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The Tasting Ritual Revisited

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Sun Tzu stated, “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.” The same holds true when ordering wine. How good is the restaurant’s wine program to begin with? How well is their wine stored? Is the staff properly trained? Once you stack the odds in your favor by going to the right restaurant, you can hazard yourself a glass of wine. Speaking of glasses, I always appreciate when a restaurant has good stemware, doesn’t serve their by-the-glass reds too warm, and presents wines-by-the-glass as well as those by the bottle. 

The tasting ritual begins when you are presented with a wine list, which hopefully, doesn’t look like the Magna Carta. Unlike buying batteries from Radio Shack (no, I don’t want to give you my address and phone number), it should be a simple transaction. The first way a restaurant can screw this up is by telling you that they are sold out of a particular wine after you order it. A close second is when the server doesn’t recognize their own wines by name (please do not oblige me to order wines by number). What amazes me is how quickly you are expected to make a selection from a potentially enormous wine book. How’s that fine print in the dim light working out for you? Please do not hover, badger, or otherwise annoy me while I’m making my selection. I’m merely mustering the courage to buy a bottle at four times the retail price!

When a wine is presented to me, I like to nonchalantly touch the bottle in order to check the temperature of the wine. Is the bottle cool to the touch? If so, great! If not, it probably means that the bottle wasn’t pulled from a temperature-controlled cellar. Try to identify the bottle as quickly as possible. Take enough time to identify it properly, but not long enough for Stockholm Syndrome to set in–either it is the bottle you ordered or it isn’t. 

Next comes the opening.

There are few things more uncomfortable than watching a seventeen- year-old server awkwardly open an expensive bottle of wine in the air. Seriously, I’m OK with you placing it on the table! And now for my favorite part, the ubiquitous presentation of the cork. Yes, I concur…it’s a cork! I’ve found that the best way to handle this is by picking it up and giving it a quick squeeze. The end that was in contact with the wine should be moist and spongy. If it is rock-hard and, or cracked, a quick smell may be warranted. A quick smell…we haven’t entered a cork-sniffing competition! The only thing we are looking for is an off-smell such as sulfur, etc. 

Next comes the initial pour.

If you don’t know why you are swirling the wine, please don’t! If you do, please limit yourself to a couple of quick table swirls. Here’s where I deviate from the average taster. I stick my nose in the glass briefly and give it a quick smell without tasting it. It’s pass/fail…do you need to taste milk to know that it has gone sour? It is important to note that you are not judging the wine. You ordered it, you own it! If it isn’t spoiled, the winery, distributor, and restaurant have all done their jobs. The onus for the selection is on you! Please do not hold the server hostage while you do your best Anton Ego impression. A mere, “It’s fine, thank you” will suffice. 

What if it isn’t fine? If there is something wrong with the wine other than you not liking it, you could say something like, “I’m sorry, but I think something is wrong with this. Would you please taste it?” The most common culprit is TCA or trichloroanisole, a naturally occurring problem that takes place during bottling. It’s the actual term for a wine that is “corked.” 

If all goes well, the server will finish pouring the wine. How much they pour will depend on the establishment. For some reason, steakhouses are notorious for intemperate pours. Servers donning lab coats in steakhouses across America seem intent on emptying entire bottles of wine in three or less pours in a shameless attempt to get you to buy more wine. If your waiter is dressed like a pharmacist…run!  

A word on decanting:

Young, austere, or tannic wines can benefit from decanting. Older wines throwing off sediment can also benefit from decanting. Just bear in mind that wines need aeration, not oxidation. An overzealous penchant for decanting can render a delicate wine insipid. I’m assuming, of course, that we are talking about a clean container. A dirty container can taint wine irrespective of the wine’s quality. Because of their narrow openings, decanters are inherently difficult to clean. Frankly, restaurant decanters scare the hell out of me. They can harbor anything from wine residue to harmful bacteria. 

While it is agreed that these measures won’t solve the world’s problems, they will make for an improved wine experience. Wine service engenders a symbiotic relationship between the server and the customer. When everyone does their part, the potential for peevish success exists! 

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