Have you ever ordered a bottle of wine and seen the sommelier take the first sip? In some fine dining establishments this is common practice and in others the diner is the one that evaluates the first taste.
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 the first sip 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.
These days when the sommelier takes the first taste it’s to ensure the wine is in proper condition and without flaws. Flaws include corks infected with trichloroanisole or TCA, oxidation and other 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 this wine is good or has gone bad.
Is this practice still necessary? It is safe to assume that the threat of poisoned wines is practically nonexistent in modern times so why are sommeliers still tasting first, especially since they can detect TCA infected wine by just smelling the bottle?
Some of my wine peers will argue that most consumers are not sophisticated enough to detect flaws in wine so this practice makes sense. They worry that these 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 about the process and if necessary, educating them about flaws at the table?
In my opinion this “first taste” practice should be done only at the consumer’s discretion. Ideally the sommelier would approach the table, present the wine and then ask if the customer was comfortable with them testing the wine or if they wanted to do so. Educated consumers might prefer to do this themselves and the more inexperienced tasters would probably be relieved to allow the sommelier to proceed.
The practice of tasting that first sip without asking just does not sit right with me. I’ve heard the argument that “this is much like a chef tasting the food.” I’m not sure where they eat but I have never seen a Chef (other than my husband) taste my food at the table. Sure, the chef may taste the sauce but they are NOT cutting into my porterhouse steak! I might change my mind on the matter if I ever achieve royal status but until then, I’ll be taking the first sip of my 1999 Aldo Conterno Gran Bussia Barolo.
Is your staff serving wine correctly? Here is a review of what I call the Restaurant Ritual that is excerpted from my book The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine.
The Lead Role. Let’s review the roles. The person ordering the wine is considered the “host” regardless of gender. Your server will present the bottle and either point to the label or verbally announce the selection. This step is to ensure you are serving the correct wine and vintage requested. Guests will want to pay particular attention to this step if they ordered a vintage that was exceptional. The vintages delivered to the restaurant often change without notice and the guest may want to look for an alternate choice if they had their heart set on a specific year.
Cork Confusion. Next, your server will open the wine and place the cork to the right of the host. This step sometimes confuses the customer. What do you do with the cork? Simply put: nothing. You can examine the end to ensure it is moist. Wines stored correctly on the side will have moist corks. The cork will not tell you if the wine is bad, so smelling it is not necessary.
Nodding Off. The server will then pour a small taste in the host’s wine glass to allow the host to check for flaws. The wine should be at least smelled and can be tasted as well. They are looking for a nod or comment that the wine is acceptable. Glowing compliments are not necessary! Wine with flaws can smell like a musty basement, mildew or even vinegar. Don’t skip this step when your guests order a second bottle of the same wine (5-7% of wine sealed with real corks are “corked” or flawed). Once the guests have approved the wine, your server will fill the wine glasses in a clockwise manner, ladies first with the host being last.
If improving your wine list and staff knowledge is something you want to work on then I can help! Let’s talk to you about how I can help you create a training program and strategies to increase wine sales. Send me an email at email@example.com and we can set up a call to explore.
Want to arm your staff with the essentials of wine? The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine is available at www.TheWineCoach.com or at www.Amazon.com