Wine Service

Tips on Dealing with your Sommelier


Ordering wine is really a two-step process. The first, obviously, is making your selection; the second is knowing what to do when your wine arrives. I recently compiled a short list of tips for navigating a restaurant wine list, so today I want to focus one what to do when the bottle arrives.

No matter who you’re with -- the boss, that hot date, or maybe your fiancée’s parents -- you’ve probably got enough to worry about, so having to deal with some stuffy, ritualistic wine rigmarole might turn you off of ordering wine completely. Don’t shy away! Knowing your way around wine service might just seal your deal!


1.) Check the Label

Once you’ve ordered your bottle of wine, the server or sommelier will present it to you at the table.

This show is your chance to make sure the wine you’re about to be served, and will be paying for, is the wine you ordered. Make sure it’s the wine you ordered, and the vintage that you ordered.

It might be easy to mistake a Chateau Latour for the Les Forts de Latour, their second wine, but it will be easy to figure out when you get hit with the bill. And since that bill will be three grand instead of $300 dollars, that’s gonna be a lesson you won’t soon forget.

2.) Learn about your server

Once you approve of the wine that's presented, your server will then uncork the bottle. Watch the technique and you’ll instantly know how wine savvy your server really is.

If they jab the corkscrew right through the capsule that covers the cork, you might be in for a rough ride. And if they jam the corkscrew right through the top of a metal twist-off closure, run for the hills.

If, on the other hand, they cleanly slice the capsule under the lip at the edge of the bottle, you’re being served by a professional, so relax and trust them.

3.) The Cork

Once your bottle is open your server will present you with the cork. There’s a bit of ritual surrounding the presentation of the cork, but it’s worth observing as you might learn something about the wine. The thing to do is to smell the cork.

What you’re looking for are the tell tale aromas of TCA (Trichloroanisole), the chemical responsible for ruining many a bottle of wine, frequently referred to as cork taint. 

The aromas of TCA are frequently similar to old, damp musty basements and newspapers. Sometimes it makes me think of old school dry-cleaners who used the similar smelling trichloroethanol to get the stains out! It’s also worth giving the cork a squeeze since if it’s lost its elasticity, a potential sign of heat damage with a younger wine, it makes sense to pay closer attention to steps 4 and 5.

4.) The Pour

Someone at the table is going to have to give this wine a whirl, literally, and if you’re looking to impress someone it might as well be you. Once the server pours that first taste take a look at the color of the wine. What you’re looking for are signs of oxidation and premature aging. Oxidation makes a wine brown, just like it does with an cut apple left out.

A white wine will first darken then begin to brown while a red wine will lighten and turn brick colored before turning noticeably brown. Now some wines, especially those with some age on them will and should look a little aged but if it’s a young wine you’re looking at, browning could be a sign of bad storage or worse.

5.) The Test

You won’t really know if your wine is good, damaged, or indifferent until you put it though its paces so now it’s time to sniff and taste. In order to get the wine’s aromas to really jump out of the glass, you’ll have to give the glass a little swirl. This simply spreads a thin layer of wine along the inside surface of the glass, allowing more of it to evaporate all at once, giving you a good bowl full or aromas to stuff your nose into.

Here you’re pretty much looking for the same TCA aromas that looked for on the cork. And by the way just because you found some in the cork doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is tainted, and visa versa. You might also find defects on the nose like acetic acid (vinegar smell) or ethyl acetate (nail polish remover) in your wine. These are referred to as volatile acids and are generally viewed as defects. When in doubt ask your server, assuming they’re still not fighting the pull that screw top off with their corkscrew!

6.) Acceptance

It’s kinda funny actually but by this point, when you’re going to to finally take a sip of the wine, you actually know a lot about what to expect.

Tasting the wine can confirm TCA taint (the wine will taste muted and may taste like wet newspapaers) or it might have the thinness associated with a wine that has the guts cooked out of it, or in all likelihood it might just be fine.

If the wine is defective don’t hesitate to send it back, but otherwise just sit back and enjoy having just impressed the hell out of your dining companions.

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Comments

  • I always thought smelling the cork was the first sign of a wine rube...

    Oct 04, 2010 at 1:30 PM


  • Snooth User: kofigan
    73313 3

    This was soooo unimpressive (when being impressive seemed to be the purpose of this 6 step exercise, not finding out about the wine that you ordered.) In point of fact, you need Step 1 and Step 5; all the rest is BS. Step 3 is fine in the 1 in 10,000 times you get a "corked" wine; and even then is not necessary as you WILL taste an off wine in Step 5.

    So, it comes to this:

    Step 1: Make sure you've gotten the wine you ordered. This IS important.

    Step 2: Swirl and sniff. This is very helpful in giving you an indication of what you're going to get when you taste the wine. Your nose matters more than you're tongue.

    Step 3: Say, "It's lovely, thank you." and enjoy your meal.

    Oh, the only reason you care about the sophistication of your server - other than your being a pretentious snob - is if you've asked them for advice. In that case, Step 1 is "Learn about your server." Learning about the server AFTER you've had her or him recommend your wine and after you've confirmed the bottle is useless...or very embarrassing, if, after having taken the advice, you then determine that (s)he wasn't worthy enough to give it.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 1:37 PM


  • Snooth User: curtiswine
    487506 16

    kofigan is right on the money.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 2:10 PM


  • Snooth User: J Marie
    220869 7

    Yep, I gotta say this article was, well, a bit corked.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 2:15 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 202,183

    Thank you for your responses.

    TCA affects some 3% or more of corks. Many estimates place it much higher.

    One of the best reviews of this rate that I have seen was published in the SF Gate under the title "Cork taint found in 8 Percent of wine bottles".

    http://articles.sfgate.com/2005-01-...

    Knowing the difference between a corked wine and a faulty wine can sometimes be difficult, and everyone has their own threshold. These reasons account for the wildly divergent numbers people seem to report from their own experience. From one out of ten to one out of 10,000.

    Now we all now that TCA exist in cellars and barrels as well as corks, but the vast majority of corked wines seem to be effected after bottling.

    Another reader wrote me privately with the following question, below you can find my response.

    "...smelling the cork seems unnecessary. A few articles which counter your opinion are linked below; I'd be interested to know how you respond to them, and why you are a proponent of smelling the cork."

    Thanks for your note.

    I can only answer your question by saying that when dealing with cork taint, which can be as pronounced as it can be insidious, I prefer to have as many resources at my disposal as possible.

    I have smelled TCA coming from bottles before they had been opened. Some of those wines were corked, others not. If I questioned whether or not any particular bottle may have been very subtly corked, that knowledge of the state of the cork could have been the determining factor.

    I may have easily just dismissed the wine as dull, but knowing that cork was carrying TCA can help identify those edge cases where the level of contamination may be at, or just below the threshold of perception.

    It can still ruin one's experience with that bottle of wine and that is the bottom line. I think we've gotten to a point where we are fleeing some of the old tenets without thinking it fully through.

    The question might better be phrased - why not sniff the cork, rather than why. It costs nothing and provides information that might prove useful!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 2:22 PM


  • I think it's important that you are confident about the temperature too. It's tricky to detect this by nose alone, and who wants a wine that's not at its best?

    Oct 04, 2010 at 2:46 PM


  • Snooth User: talentlaw
    322288 8

    Although I infrequently smell corks, I have always requested the cork from the server if it was not voluntarily offered to me initially. I ALWAYS visually examine the cork for signs of mold, discoloration and crumbling. There are probably scenarious when a wine may be corked without visual cues, however, I have not personally encountered them. With few exceptions, however, when I have seen visual damage to the cork, the nose and taste of the wine have ranged from merely unacceptable to rancid and I have not hesitated to send them back, sometimes after having to have the sommelier confirm my assessment, but have never had any issue with securing a new untainted bottle. I would also comment that if the cork is visually fine and the wine is delicious, having the cork is a nice keepsake or reminder of a day well lived.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 3:13 PM


  • Snooth User: lmcbain
    91262 32

    I'm going with the majority here; smelling the cork is not only unnecessary, but can introduce a suffciently strong aroma so as to actually impede ones ability to smell the wine during the initial test. I do, however, also agree with another post (talentlaw) with respect to always doing a visual inspection of the cork. I can alaso tell you that my most recent wine education (WSET) expressly suggested against smelling the cork.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 3:29 PM


  • Well not everyone may be an expert. I liked it and appreciated it. So thank you for the article.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 3:32 PM


  • Snooth User: Duke1
    360321 1

    I have been told many times never to smell the cork at a Restaurant to determine the quality of the wine.

    This is because smelling the cork might produce smelling results that have nothing to do with the quality of the wine. A much better test to me is to examine it as recommended by another wine expert down below:


    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    You basically just want to see if the cork seems intact (not crumbling) and if the wine has bled through to to the top or near it.

    Smelling the cork won't do too much except show you as an amateur. Corks usually smell "corked" - to test for "corked" in the wine, you want to smell the actual bottle and the actual wine. Spending 2 minutes inspecting the cork of a 2005 Beringer Merlot will also draw attention to an amateur - it's just not necessary. If you are drinking an older wine, then a quick peek at the cork is all you really need.

    Smell the cork-this may tell you if the wine itself is corked.
    Look to see if the cork is stained its entire length which would indicate shrinkage of the cork and corresponding seepage of the wine or air being allowed into the bottle.

    First off, you are looking for moistness of the cork. Cork has a honeycomb texture that shrinks to fit into the bottle then slightly expands to form and air tight seal. The seal it crucial in preserving the wine. Lesser quality corks or those that were not stored correctly can become dry and brittle compromising the seal. Squeeze the cork to test the moisture it should bend and expand slightly with pressure.

    When you smell the cork you are checking for a musty or moldy aroma that indicates an unwanted chemical compound in the wine and ruins it. The horror! Usually, you can tell visually from the wine seepage up the cork

    Oct 04, 2010 at 3:43 PM


  • Snooth User: overpar56
    468255 8

    Having had a waitress at a restaurant on the Central Coast of California put the bottle between her legs and pulled on the corkscrew to get the cork out might fit under #2.

    I think the article could go a little further and explain what to do when you question the quality of the wine. Once, at a high end steak house in Palm Desert, I notice the waiter pulled the cork out of a recent vintage cab I ordered and it crumbled into pieces. It produced foul order from the cork I could smell across the table. It reeked. I tasted, it was horrible, and I ask him to bring another bottle. The waiter argued with me. I refused the bottle. The manager came over a few minutes later, apologized for the inconvenience, and gave us a new bottle at cost. He agreed that it was corked, having his sommelier taste it in the kitchen. I wasn't looking for a free bottle, but I wasn't going to pay $150 for a spoiled wine. I think you need to be firm in handling these rare situations when you get a bad bottle.





    Oct 04, 2010 at 4:03 PM


  • Snooth User: dave1224
    600731 1

    Cork smells like cork. All you should simply do is take the cork and check to see if the cork is brittle. If the cork is really brittle, you know you might have cork taint and will detect it in the smelling of the wine or the tasting of the wine.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 4:48 PM


  • A question for kofigan: must comments on this site, too, wallow in the churlish tone found at so many others on the internet? Was it really necessary to dismiss this article as "soooo unimpressive"? To call it "BS"? To imply the writer might be, or wants us to be, a "pretentious snob"? Couldn't we disagree with Gregory without incivility?

    Oct 04, 2010 at 4:58 PM


  • Snooth User: sagemtn
    145446 11

    All good advice for a novice to become more of an expert and derive their own style to acknowledging the quality of the wine. I myself like others prefer to examine the cork and have occasionally smelled it just to see and to collect as a keepsake of a day well lived as well as the name of the wine which appears on some corks for later finding at discount wine stores since most establishments buy from local large retailers.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 4:59 PM


  • Snooth User: gnnmartin
    373847 8

    I've never had a waiter argue when I have said that a bottle was bad, but then I have hardly ever done that. One time when I did, I was crossing the English Channel with friends on a French boat which had rather a good restaurant where we ate. I ordered a Muscadet, a cheap wine that can be enjoyable, but when the bottle came it was not as it should be. I said as much, and they bought a second bottle. That bottle was flawed too, but I felt that it was not really on to complain about that too, so I accepted it. After the waiter had gone I apologised to the others at the table, and confessed that I had accepted the bottle in spite of its faults. One of my dinner companions objected, so I called over the waiter and somewhat sheepishly said the second bottle had the same fault. They brought a third bottle, which tasted diferent but definitely didn't taste of Muscadet: I smiled, kept quiet and kept my fingers crossed. When to my relief nobody else complained I looked again at the bottle and found they had brought us rather a good Burgundy the third time round. I felt sorry I had been too embarrassed to notice and thank them properly. Once I realised why it didn't taste of Muscadet, I was able to enjoy it thoroughly!

    You will notice that I failed the 'check the label' test.

    The wine I often drink at home would be stupidly expensive in a restaurant, so I tend to buy from the cheapest end of the wine list. For this reason I am unlikely to know the wine. I find some restaurants can be relied on to serve a wine that tastes good even at the cheapest end, while others serve wine that was never any good and was bought without understanding and with the profit margin in mind. So I usually just ask the waiter to pour the wine. On the very rare occasion that the bottle turns out to be obviously spoiled rather than just disappointing, then one can always call the waiter back.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 5:03 PM


  • Snooth User: barchap
    573188 17

    I always ask to smell the cap on twist off bottles just to see the look on the waiters face!!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 5:15 PM


  • Snooth User: ian pool
    525936 7

    I agree with duckofchard on the kofigan post... if kofigan is such an expert in these matters, why are we not all reading HIS wine blog?

    Personally, I do not consider myself a snob or an expert... so i am prepared to take on any opinions that will help me enjoy a good wine. If i disagree, I don't feel the need to impress everyone on the internet with my ability to cut down the author under the blanket of relative anonymity.

    So keep up the amazing work SNOOTH, some of us need your advice.

    Ian

    Oct 04, 2010 at 5:42 PM


  • Snooth User: ian pool
    525936 7

    oh and while I am here, might i ask... In the restaurant situation, ow do you get round the fact that the wine has not had an opportunity to breathe? Assuming that it's not sufficiently bottle aged.

    If I go to BYO I will always let the bottle breath for an hour before getting to the restaurant. Is that usual or am I being pedantic?

    Oct 04, 2010 at 5:57 PM


  • Snooth User: tonystro
    554776 26

    Smelling the cork removed from a bottle of wine is not only ridiculous but risible as well, take it from a man who's sniffed more than a few in the last sixty years. I've encountered corks that smelt worse than dirty socks yet the wine was impeccable; conversely, clean-smelling corks with have failed to give any indication of a bottle's tainted contents.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 6:16 PM


  • Snooth User: overpar56
    468255 8

    Of all the bottles I've had in restaurants over the years, I've only had that one really bad one. Some, I could have questioned, but they weren't really as bad as some of the ones from my little cellar I had on hand. If it comes from my stash, then I take the responsibility. I've had a few stinkers, which I couldn't remember where I bought it from to begin with. But having a waiter argue about it took the cake. Having the cork in crumbs sitting on the table (he never showed me the cork) and having half of it fall into the bottle, well, unacceptable. They did replace him at our table with another waiter and the manager went out of his way to make it right.

    You do have a certain expectation at a $$$$ rated restaurant with an extensive wine list versus your local pub's limited red, white, and white zin offerings to get it right.

    My wife and I still laugh about the waitress putting the bottle between her legs and pulling the cork out. She did admit she was new to wine and the cork really was stuck in there pretty good.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 6:19 PM


  • Snooth User: wwolf
    317928 2

    If you think only 1 in 10,000 bottles is corked - you either must not drink enough wine - OR - go out and buy that lottery ticket while your luck is still holding !!!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 6:43 PM


  • Snooth User: marchbrown
    595680 12

    I like kofigan's 1-2-3 dance with the server. now let's drink and eat!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 7:02 PM


  • There are many variations on checking the cork. It should always be checked for dryness and for potential leakage. The smell test is better done with the wine itself (for many of the reasons stated earlier). One thing that was not mentioned was something my father always told me to check. He said make sure the name of the Vinyard is imprinted on the cork. While I've never discovered one that was different, or lacked the name, I still always check it. I suppose that years ago, there were some forged wines and labels. But if you're going to go that far, wouldn't you forge the cork as well?
    In any case, Having a good server that knows how to open a bottle and serve it provides some comfort, but the real test is in the cork examination, the smell of the wine, and the obviously the taste test. But this should really only be done for a significant wine. If you're buying a $30-$50 bottle of wine, chances are you could pick it up for $8-$12 a bottle at the wine store. You'd look ridiculous going through all that sniffing and testing for a cheap wine. Besides, even if you forgo the tasting and end up with a bad bottle, most places will replace it anyway.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 7:38 PM


  • One quick note about the cork thing. (I don't sniff because then, for a few moments, everything tastes/smells like cork) I check the quality or grade of the cork. An expensive bottle of wine should not have a composite cork, a spongy (very porous) cork, or a plastic cork. At least in a nice high end red. If a winery really cares about putting out a quality product, then they will not scrimp on the cost of the closure. I've had crumbly corks in wines that were well over twenty years old, and the wines have been good to phenomenal. Also some mold on the OUTSIDE of a really old cork is not necessarily detrimental to the wine, but sniff it, and you'll probably prejudice your tasting of the wine. The same with large format bottles. They often get a "stand up" treatment because of their diameter, and the cork oftentimes gets dry. However the humidity in the bottle is often high enough to maintain the integrity of the seal, and the final judgement would be to trust your sense of taste/smell. Those pesky bits of cork in the wine from a really old cork can simply be removed by decanting. The aeration would probably do the wine some good anyway.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 8:11 PM


  • Snooth User: junkyard
    600958 1

    Im a sommelier, I can tell you the most important thing I do is to match the wine to the chefs Dish. That is the main reason Iam there. To sniff the bottle closure doesnt matter! Cool a good sommelier should make your Dinner a Fabio Time!!!!!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 8:15 PM


  • Snooth User: Sommeliermark
    Hand of Snooth
    486563 416

    In two out of five fine dining experiences recently I have had to return red wines to be LOWERED to an accpetable service temp! 70 to 75 degree plus reds is UNACCEPTABLE in a fine dining establishment, especially if they boast a court certified house Sommelier!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 8:28 PM


  • Junkyard, you guys and gals (sommeliers) rock! I rely on your judgement and suggestions most of the time I'm faced with a new wine list / restaurant. Although I've been enjoying wine from all over the world for more than thirty years, there are just too many to keep up with, and my tastes are so esoteric that few restaurants have wines that I'm familiar with.(The depth of Gran Reservas is unfortunately sparse most places I eat). The experts are the ones familiar with the restaurant's cuisine AND their wine offerings. KUDOS to sommeliers everywhere!!!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 8:33 PM


  • Snooth User: BBQ Phil
    330232 13

    In a careful and calculated maneuver, I will sidestep the cork smelling issue by merely saying that I do not do it. I would like to agree with others in this post that one check that UNFORTUNATELY needs to be made too often is correct wine temperature. Typically this is not a problem at higher end restaurants, but at nice bistros and even decent wood-fired pizza places I often receive reds that are far too warm. It is so disappointing to taste a wine that I can tell is quite nice (even if it is only $30) only to have it "bite" with its warm temperature.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 9:00 PM


  • According to The Wine Bible, inspecting the cork is an old ritual based on unscrupulous merchants who would replace a good wine with a cheap substitute and try to pass it off as the better original wine. The idea is to examine the cork to ensure that you are getting the wine you ordered. The original cork would be damaged by the opening of the original bottle of wine. The new replacement cork would not have the proper labeling and would be a telltale sign that you are not getting the same wine as that of the bottle's label. It's not necessary to smell the cork. You'll know soon enough if the wine is tainted.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 10:17 PM


  • Snooth User: ttakacs
    366946 1

    What happens to "bad" wine the consumer refuses? Does the restaurant bear the loss? I ask because no one has yet commented on the consumer's responsibility to justify his or her conclusion that the bottle is bad.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 11:30 PM


  • because all corked wines have either lead, PVC or wax covering the cork, the first and best indication of a potential "bad" bottle is to examine the cork. If you order a well aged and expensive bottle of wine, and you don't take the time to examine the cork for crumbling, of an off odor, or a wine stain traveling the full length of the cork, then you disserve whatever nastiness ends up in your glass.

    Oct 04, 2010 at 11:43 PM


  • Snooth User: pooty
    457354 7

    Great article , its great to see we have so many other know-it -alls who like to critisize a well thought out and written artilce. 3% of corked wine, thats 3 in a hundred there kofigan , I think Ill spend the 4 seconds needed to give the cork a sniff.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 12:51 AM


  • Snooth User: luca chevalier
    Hand of Snooth
    533661 2,535

    YES...i like it .next article should be on what should be done by people who serve wine .....so many people who pretend to be expert,(most of time people that owns restaurant) will learn...

    Oct 05, 2010 at 2:43 AM


  • This article was so horribly written with grammatical errors that I couldn't even get through it to read the true content.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 2:48 AM


  • Snooth User: bpkrug1
    585913 6

    I have noticed two things that prove important when examining corks. One, as mentioned by corkusmaximus, is to check the cork for information as to the producer, and vintage, to see if it matchs the label. I recently opened five different bottles of 2002 vintage red Burgundy, from the same producer. All wines, save one, had the producers name and his location in Burgundy on the inside of the cork, as well as, the vintage imprinted on the top of the cork. The one that lacked the producers name and the area he resided in, was, unquestionably, not his wine, nor a wine made from the area in Burgundy described on the label. The label, foil and bottle, would probably fool anyone but the greatest of wine detectives. I feel, it was without doubt, counterfeit. The second observation doesn't depend on the age of the wine. In California, many wines are shipped here by importers, held by distributors, sold by retailers, or, wineries that ship directly to consumers, that have been improperly stored during the process of it reaching the consumer. Many wines have reached my cellar, with heat damage present. The telltale sign of which, is a stain that rises equally up and circumfrentially around the cork, indicating exposure to variability in temperatures. This is a problem I have encountered in many wines, from many vintages, and from many wine regions of the world. The condition a wine arrives to you, either in a restaurant, or by your buying the wine else-
    where, may very well be determined by the corks appearance. This of course will effect any color observation, aroma, and taste, after that cork is dislodged from the bottle.
    Perhaps a matter for future discussion, would be the importance of the knowledge of a given wines discriptors, prior to the wine ever leaving the winery. Specifically, tasting notes from a trusted wine writer or winemaker having experienced it, before the we ever have a the opportunity to consider buying it.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 3:03 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,033

    This was an excellent piece, Greg. Succinct, to the point, covered all the essential bases. Of course there's more detail that could be gone into regarding the cork, sniffing and tasting, but in a brief slideshow you nailed it.

    Anyone who says that sniffing the cork is unnecessary, damages olfactory sense, worse yet is declasse, and worst of all is the sign of an ignoramus, frankly doesn't have a clue. Whether he or she suffers from a defective olfactory apparatus, has a very limited mental database of all the odors involving corks and wine, or is just plain trying to pull the wool over by appearing to have a new angle on being an 'expert', I can't say without further info. I would severely question a WSET instructor who tried to present that, and it only helps point to the relatively meaninglessness of a WSET degree, other than as something to put on a resume for a job interview in the business. Viewing, touching and smelling the cork provide a lot of very useful info. Why ignore the opportunity to gather it? I can imagine the reaction of a group of people sitting around a table, whether in a restaurant in Dijon, a winebar in Bordeaux, an outdoor table in Provence, wherever, if you told the people there 'don't smell the cork; it's the sign of a dunce'...

    As Greg said, often the traditions are there for a reason. I've caught not just TCA but several other faults in a wine from cork examination and sniffing, and have had fun making wagers on what someone else will find who taste tests the wine at our table. Not so much showing off as in some groups how we jest with each other, and in others how to get a less experienced person's attention and speed the educational process.

    I do like the one about asking to sniff the twist top closure. Sniff that plastic seal....

    Oct 05, 2010 at 3:47 AM


  • Snooth User: bdf
    601254 5

    Well done dmcker, you've got your little party trick of sniffing a cork. However you'll get far more accurate and far more relevant information from actually smelling the wine. Your cork fondling is redundant. Are you seriously trying to suggest that in all your years of drinking wine you've never come across a cork that was stinky/stained/crumbly yet the wine it sealed was exemplary? Or vice versa, a perfectly sound cork, yet oxidized/corked/brett infested wine?

    And pray do tell what your qualifications are for dismissing the WSET qualifications. Are you looking down on them from the lofty heights of having achieved your MW (or other wine qualification more demanding than the WSET diploma for that matter) or are your just talking through your hat?

    I don't mean to be negative, but the rude dismissive tone of your post did require similar. I appreciate that in my mere sixteen years in the wine trade can hardly prepare me to comment on such profound matters but I too am firmly in the camp that suggest that sniffing the cork is as likely to mislead you as it is to help.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 4:49 AM


  • Excellent article and comments. The one thing missing is CONFIDENCE. In three main areas I find. First, waiters sometimes pour too small a sample to really identify the wine. Ask for more. In the second, by the time other parties have decided on their food orders, a sommelier can be right upon you. In one posh restaurant in Nice, harrumphing as if he was getting fed up waiting. So I sent him away in order to read the list, it being large, and ordered five mins later. No problems. And when the restaurant has a proper sommelier, with the grape badge they study to attain, and your courses clash or make the wine choice complicated, ask him for advice. We have often found they recommend a cheaper wine tthan the one you were considering, or one from left field youd never even thought of, or knew, that perfectly suit the courses and diners. If they try to steer you way above your price range, be confident enough to say that is more than you wanted to pay. Guests will usually be just as impressed by someione getting good value for money than one willing to pay over the odds for appearances sake.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 5:29 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,033

    bdf, it is one source of info, without a doubt. Not the be-all and end-all, and of course the nose of the wine itself will clarify any questions that arise, and the final proof will be on the palate.

    I just truly have a problem with people who stake out a position for ultimately 'political' reasons that limit available information or otherwise deny its potential usefulness for some reason of advantage--whether in wine or anything else. And no, I don't think a MW, either, is the be-all and end-all, though it does represent a considerable investment of time and effort on top of certain usually inherent skills.

    I think that people who have interesting sensibilities and things to say about wines come from all sorts of backgrounds. I've met people who have whatever WSET degree who are definitely knowledgeable, sensitive and capable, and plenty who aren't. Ultimately, in my experience, the degree is of minimal difference to something else in that person's stance/approach/effectiveness, or obviously to that of also-capable wine experts without the degree.

    But that's a subject for another thread. What we're talking about here is whether there's any value in sensory investigation of a cork. I say there definitely is, and IMHO anyone who says otherwise is closing their eyes, fingertips, or nose, to potentially useful info right in front of them.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 7:28 AM


  • Not examining a cork is like investing without reading a prospectus, "I'll just give them my money and decide if it was a good idea after I find out if I have made or lost money.
    All information is good. If you enjoy wine, every bottle is an experience, read the label to educate yourself about the maker or region, look at the vintage to catalog the impending experience in your mind, examine the cork as an indication of the life the wine has experienced in the bottle.
    To sit pour and drink without a thought to how the wine got to your glass is a missed opportunity to a fuller experience.
    I make wine, and I go to great lengths to ensure that the consumers experience is the best that grape has to offer. When it is in your hands it is your choice weather you want to experience it like a stick of gum or a vacation.
    You wouldn't call someone a rube for checking their tires before getting into their car nor would you consider them snobbish, checking the cork of a bottle of wine is a similar caution, it isn't for everyone, but it is silly to mock someone for taking the extra time.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 12:23 PM


  • Snooth User: bpkrug1
    585913 6

    This has been a thorough examination of what to look for in a wines appearance, prior to acceptance of a bottle, when presented with the opportunity, by a sommeliers or waiter in a restaurant. Greg, it's a sign of a good article, when you've hit on, what seems a sore subject for some in this forum. As for me, I always check the cork whether it's pulled from between the legs of a waitress, or at home by myself. Some corks are dried out, falling appart, wet under the capsule, as well as, covered with a black mold. They each portend something about the wines potential condi-
    tion, and based on ones experience with a given type of wine, what to expect of the color, aroma, and taste. I've smelled many corks too, that had the odor of a dank and humid earthin cellar, ones with TCA, which for my nose, is very chemical in nature, not something that bodes well for what's in the bottle. All of us who have commented here about a corks condition, whether ignored or contemplated, and have learned to some degree, something perhaps not previously thought of. Good article.

    Perhaps another subject for future discussion, comes from ones own cellar. What should one expect from a resturant's sommelier or wait staff, when you have called, made a reservation, and inquired about the corkage charge, then decided to bring a special bottle or two to enjoy with the meal? This has always brought about some humorous experiences for me, as well as, downright dismay, at the lack of what I thought should be common knowledge in a good dining establishment. I await Gregs', and the rest of this forums comments and insights on this matter. Thanks to you all.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 1:23 PM


  • Snooth User: sjacobs
    80235 2

    There were some very good points brought up in the article and some thoughtful additions from posters. On the cork issue, I generally don't smell it initially, but do inspect it visually. Should I suspect a flawed wine, then I will take a whiff. I think the smell and the taste are better determinants of the wine. In the end, it is irrelevant how the cork smells, but rather how the wine tastes. If it is good, you enjoy it. If it is bad, you send it back. When I do get a corked wine, I like to share it with my companions who have never experienced what that does to a wine. I will also hang on to that glass, and have them compare the wine as it should be to the flawed one. Many people just don't know what a corked wine tastes like.

    Any good restaurant will consider your opinion on the state of a wine you are served and make amends, if necessary, whether it is outright corked or something "seems off." If you think a wine is flawed, speak up! I've had the sommelier offer another bottle when I found something unpleasant about a wine, but couldn't pinpoint it. Certainly, there should be no argument. I would cross that restaurant off my list. The wine staff should be there to help you, not intimidate you. Questions and requests for suggestions should be met with a positive attitude. It is up to the patron to decide how much to spend. If I ask for a suggestion, I will always let the sommelier know what my range is. If you don't want to say it out loud, point to the appropriate number on the list and say that you like something like this.

    Temperature was duly mentioned by BBQ Phil. Establishments that feel justified in charging 3x retail should be expected to provide a well stored wine. Often times reds are too warm and whites too cold, though cooler is my preference for either. One can always let the wine open as it warms in the glass. I will ask for a red to be chilled for 5-10 minutes if I feel it is too warm. Then you just hope it isn't cooked from being stored near the ceiling in the kitchen.

    Aeration is very important for most young reds, and some of the more structured whites- Burgundies and some Rhones. Ask for a wine to be decanted if you think it will benefit. If in doubt, ask the sommelier. How many times have you gotten to your last sip to realize that the wine is now at its peak? Once is too many :)

    Oct 05, 2010 at 1:32 PM


  • Snooth User: MyOwnOpus
    155542 5

    This was a helpful article and the comments were helpful as well. You know, there are ways to critique someone's article without being rude. The level of pretentiousness in some of your comments is ridiculous - we're all here to learn more about wine. Some of us know more than others. Can't we skip the hubris and simply take the time to educate others? There was a time for all of us when we knew absolutely nothing about wine and I'm grateful to the wonderful sommeliers, wine shop owners, and friends who held my hand along the way.

    Oct 05, 2010 at 5:40 PM


  • Snooth User: PBLee
    447962 10

    I am really disappointed with this article on all fronts. To begin with, one does not select a wine in order to impress anyone. The tone of the article implies that the function of a sommelier, no matter what their level of competence, is to create tension and doubt as though fine dining was a snotty sport or ritual to be engaged in only by those with some sort of inside knowledge and skill.

    Anyone who truly loves food and wine, and chooses to share them with friends knows that a sommelier is a great source of helpful information and guidance when it comes to navigating a wine list whether it be short and well edited, or a veritable hymnal of the finest bottles the planet has to offer. These people are our friends in the business who share our passion and want to do their best for us, no matter what we choose to spend. A semmelier knows something is wrong with a wine before you do so forget about the silly cork sniffing and squeezing. Oh, and if you do opt for the $3,000.00 bottle, be sure to do the proper thing and offer some to your friend in the business.








    Oct 05, 2010 at 9:12 PM


  • ... Food to be served should be considered when ordering wine.

    ... The person who orders the wine gets to taste it first. Wait for approval,
    then serve clockwise the rest of the table, then top-off the person who ordered / tasted. Basic rule of wine serving etiquette.

    ...cork sniffin' is amateurish and messy... especially in 20 + yo wines: the smell of the cork and the actual taste of the wine are 2 completely different issues. Misleading, because some corks get all moldy on the exterior end but yet the part touching the wine is still "wet" and "spongy"... by personal experience, I have found those to be the most deep flavoured and desireable bottles. Just served a 1983 Cammensac magnum last week... label was rotted, dried bubbled wine burps on the tin, 1/4 inch of mold on the cork.... (which stank real bad), but the wine was to DIE for... everybody was emitting hummmm sounds , without even any coaxing for an opinion from them...

    So... you want to impress your collegues / boss / guests.... simple... you have to know wine by experience. Pretending won't work. Start ordering a different bottle every night. Every price range. Bring a little note book ( texting the notes to yourself would seem impolite). AND DRINK !!!

    And don't be afraid to tell the server that the "cheap" wine sucked, Maybe restaurants will stop ordering the crap (twist offs can't be aged, nor plastic, not worth serving, and if you think they're OK then you need to move to the big leagues and drink real wines). They pay 5 you pay 20-30. Spring for 40 - 50 and you might find some jewels.; If the wine gives you heartburn... it sucked. Sommeliers know which wines come with cork / composite / plastic / twist off. They know if a bottle of a certain vintage is not quite to par. They want to sell you something, so they don't really care which one, so they will be inclined to guide you properly. They risk getting a better gratuity, and repeat business if they do. !

    At my restaurant, I always gave a taste of the good S**** to all the servers, they need to know what the're selling / serving. To understand the difference between cheap wine and great wine and all their variables.

    On a "happy" note.... Sometimes, when it's a real expensive wine with important guests, I try to save the collar by pulling it off instead of cutting it so that the empty bottle can be saved more elegantly and have the guests sign the label !

    P.S.: Out of the thousands of bottles of wine I have sold at my restaurant, I only had 2 that were "really" corked. Same wine different vintages. Trapiche Oak cask....2003/2004. Stopped buying that one. Never since have I had a returned bottle. I guest it's all in the vetting of your wine list too.

    WINE LOVER TIP...Meridian brought back the composite cork !!! I had dropped them when they switched to plastic. Just had the 2007 cab WOOHOO !!! That's the "cheap" wine I serve by the glass. Just ordered 12 cases to put in my personal cellar for aging.

    Sorry for this endless rant.... XOXOX PJ Bedard

    Oct 06, 2010 at 3:00 PM


  • Snooth User: PBLee
    447962 10

    Hello Fianchetto- You gave great advice, not a rant. After some pondering this afternoon upon the "cork issue", both sniff and squeeze, I have decided to pull and open three bottles of my favorites (so I know what I expect from each, and isn't that really the key here) which happen to have what I consider to be suspicious corks. Any damage is my fault entirely. Sometimes wine is like a naughty kid- one hopes for the best despite appearances.
    All are big reds, two lovely French, and one magnificent California. This weekend should be interesting and educational. I will keep you posted- sniff, squeeze, sip, and celebrate.

    Oct 06, 2010 at 7:42 PM


  • Snooth User: mgenette
    569329 5

    Just sort of stumbled into this blog. Some interesting thoughts and comments about corks. i always look at the cork and generally pass it under my nose because I hate to be surprised when I stick my nose in the glass. If I already have a hint that there might be a problem I go a little slower on the next steps. What I found more interesting was the concept of the taste test. I ran restaurants in San Francisco some years ago and frequently arranged wine tastings for my staff. I was surprised when one of my chefs said that she had never tasted wine before. She took a sip of the glass and had a blank look on her face. I asked what the problem was and she said she did not know what she was tasting. When I taught her how to inhale the aroma, then put the small sip in the front of her mouth and suck air over it gently the result was remarkable. "Wow" she said, "I can taste blackberry, plum and cherry". It was a fun experience for all.

    Oct 07, 2010 at 6:41 PM


  • Snooth User: JD Colmar
    473511 2

    The primary purpose of being presented the cork is to match the name on it with the name on the wine label. Any defects of smell and taste are better done directly with the wine.

    Oct 10, 2010 at 1:00 PM


  • I died laughing reading your comments about the server poking the corkscrew thru the encapsulated cover and then when I read further about poking it thru the metal twist off; I totally lost it. I could just envision this happening with people you ar trying to impress and we could all relate to these comedic experiences with some inexperienced wait staff. great work I really enjoyed this.

    Oct 20, 2010 at 6:08 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 202,183

    Thank very much for the kind words!

    I don't think the server was laughing!

    Oct 20, 2010 at 6:33 PM


  • it's an interesting article as much as for the reactions as the article... it tells a lot about the posters as much as Gregory. I've worked as a consulting sommelier, at wineries and an adviser to a wine school and currently have a radio show and write for magazines and newspapers.

    there's no need to get personal about suggestions on how to deal with sommeliers and waiting staffs as they serve and recommend wine

    1) you can't always trust the expertise or motives of your servers by either their lack of training or their desire to hike the bill and therefore their tips...stupidity and greed should never be underestimated

    many servers and sommeliers only know what they've been told and show very little intellectual curiosity beyond what's needed to maintain their jobs... good ones know wines off their list and you can see them perk up when you bring in your own bottle and pay corkage (remember to offer them a taste)

    for instance: I can't tell you how many sommeliers buy into the whole sulfite issue on the wrong side and think sulfites cause headaches...it's the histamines...sulfites are more likely to cause breathing problems for asthma sufferers...

    2) don't underestimate how reckless some restaurants are about storing their wine... I was in one that stored some bottles over a fireplace because they thought it looked nice how the light of the flames flickered off the bottles

    3) the cork...if you want to smell it, play with it or bounce off your friends head (they make great projectiles at parties...just enough mass to get someones attention but shouldn't hurt anyone in the process...just don't get in their glass) go ahead just don't bother to do it if you don't know what you're looking for...it's only pretentious when you pretend to know more than you do

    just don't delay the server (or your fellow diners) anymore than needed...that's when you become a bit of a bore

    it is good to inspect it...if it is crumbly it may appear in your glass and your guests' glass, smelling it... why not if you know what to smell for...inspecting the cork for mfg. no point in less expensive wines...who's going to imitate an inexpensive bottle

    oh and the screw-cap issue... there's NOTHING wrong with screwcaps especially for wines you don't intend to age.

    As one winemaker told me (who doesn't use screwcaps only because of market perceptions rather than reality) why are we insisting on 17th century technology on sealing bottles

    eventually the industry will find or agree on a new stopper ideal for aging without the inherent flaws and all the advantages of natural cork

    4) one way to know you're a wine geek instead of a casual diner is that you look at the wine list first (or consider the bottle you brought) and then match the food to the wine instead of the wine to the food

    in a more expert pairing...so many factors should come into play...the protein, the preparation method, the spices, the weight of any sauce, the side dishes (what everyone else is ordering if only one bottle is being ordered) and the wine's weight, acidity, sweetness, oakiness, tannins and flavor profiles that a good sommelier can help you find the right match for each dish or the right dish for each wine...although some wines offer appear (like Cabs and Chardonnays) to appease market demand more so to match dishes (most dishes will match better to less commercial varietals or blends)

    5) if some of you guy are looking for a fight... go to a beer site or hard liquor... wine should be about exploring and be dialectic... you hardly ever see a wine bar with a bouncer...

    no one knows all there is know about wine so lets learn together

    Nov 07, 2010 at 1:06 AM


  • In regards to why not smell the cork:

    The ritual of presenting the cork is most commonly derived from the legion of counterfeit wines that followed the phylloxera outbreak in France. Presenting the cork, and verifying that it carried the winery's signature, was an effort to assure the consumer of its origins.

    Smelling the cork, then, became the guess of the puzzled consumer presented with a cork and not knowing the reason or origins of the ritual. In effect, an article like this was desperately needed a century ago.

    Trying to ascribe meaning to it (looking for TCA) is an effort to justify the faux pax. There's nothing you can smell on the cork that will tell you something you won't get from smelling the wine. It's superfluous; as one of the main criticisms about wine enjoyment is that it's unnecessarily complicated, it thus serves to add nothing more than unnecessary complication to the experience.

    I simply wish that people writing about wine wouldn't further complicate wine enjoyment by perpetuating this myth rooted in genteelism.

    Nov 11, 2010 at 4:05 PM


  • <i>Step 1: Make sure you've gotten the wine you ordered. This IS important.

    Step 2: Swirl and sniff. This is very helpful in giving you an indication of what you're going to get when you taste the wine. Your nose matters more than you're tongue.

    Step 3: Say, "It's lovely, thank you." and enjoy your meal.</i>

    Agreed. +1

    Nov 11, 2010 at 4:07 PM


  • Final addition:

    Wine should not be about impressing people. It should be about enjoying fine craftsmanship, natural wonders, and great company. Unfortunately, this article further perpetuates an attitude of elitism by emphasizing impressing others.

    Nov 11, 2010 at 4:13 PM


  • Snooth User: PKblue UK
    637330 2

    A very interesting read. I have dined far and wide, high and low, and am still surprised at the different knowledge levels and opinions out there.

    Including my own. What I would like to know is, what is the etiquette for fine dining restaurants (let's say 2 Michelin star and above). For a good wine, the sommelier will taste the wine themselves to see if it is spoilt, then present a small amount to the diner to taste. Is this to just get the diner to reaffirm the wine is not off (I would tend to trust the sommelier better on this!) OR is it to determine if the orderer of the wine likes it and is happy to have the table drink it. If the diner rejects the wine because they don't like it, what happens next? Will that wine not be charged for and the diner/sommelier chooses a different wine, or will that bottle be charged as well as the new bottle? I can imagine that the wine would not be charged for if the restaurant would take it as a slight to their reputation by having a wine on their list that did not please a customer. But I don't know for sure. I found myself in a situation a couple of years back when I did not particularly like the wine the sommelier chose after tasting it (I had already accepted his suggestion from the wine list), but went with it because I wasn't sure what would happen if I said I didn't like it (I couldn't afford more than one bottle of expensive wine at the time, nor could I risk looking a bit foolish in front of my date hehe).

    Would appreciate if people that have been in this situation and know the answer, or professional wine waiters/sommeliers, could answer please.

    Nov 12, 2010 at 7:17 AM


  • I'm confident that it's to affirm that the wine is not tainted.

    It would be poor decorum to reject a perfectly fine wine simply because you don't like it. Wine is wildly subjective and it would in no way be taken as a slight if you didn't like it. They know you won't like every wine on the list--but that doesn't mean they're not all good.

    I would raise an eyebrow though if a somm picked a wine that you did not like at all. I would want to know if they probed to find out what you liked, or if they listened at all. It would be sad if they just imposed their own preferences on you.

    I would speak up in an extreme situation, eg you say you like fruit forward wines and they bring you an earthy barnyardy French wine.

    Nov 13, 2010 at 12:03 AM


  • Snooth User: oumydiaw
    621702 7

    do you think just smelling the wine is enough to detect flaws in wine or any defect?
    Some sommeliers say that smell tells you right away and should be enough. Anyone?

    Dec 09, 2010 at 12:55 AM


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