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Wine Foreplay: Prime Your Stemware Before Serving

Detergent- and dust-tinged stemware is one of the biggest challenges faced by wine lovers.
Detergent- and dust-tinged stemware is one of the biggest challenges faced by wine lovers.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen

Last week's "how-to wine" post was devoted to opening a bottle of wine.

Sadly, it happens all the time.

A well-intentioned wine lover brings a bottle of super-groovy Oregon Pinot Noir, biodynamic Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France, or old-school Nebbiolo from Barbaresco to a friend's or family member's home for a special dinner.

The thrilled host insists on using her/his best crystal stemware to serve the wine and proceeds to open the china cabinet, in which the glasses have sat unused since the holidays.

The host opens the bottle and pours four steep glasses.

But when the host and guests raise their glasses in celebration, their noses are greeted by the smell of dust or detergent. And the wine is ruined.

Because most people use their finest stemware only on special occasions, the glasses often collect dust. Even worse, many people wash their stemware in the dishwasher, and while the patina of detergent may not have an effect on the Frito pie that you served to your kids on Wednesday night, it can -- and often does -- eclipse the aromas and flavors of fine wine.

The good news is that there are some simple steps you can employ to avoid these issues.

1. Wash your stemware by hand without the use of detergent

On the day of your dinner party, wash your stemware by hand using just warm water and no detergent. After washing, stand the stemware upside down on a clean kitchen towel and let the residue drain from the glass. After a few minutes, dry the glasses by hand using a clean kitchen towel. If many hours are to pass before your guests arrive, lay a sheet of cellophane over the glasses so that no dust settles in them in the meantime.

If you're concerned about hygiene, rest assured that the alcohol in the wine will sanitize the glasses before they reach your guests' lips.

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2. Rinse the glasses with a little bit of wine before serving

Even when the glasses have been newly washed and no detergent has been applied, rinsing the glasses with a little bit of wine (as in the photo above) is imperative. This step will ensure that the glasses are ready vessels for fine wine, whether sparkling, white, red, dessert, etc.

With a clean kitchen towel or napkin handy in case of any spillage, line your stemware in a row. Pour a small amount of wine into the first glass to the right (wine is always poured right to left; not because wine glasses speak Hebrew, but because tradition and convention hold that the practice makes it easier for right-handed persons to taste).

Then slowly pour the wine into the glass to the left. As you do this, gently twist the glass so that the wine coats the entire surface of the inside of the glass.

Repeat until all the glasses have been rinsed (a very small amount of wine, as in the photo above, will suffice for as many as six glasses).

As you discard the wine rinse, be sure to twist the last glass to ensure that it gets coated as well.

And don't fuss over the wine that you pour down the sink. It's what the Romans called libatio, an offering to Bacchus.

3. Never rinse with water before serving

This maxim is counterintuitive to most, but it's a fundamental no-no when it comes to proper wine service.

The primary ingredients in wine are alcohol and water. The ratio of water to wine is a key element of the wine's balance, and even the smallest amount of water can upset that balance.

If wine glasses have been freshly rinsed with water, simply apply the wine rinse as above.

4. Never serve wine in warm glasses

Always allow your glasses to cool to room temperature before serving wine. The heat will "cook" the wine and change its aromas and flavors.

One of the reasons that wine glasses have stems is so that you don't have to handle the glass itself with your hands, which would impart your bodily warmth to the wine. The other reason they have stems is so that your oily fingers don't leave marks on the glass and consequently impede your ability to appreciate the wine's color and transparency/opacity (one of the key elements in evaluating its fitness).

Next up in the "Wine How-To " series: How much wine to pour


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