Waiter, there is someone drinking my wine!

by Laurie Forster on September 20, 2011

published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Have you ever ordered a bottle of wine and seen the sommelier take the first sip? In some fine dining establishments like Chingale in Baltimore or the 21 Club in New York City this is common practice.

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.

Now a ’days 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 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 usually detect TCA infected wine by just smelling the bottle?

Many of my 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 and if necessary, educating them 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 him testing the wine or if he wanted to do so himself. Educated consumers might prefer to do this themselves and the more inexperienced would probably be relieved to allow the sommelier to proceed.

The practice of tasting 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 when I’m Queen but until then; a server who can barely open the wine correctly tasting my 1999 Aldo Conterno Gran Bussia Barolo?  I think not!

I’d love to know what YOU think so feel free to leave a comment below.

Cheers,

Laurie

PS: My friend and fellow sommelier Chris Coker of Coker’s Corner has a completely different if not misguided opinion. Check out his thoughts here

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristo September 20, 2011 at 8:58 pm

I think it’s fine if they ask first. My favorite experience with this occurred when the sommelier appeared eager to try the wine because we’d made an excellent choice. Whether they were simply trying to make us feel good about ourselves, or were truly eager to taste what we’d selected to ensure it was good, I don’t know. What I do know is we shared a good wine moment with an expert and I haven’t forgotten it. If she hadn’t asked first, eagerly or not, I would have been pissed.

Pennee September 20, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Laurie this exact thing happened to us at the Charleston restaurant in Baltimore. For my husband’s 65th birthday we ordered a 1978 Leoville Las Cases. The sommelier did present the wine at the table, but then proceeded to take the wine to open, candle and decant- at which time he not only tasted, but seemed to have consumed a glass for himself! We were not pleased at all to have almost a full glass gone from such a costly bottle. No amount of sediment would account for the amount left when it arrived at our table. I find the practice pretentious at best and what happened to us, down right rude.

Laurie September 21, 2011 at 7:03 am

Thanks for sharing Penee…normally it is just a small taste but sounds like your sommelier was thirsty that night! LOL

Did they tell you why they were tasting or just do it?

Next time you order a wine like that let me know…I’ll help you out:)

Laurie September 21, 2011 at 7:03 am

Agree asking or at least letting the consumer know what’s going in is key. Thanks for your feedback!

Mary Ann Gordon September 23, 2011 at 11:21 am

Laurie, I agree with you. I prefer to taste my own wine. If per chance it weren’t good, I could then request the sommelier try it. I bet they do it more often to women. Thanks.

AJ September 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I have not had the experience, but am glad that you are bringing this practice to light. I would expect the courtesy of being asked first. If not, I would not be happy. Thanks for always keeping your fans ‘in the know’.

Pennee September 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Laurie we weren’t asked first and they didn’t mention they would do it, I think that’s what got to us as much as the fact that he consumed way more than a taste! I chalked it up to the arrogance level at the restaurant! I’ve never had it happen anywhere else. Trust me, if we find any more of that vintage, I’ll be sure and let you know ahead of time! lol

Mike Maletta September 23, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I appreciate it if the sommelier asks first. However, I trust my palate and that of my wife’s even more. If the service is good and there is some wine left, I will offer the server a taste if it is ok with the owner of the restaurant. However, I must admit that’s a rarity.

Mr. Neil September 24, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I’m with you, Laurie – fine if they ask, but otherwise quite gauche these days.

On the flip side, I think it is rude for a patron who orders a “special” bottle – and even moreso if BRINGING one – not to offer a sample to the sommelier.

Mark Salazar September 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I agree tasting without asking is inappropriate. The “first taste”should be given to the consumer. It is imperative for the sommelier or wine server to ask, after the customer’s first taste , if the wine is acceptable and not just go through the motions.

If the wine is rejected, it is the sommelier’s obligation to confirm and explain why the wine is bad. However, sometimes the consumer simple does not like the wine, but the wine is perfectly acceptable. In that case, the sommelier would simple need to suggest another wine. It is a good practice to ensure the person ordering the wine is fully informed of the style and general characteristics of the wine they just ordered with a very brief comment or two. Unfortunately, some restaurants and/or bars do not have frequent wine tastings for their wine service employees to increase their wine knowledge. I really like everyone’s comments.

Kathleen Carter September 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Having been a sommelier at several restaurants, including a WS Grand Award restaurant, policies (“house style”) varies from restaurant to restaurant. One of my regular guests, an important wine collector, had lost his sense of smell due to medical reasons and depended upon me to determine if the aged wines he had brought were drinkable. Because I (and not his business guests at the table) knew his situation , I would taste (note: small taste) the wines before serving them to his guests, or suggesting a substitution that be a “preferable pairing with the dishes selected this evening.” Another reason for tasting: multiple bottles of the same bordeaux ordered to be served at a large table, to determine whether they have aged differently (needing to be decanted together), or not, to provide a similar experience for all the guests. My sense of smell is pretty keen, and when I pull a cork I can tell if it is “corked” without having to taste it. If offered a taste at the table by the guest, I would be able to place the wine’s aging in context for the guest…comparing it with various other vintages or with others in its genre if they were interested in discussing it. Fortunately, I had opportunity to continually taste the wines on the lists, as well as proposed wines brought by the distributors, so tasting most of the wines served at the table wasn’t necessary for me.

Susan Sternberger September 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm

No thanks! I prefer to taste the wine first. If I would detect a problem, then I might ask the sommelier if he would also try it. In the end, if the wine doesn’t seem right, I’m not going to accept it. Too many people think it’s imposing to refuse a bottle. I say, if I’m paying for it, It had better be worth it!

Miss You, Laurie. Please come back to visit us in Pittsburgh.

Laurie September 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm

I miss you and Pittsburgh too! Thanks for your comments…I’d love to come back if we can figure out the right way. Let’s talk!!

Laurie September 26, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Great points Kathleen! You sound like an amazing sommelier…

Laurie September 26, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Amen! More education for both consumers and servers will help all feel more comfortable.

Laurie September 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Not sure if I would say its rude not to offer a taste but I also offer the somm or server a taste of my special bottles especially if they offer great service. My husband Chef Mike likes to send beers to the kitchen instead…he feel the cooks get overlooked:)

Kathleen Carter September 26, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Susan, you are absolutely right to refuse a wine that is flawed. Sometimes the wait staff is not cooperative…. I was at a well known local restaurant a few weeks ago and the waiter tried to bully my husband into taking a cab sauv by-the-glass that was obviously corked. I asked the waiter to exchange it for a glass of zin instead….it took three requests. Laurie, that is very nice of your husband…all too often, the cooks DO get overlooked!

Walt Thompson September 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Laurie,
Agree completely! I would prefer to smell and taste the wine myself. If asked by a sommelier, I would support the practice, but not if done by a regular waiter. But in any case, just a sip, not a glass! I have smelled enough corked wine to recognize the odor.
In the case of a special wine, particularly if I brought it, I support pouring a glass f or the sommelier and staff. They always appreciate it.

Francine October 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm

A friend and I were at Chingale and experienced the 3rd party tasting of our bottle of wine. We didn’t care for the missing 2 oz then and we still don’t like it now. Years later, a sommelier told me it is a much practiced tradition in Europe. I’ve been to France and Italy. Never saw it. The sommelier then questioned my choice of restaurants! If the tasting process makes a guest nervous, fine. Otherwise, waiter, take the water instead.

Nick Marcus October 19, 2011 at 11:08 pm

I was sommelier for the Prime Rib Balto in 1982, now a customer.

Worst experience as a customer was having one of “America’s-greatest-chef-restaurant-destinations” bring the decanted bottle (of several but a different wine) ordered to the table in decanter, bottle emptied into it, without the courtesy of any permission. This on the left coast, yes, you’ve heard of it. An appropriate toe-tag comes with the check.

Arrogant, haughty, presumptive…it’s why the tastevin-chain-wearing somms of yore died out in fashion. IMHO, of course. “Grab the bottle-here comes that lousy guy with the tastevin cup again!” I particularly like them pouring a bit more to empty the bottle well before the immeasurably-slow course comes out. “Well, this would have great with the course that’s coming.” Riedels are not made to be filled.

I also disagree with your fellow sommelier that newbie somm professionals are “leading a revolution”. At the obscene mark-ups on most restaurant bottles, get your own education- and your own bottle.

Laurie October 20, 2011 at 10:05 am

Wow Nick interesting story! I can hear your passion for the topic and appreciate your sharing these thoughts.

Cheers,
Laurie

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