A few months ago, when I was dining with family in a Houston restaurant (that shall remain unnamed), I ordered a bottle of Dolcetto, one of the classic food-friendly grapes of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy.
The server disappeared and swiftly returned with the bottle I had asked for. And presumably because I had asked for the wine list and had ordered the bottle of wine, he poured the first sip -- the tasting sip -- for me.
I swirled the wine in the glass, smelled it, smelled it again and said matter of factly, "this is great. Thank you very much."
And then he did something that transgressed the inherent social compact that exists between waiter and guest.
"Sir, taste the wine," he said.
"The wine is fine," I said politely, "please go ahead and pour it for our table."
"Sir," he insisted, "taste the wine."
I looked at him incredulously.
"Sir, the other night, I had a customer who smelled the wine and said it was okay. But then, after he tasted the wine, he sent it back. So I have to ask that you taste the wine."
When in Rome, I thought, do as the Romans do. And so I tasted the wine.
"It's really great. I really like it. And it's going to be great with our meal, I'm sure."
Satisfied that the wine's fitness had now been unquestionably verified and reaffirmed, he smiled and poured the wine.
This episode reminded me of how uncomfortable most people are when they are asked to determine the fitness of a bottle of wine at a restaurant. (I'm a wine professional and this guy made me uncomfortable!) The unease can be exacerbated by the social pressures of the meal. Can you imagine what your date would say if you let the waiter pour you a bad bottle of wine? And what about your boss or your parents-in-law?
In another (and more sensible) era, sommeliers tasted the wine for the guests. This, to me, makes perfect sense. Sommeliers are wine professionals employed by restaurants to manage their cellars and determine the fitness and appropriate applications of wines.
Rule number 1: There is no shame in asking the sommelier to determine the fitness of the wine. This may not be advisable in a restaurant like the one I describe above (where the server had little experience in wine service and probably wouldn't have been able to tell whether the wine was good or not).
The next thing to keep in mind is that wine should always smell and taste like fruit; if it doesn't, there's a chance that its fitness may be questionable.
"A great wine will make you want to taste it after you smell it," says celeb sommelier Raj[at] Parr in his book Secrets of the Sommeliers. "It will cause you to salivate until you can't resist putting the wine in your mouth."
These are words to live and dine by.
Rule number 2: Take your time determining the fitness of the wine; make sure the stemware doesn't smell of dust or detergent (if it does, ask for a new glass); swirl the wine in your glass; smell it; swirl it again; smell it again; and then, if you're still in doubt, taste it.
If the wine doesn't invite you to take another sip, it's probably been damaged in some way (cork taint; extreme temperature exposure; unwanted oxidation; etc.).
Rule number 3: If you do need to send the bottle back, do so courteously; remember that it is your right to send a bottle back, but it is also the server's right to be treated politely and with dignity.
We've written before about the intrinsic social compact that exists between waiter/restaurateur and guest. Good manners in any social situation are always good rules-of-thumb for a positive and pleasant experience.
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So, what do you do if the wine is "correct" (as they say in wine trade parlance) but you simply don't like the wine?
I'll post my thoughts on the subject in the next post. So please stay tuned. And in the meantime, I will buy a glass of wine (at the venue of your choice) for anyone who can tell where the suggestively shaped cork came from (in the photo above).