Why Is the Sommelier Drinking My Wine?

Dear Helena,
What is up with the sommelier taking the first taste of your wine? When I buy a nice bottle of vino, I will be the judge of whether I like it or not.
—Confident Palate

Dear Confident Palate,
I can understand why you object to this practice. It can look like the sommelier is trying to sample fine wine without paying for it. But that's just not true, says Brad Haskel, a wine consultant and seasoned sommelier. "I don't need their wine; I have a chance to taste an awful lot of pretty great wine. I just went to a tasting for six or seven people where we opened $15,000 worth of Champagne."

Traditionally, the sommelier always tasted the wine before serving guests, says Madeline Triffon, wine director for the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group. The silver cup worn around the sommelier's neck, known as a tastevin, is just for that purpose. When Triffon embarked on her sommelier career in the late '70s, "the tastevin was an accepted part of formal service, like wearing a tuxedo." The custom did not fall out of style until the early to mid-'80s, she says. This was perhaps because consumers became more educated about wine, and more confident in their powers of evaluation.

But the first sip isn't taken in order to evaluate the wine. It's poured for one purpose only: to find out if there is a major flaw, such as the wine being corked, or blighted by oxidation or improper storage. That's an objective assessment that the sommelier can make just as well as you. And since it is not pleasant to taste a wine that is redolent of armpit, you should be quite happy to let the sommelier take on that task.

This is particularly helpful for customers who are less wine-savvy than you. Some people may choke down a bad wine, thinking, "Maybe it's supposed to taste like licking a dungeon floor." Rebecca Chapa, a wine educator and sommelier, says that when she was working at Jardinière in San Francisco, she served what she thought was a nice wine, without tasting it. "At the end of the night the table said: 'We don't want any more; you can have it.' When I tried it, it was completely corked."

Unfortunately, only restaurants with a dedicated sommelier can save you from this experience. At more casual places, servers usually don't have the time or space to sample bottles, says Chapa. This is because the proper way to test a bottle is to take it to a side area to open it. Sampling the wine at the customer's table is likely to "obstruct the flow of conversation," and it also feels a little invasive, like taking a bite of your entrée. So if you're just dining at your neighborhood spaghetti joint, it's up to you to watch out for cork taint.

At restaurants with a formal wine service, sommeliers need not pretaste every single bottle. If there's something really wrong with a wine, there are usually "obvious warning signs," says Haskel, "such as weeping down the side of the bottle" or a weird smell. Even then, the sommelier should never assume it's OK to serve himself, says Triffon. He should ask the customer's permission, explaining—in a discreet fashion—why he's doing it. There's no need for him to be overly specific (as in, "This bottle appears to have been stored near the dishwasher and I'm worried it has suffered from heat damage"). Triffon simply asks, "May I take a small taste to check the wine?"

After the sommelier has made sure the wine isn't flawed, of course it's up to you to decide if you like it. He can't decide that for you, any more than he can say whether you liked a particular novel or movie. If the wine is not to your taste but you picked it on your own, you're stuck with it. However if the sommelier helped you choose, then you can always blame him and send it back.

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