EASTON, Md, September 29, 2011—Ordering a bottle of wine at a fine restaurant can be an intimidating experience, but with a little knowledge on how to navigate the wine list, most diners can handle it with aplomb. The proper rules for tasting the wine after it is presented at the table is the next step that many people want to better understand.
In formal service, the host or the person who ordered the bottle is given a one ounce taste to ensure that the wine is in proper condition. In some fine dining establishments, such as Chingale in Baltimore or the 21 Club in New York City, the sommelier will take the first taste before offering the wine to the guests.
Since so many wine lovers have written to ask why this is done, I thought we’d explore the practice along with its pros and cons.
Why is this done? Once upon a time, the job of a sommelier was really that of a poison detector. Unpopular royalty counted on these servants to taste their food and drink first to avoid being sickened or killed.
Some modern-day sommeliers still wear the traditional silver tasting cup, or tastevin, around their necks – a symbol of their preparedness to perform this important task.
In modern times the sommelier takes the first taste to ensure the wine is in proper condition and without flaws. Flaws include corks infected with trichloroanisole, or TCA, oxidation or with bacteria that can ruin the taste of a wine. The justification for this practice is that no one knows better than a trained professional whether some wines are good or have gone bad.
Is this practice still necessary? The threat of poisoned wines is practically nonexistent in modern times, so why are sommeliers still tasting first, especially since they can usually detect TCA infected wine by just smelling the bottle?
Many of my peers argue that most consumers are not sophisticated enough to detect flaws in wine, hence this practice makes sense. They worry that wine novices will accept and suffer through a flawed bottle needlessly. My response is: If you’re so concerned about a flawed bottle not being identified, then how about communicating with the consumer, and if necessary, educating them at the table?
This “first taste” practice should be done only at the consumer’s discretion. Ideally the sommelier would approach the table, present the wine, and ask whether the customer would prefer to test the wine himself or to hand that responsibility back to the sommelier. Educated consumers might prefer to do this themselves, while the less experienced might be relieved to allow the sommelier to proceed.
One argument in favor of the sommelier testing the wine is that this is much like a chef tasting the food. I’m not sure where the people who make this argument eat, but I have never seen a chef taste food at my table. Of course chefs will taste the sauce back in the kitchen, but they do not cut into a porterhouse steak tableside. Do I want the sommelier to have the first sip of my favorite 1999 Aldo Conterno Gran Bussia Barolo? I think not.
Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach®, is a wine educator and author of the award-winning book “The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine.” Her specialty is delivering wine edu-tainment for corporate events, group tastings and team-building seminars. She is also a sought after guest expert on radio shows across the country, including Martha Stewart Radio. You can reach her on twitter @thewinecoach or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/winecoach.
Read more of Laurie’s work at The Sipping Point in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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