You are at an upmarket restaurant and have ordered an expensive wine. As you taste the wine, both you and your companion are disappointed with the way it tastes, to the point that you suspect that it is not sound. The sommelier, hovering within earshot, has overheard you, or has read your body language, because he comes up to you and himself has tasted it.
Kings of old had people taste their food before they ate, but Raghu Bahadur wonders if it’s a good idea for a sommelier to taste the wine before its drunk?
Are you surprised? Shocked? Perhaps, but not as much as the person who actually endured the experience. The incident was recounted by a New York Times columnist, who then went on to enumerate the views expressed by wine experts, sommeliers at top establishments, wine and beverage executives, and other professionals in the trade on the practice of tasting the wine before serving it to the customer. They came out overwhelmingly in favour of the practice, which the columnist also supported, the predominant reason being that it serves as a safety measure to prevent bad or even slightly off-colour wine from reaching the customer.
Predictably the view from the other side of the fence, that of the customer, is quite the opposite. I paid for the wine, he argues, so why should I share it with a stranger? This, of course, is the basic, if somewhat coarse and simplistic reasoning for opposing the practice, but there are other reasons that can be put forward on his behalf. In plain, unadorned terms, if a customer is happy drinking the wine that has been served to him without it the matter should be allowed to rest there, even if it somehow transpires that the wine is not completely sound. Perhaps he has drunk, or still drinks, similar wine at home – maybe an open bottle stored improperly for with what he is drinking and is not overly conscious about the quality, then obviously he does not need the service of pre-tasting by the sommelier. On the rare occasion when a customer is served bad wine and he drinks it without demur – very few, I think, will fall into this category – well, then he is drinking his just desserts.
There is one lingering grey area for the customer who does not want his wine to be pre-tasted: What happens if he believes that the wine is suspect but does not call this fact to the sommelier’s attention out of sheer limited knowledge or intimidated by the condescending demeanour of the sommelier, a not uncommon occurrence. Whatever the reason, the sad outcome is that the meek customer, far from inheriting the earth, only inherits bad wine.
A practical solution to the problems associated with pre-tasting would be to preface wine lists with the message that the restaurant’s trained sommelier is available to pre-taste wines should the customer so desire. Such a message would not tread on customers’ sensibilities and may actually usher a role-reversal of sorts that could benefit those who really require the service. At upmarket restaurants, where the practice is most often witnessed, the customer, trusting his own judgement, will quickly learn to ignore the message and the service. At the not-much-lower end, the message may persuade the customer to shed his inhibitions and go for helped no doubt by the fact that the cost of the service is but a small sip.
Beware of the hidden pitfall, though, as the term “small sip” can have different interpretations. There are sommeliers and there are sommeliers, and it is not unknown that some require a larger sip of wine than others to pronounce their judgement on its quality, without the customer being any the wiser. The open bottle is brought to the table held at an angle, ready for the wine to be poured, at which the wine stands. The situation gets only murkier as the evening progresses, the sommelier getting (albeit unwise) with tasting sips graduating into tasting gulps.
Anyway, why do we debate on a subject as puny as a sip of wine? At worst call it unnecessary nit-picking. At best – and this is the part I like – it can be seen as adding to the lore and mystique that surrounds oenophilia. In the world of alcoholic beverages only oenology lends itself to the creation of a vast array of themes, big and small, that stimulate debate, argument, commentary among the experts. The reason for this is not far to seek.
Although the processes involved in the production of wine have evolved to a state of near perfection, there are two stages in the vine cultivation and the transport and storage of the matter what controls are put in place no two vintages will be alike, and hence the same varietal from one vineyard will vary in quality and taste from year to year. As for the last stage it would seem that it is possible to maintain full control to preserve the wine in pristine condition but, such is the nature of the beast, that it is not really so. The smallest lapse in transport and storage is quick to take its toll, leading to deterioration in quality.
In contrast, hard liquor suffers little, if at all, from these disadvantages. Can you imagine commodities like malted barley (for whisky), potato (vodka) or sugar cane (rum) being handicapped by considerations of terroir? And once they have been put through the respective processes the product that emerges is no namby pamby: it is a sturdy spirit capable of withstanding extreme conditions of transport and storage. The explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left behind a few cases of his hut as he hurriedly wound up his Antarctica expedition of the early 1900s. The cases were discovered recently, more than a century later, and the master blender of the distillery that now owns the brand pronounced the whisky to be in excellent condition. Yes, some rare wines do enjoy equally long lives and reveal pristine condition when opened (see Sommelier India Aug-Sep 2011, “Drinking in their original place and remain untouched, and at ideal temperature and humidity, throughout.
So it is that the puny sip of wine gets written about. Order two bottles of the same wine and, if you have opted for the service, you will need to have each of them pre- tasted separately by the sommelier. Would you require similar service for any other beverage? Now you see why all discussion on wine gets elevated to the level of philosophy.