Well-executed restaurant wine service is a filter that deters flawed wines from flowing into guests’ glasses. At times, it may seem pretentious and drawn out, but the wine bottle-opening ceremony is rooted in history, and rich with merit and purpose.
When your ordered bottle of wine
arrives at the table, the server should
clearly state the producer, vintage, region
(e.g. Chianti) or varietal. Take a glance at
the label to verify that the wine about to
be opened matches what you ordered. Pay
special attention to the vintage; incorrect
vintages are often served.
Before you have a chance to taste the
wine, the cork is presented. Many guests
feel compelled to do something with it.
This step is an anti-counterfeit measure.
The producer’s name—and, in rare and
collectible wines, the vintage—is branded
on the cork. Wine labels are easy to forge;
Sniffing a cork reveals little beyond
how a plug of tree bark smells. Visual
inspection provides a rough track record of
the wine’s storage. Long staining
streaks indicate a time
of temperature variance
when air may have seeped
in, causing oxidation. If the
cork is brittle and crumbles
in your hand, the wine may
have been stored upright or
in a very arid environment. Both
instances are warning signs, nothing
more. What matters most is in the bottle. It
would better serve you to take a whiff of the
empty glass and make sure it doesn’t smell
of detergent, dust or mildew. Ask to feel the
bottle to make sure it isn’t warm; red wine
bottles should feel cool to the touch.
Now just swirl, sniff and taste. Swirling
incorporates oxygen and encourages the
aromatic compounds in the wine to become
airborne; that’s why wine nerds are incessantly
twirling and sniffing at their glasses
like a dog on the scent of a bitch in heat.
If the wine smells like, well, wine—you
know: like fruit, maybe earth, wood and, in
some French bottlings, a natural fertilizer—
then go ahead and give the
nod of approval or say something
mundane like, “It’s great, but it
needs to breathe.” If the wine
is sound but not your favorite,
better luck next time. If it’s
flawed, reject it and reorder.
Taste each successive
bottle; they’re just as
likely to be flawed as
This whole tasting
cloudy wines were
the perfect conduit to
poison a rival or nemesis.
To prove the soundness of a
wine, the would-be host would
taste from a bottle or carafe
before the guest as a gesture
of camaraderie and friendship and,
ultimately, as proof the wine was not poisoned.
This led to the raising of the glass
by the guest as a sign of trust. The glasses
would then be clanked together, followed by
reassuring words of the solidarity of their
friendship—hence the modern-day toast.
Let’s backtrack to the “let it breathe”
statement. If you
do feel the wine is
a bit stingy with its
aromatics and will
benefit from air
contact, then let it
breathe. Don’t just
leave it in the bottle
with empty glasses.
Partially fill your
glasses and swirl
away or, even better,
ask if the restaurant
has a decanter
(a fancy carafe
designed to increase
the wine-to-air surface
your wine breathe in
the bottle is like snorkeling
with a straw.
I’ve been sent ’round and
’round tables as the host passes
the tasting duties to other
guests as a sign of “generosity.”
In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.
Flawed wines are in the minority, but
they’re out there and can be awful. If you’re
the host, play your part. And remember:
Sniffing corks is silly.
Louis Koppel is sommelier at Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops.