Why is the Sommelier Drinking My Wine?!

Photo by Véronique Pagnier
Photo by Véronique Pagnier

A few years ago Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth asked me what I thought about a survey indicating that over 80% of the respondents did not want a sommelier to taste their wine before it was served.  I have served wine in well-respected restaurants that both tasted and didn’t taste the wines. During my combined time of ten years at Veritas and Alto only three people confronted me about this policy, which suggests a lot of people didn’t express their disapproval.  And at the restaurant where we didn’t taste the wine? Bottles that should’ve been otherwise been rejected were most likely served.

An experienced sommelier is the first line of defense in preventing a flawed bottle of wine from reaching the table.  Whether a wine is flawed or not isn’t always clear. Sommeliers and wine professionals have been known to discuss whether a wine is flawed or not for an entire evening!

Cork taint, the most commonly identified flaw, can be obvious or barely noticeable. Cork taint, more accurately described as 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA), is caused by a fungus in the presence of certain chlorine-based compounds.  Wines with a lot of TCA smell like a musty basement or dirty socks. Subtly corked wines may mute the fruit and leave only a subtle primary indication of its presence.

In fact, corks aren’t the only reason for “corked” wine.  They take most of the blame, but contaminated equipment, wood and cardboard brought into the winery can also cause TCA taint. There is no way to tell beforehand if a wine is affected by TCA.

There are other flaws not associated with the bottle closure, so you are not out of the woods when you taste a wine with screw caps, plastic corks or glass stoppers- like excessive volatile acidity. While there are now tests for this, it still appears in some new wines and is widespread in more mature wines.  All of these flaws can be difficult to identify particularly by someone not familiar with the wine.

Tasting the wine has the added advantage of keeping the sommelier up to speed on the development of the wine since wines constantly evolve.  Wines, like people, have good days and bad days.  So there is a better chance of steering a guest clear of troubled waters, or guiding them in the right direction when the sommelier tastes the wines regularly.

At Veritas and Alto, where a sommelier tasted the wines, we refused one or two bottles per night.  At Gotham, where sommelier tasting was not practiced, we only rejected a few bottles a week. This suggests that flawed bottles most likely escaped detection.  Smelling the wine after the cork has been removed can help, but only with the most obvious examples.

A valid criticism of a sommelier tasting the wine is when the sommelier doesn’t taste the wine in front of the guest, or at least where the sommelier can be clearly seen.  This is clearly not ideal, but not all restaurants can open wines on a guéridon next to the table.  Limited space makes it difficult or impractical to open the wine at the table, forcing the sommelier to decant the wine in an area with proper lighting to ensure the wine is decanted correctly.

Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boisemarié
Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boisemarié

While at Alto, only one guest openly complained to me about opening bottle way from the table. Ironically, it was one of the few tables where the guest could clearly see what I was doing.  While I admit that this was not an ideal situation, there was simply no room for me to decant the wine tableside.

The guest asked me why I tasted the wine. He said that it was his wine, so he should be the one to taste it.  I apologized and told him that we tasted all of the wines to make sure they were sound and that if he preferred I would decant the second bottle at the table.

He ordered the second bottle of wine.  I told him that I would decant the bottle at the table, but without proper lighting there may be a chance that some sediment would make its way into the decanter. Luckily, from decanting the first bottle properly, I knew that it wouldn’t be a problem.

The important thing is to be as transparent as possible to prevent a guest from feeling as though they’ve been taken advantage of. Even if the sommelier or restaurant believes that they are providing a service to their guests it may not appear that way to the person that is paying for the bottle.

Hospitality is about taking care of the guest and making sure the guest leaves happy.  Great hospitality anticipates these needs. The service of tasting the wine before it reaches the table is part of this broad concept.  But, if you don’t want your wine tasted, speak up! At the very least your sentiments will have been heard.