had been excellent! When asked about the wine, he said \"It was good, but starting to turn a bit. Good thing I didn\'t wait any longer!\"
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