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Tame your Sommelier
During Wine Service

by Peter May

W  hat do you do with the cork after the sommelier opens the bottle and hands it to you? If you find the entire bottle opening ritual oppressive read on.

There is only one purpose for the restaurant bottle opening ritual. That is so that you - the customer - can ensure you get the wine you ordered and it is in good condition.

There are three steps in the ritual:-

1) The unopened bottle is brought to the table and shown to you. The point of this part of the ritual is for you to check before it is opened that the wine they have brought from the cellar is the one that you ordered. You should confirm it is. Mistakes do happen on both sides.

On my first night in the US after a long period away I hosted a business dinner and ordered a Zinfandel, which one of my favorite varietals. I saw the sommelier bringing a white wine to the table. "No," I said, "I ordered a Zinfandel". He showed me the label and it was Zinfandel. When I previously lived in the US there were only red Zinfandels.

If you wanted a particular vintage, check closely it is the year you ordered. For some reason it is more common for restaurants to list a good year and yet serve a wine from a lessor year than the other way around. There can be significant differences in the prices of the same wine from different years. Some wine menus have the weasel words that when one vintage is exhausted the next will be served. If the vintage is important to you, then query it at this point. You may prefer to order another wine tan pay a premium price for a poor year.

2) Then the wine is opened and the cork is gravely handed to you. One time you would have checked the cork to see it is stamped with the same winery name and vintage as is shown on the label. In other words it is your proof the wine really is what you wanted and stops the restaurant sticking forged labels on bottles. Such a practice these days is virtually unknown.

You could sniff the wet end of the cork for bad odours that might indicate the wine is corked. But this is not a good test. You could squeeze the cork to see if it is wet; if it is dry then perhaps the wine has been stored upright and the wine may be bad. But you cannot really tell anything from the cork. The only test that counts is to taste the wine.

There is little point in this part of the ritual; just accept the cork and put it on the table.

3) A small amount of wine is poured into the glass, and the sommelier stands back holding the bottle. Make sure a reasonable amount has been poured; at times I have been given what amounts to a smear barely covering the base of the glass. Ask for more if necessary.

Look at the colour. The wine should be clear and lights should sparkle in it. Even dark red wine should have bright lights reflected in it. It should not be cloudy or murky.

With the glass resting on the table, put your fingers on the base and just rotate the glass gently so the wine swirls around. These releases the wine's smell, known by wine lovers as the bouquet. Now raise the glass and smell it. You do not have to be an expert to know when it smells bad. It should not smell musty, like damp clothes, wet dogs, damp cardboard or like sulfur.

If it smells good you can accept it. You can go on to taste it, but the sense of smell is more acute and will identify a bad wine.

Supposing it smells unpleasant, and the wine is not clear? Taste it. Does it taste unpleasant?

Initial impressions are best. But it is at this point we always feel unsure, we worry perhaps it our 'mouth out of taste'. Be brave, you have an expert standing next to you. Say to the sommelier something along the lines of "I'd like your opinion, this wine looks cloudy/smells musty/tastes of dish clothes." Get him to taste it. In the unlikely event the sommelier doesn't agree with you, smell and taste it again and if you are unhappy reject it. "I am sorry, I don't want this wine, it tastes bad."

A new bottle should be brought and when you taste this you'll notice the difference and know you were right.

Unfortunately you will encounter bad wines, it is an inescapable part of wine drinking. The corks used to seal wines can sometimes cause a wine to taste like wet cardboard or damp dogs. This is what is known as 'corked'. Bits of cork floating on the wine do not mean it is corked.

Note that you are not being asked to taste the wine to see if you like it. You are only checking to see it is in good condition. If you choose a wine you cannot reject it because you don't like it. The only circumstance when it is acceptable to reject a wine because you do not like is when you have devolved the choice of wine to the sommelier after telling him what your tastes are. If you asked for a medium sweet wine and you were presented with a bone dry wine then you have ground to reject it.

The restaurant wine ritual is mostly pretentious nonsense. However, you are buying an expensive product that can go off. So you have the opportunity to taste and reject it before it is served to your guests.

Don't be browbeaten, tame your sommelier. Glance at the bottle when presented, don't mess with the cork, swirl and sniff the wine. If it smells OK, don't even bother tasting it. Give the sommelier the OK, and join your dining companions in enjoying the best drink there is - wine.

Did you read tame your Sommelier when Ordering Wine?

If you have been, thanks for reading.

© Copyright Peter May 2002.

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1 May 2002