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Jun 21, 2008 01:05 PM

Can someone answer this simple wine question?

First the story that brings up my question:

I recently got trapped into doing a nine day cruise with a group of friends (?) on a ship. We all ate each evening at the same table and everyone but me is a drinker of alcohol.
The fellow who arranged the trip at each evening meal would order a bottle or two of wine before we ate. The wine server would bring the wine to the table, pour a small amount into a glass and hand it to the fellow.
He would then taste the wine and set the glass down. The waiter would stand there holding the bottle in a cloth napkin with the label turned toward the fellow. The fellow would nod his approval and the wine server would refill his glass and then pour wine around the table.

Later that evening, I noticed that there was no taste test/approval required for the Bud that replaced the wine. Ditto for the mixed drinks that followed the beer. Going back to the wine later that night this silly charade again took place.
Yes, it was a long 9 day cruise for me.

We have other friends who have become interested in wine also. I know they know nothing about wine (nor do I) but he goes through this same silly act with the tasting/approval thing when we join them for a meal out. At all times, as when on the ship, I found myself biting my lip to keep from laughing out loud at this silly exercise.

Now, my question:
How did this act get started and what is the purpose of someone acting like approval is required. I have never seen a 'taster' refuse a bottle

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  1. It happens frequently enough that a bottle has turned or has sediment in it. If Im ordering a cheap young bottle I will frequently pass on this step. True its not as necessary as it may have been but for a wine that matured in the bottle a bit it is important. Lots of things can go wrong. I have refused bottles and I am at best moderatly knowledgable about wine. Nothing like some chunks - or a bottle of vinegar.......a lot of it is show but it has its puropse.

    1. I can't tell you when or how it go started, but generally it is appropriate for the person ordering the wine to taste it before the bottle is poured out. I have hand numerous expericnece with corked wine, wine that is effervescent that shouldn't be, etc. A good restarant will be courteous about a refused bottle and if there is a sommelier that helps. The reason wine is tasted and not vodka or beer is that wine is sensitive to age, light and temperature. If it has been stored improperly you can have bad wine. This rarely happens with alcohol like beer and spirits as they are not sensitive to these conditions and mainly because they don't sit for years before being consumed.

      1. if you've never seen a taste turn back a bottle, then EITHER the people you are with have been extremely lucky, and have never been served a corked wine, or they have no idea what a corked wine smells and/or tastes like.

        1. I agree it seems a bit of nonsense, but it is part of the theatre of wine...

          But there is a very real purpose to the ritual...

          Wine is a living thing, and a creature of agriculture. Unlike beer (to which you refer), the same brand of wine will differ from year to year reflecting the year that its grapes grew in.

          So the first part of the ritual is showing the bottle so that the diner can check that the wine offered is the wine that they ordered. Mistakes frequently happen.

          The second part of pouring a taste is so the diner can test the wine is in an acceptable condition. Wine is a living thing, and can deteriorate and die. And primarily because it is well known that wine can be affected by the cork, giving a condition known as 'corked'.*

          So the tasting is so that the diner can check the wine is in good condition.

          You say you have never seen a wine rejected. It is very uncomfortable to do so, but it does happen and should happen more than it does.**

          Why no tasting for a beer or spirit? Two reasons; they're more consistent than wine, but mostly because a wine can cost a great deal in a restaurant -- hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

          * I won't go into details now but feel free to ask
          ** Many people feel they don't know enough about wine, but its justa matter of taste. If it tastes dirty, its murky, it stinks etc, then something is wrong. You know when a steak isn't right and you send it back. You'll also know when a wine isn't right.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Gussie Finknottle

            You are on the right path here but we can go a bit further. In truly fine dining a guest should never have to taste his wine and should of course be served last. A proper Som / wine waiter will taste each bottle before it is brought to the table to insure a quality item is being served. ergo there is no reason for the host to taste.
            The origins of serving a bit to the host goes back to bibical times when wine was stored in earthenware containers and then covered in oil to seal the wine in from the air. Servants would skim as much oil as they could off the wine before serving but would serve the host first so if anyone were to get any oil in the wine it would be him not the guests.
            At this point service has mutated to a part theater /part head up the ass show that basicly scares people away from enjoying wine on a daily basis.

            1. re: Winer

              I do agree that a good sommelier should have some clear idea of the quality of the wine being served. I always offer a taste of any questionable bottle, just so we are both on the same page. However, the tastevin is going the way of the Dodo. I have no problem if a taste is first consumed by the sommelier, but as most bottles are opened in the presence of the host, it would be highly uncommon for the bottle to disappear for a bit, only to be presented later for the pouring. Even in 3-star restaurants around the globe, I have yet to have a sommelier take the bottle away, prior to the pour. One of the main concepts of the bottle and cork presentation is to assure the host, that this IS the bottle ordered and to confirm that. Grab the bottle and head to a venue out of sight, and one is left to wonder. I'm less keen on that concept. I cannot state that it never happens, but with a few dozen heavily "starred" restaurants under my belt, I have yet to encounter this.


          2. There are many things that can happen TO a bottle of wine, or within it. Some can arise from storage conditions, others from adverse interaction between the cork and the wine, and some from the bottling line, itself.

            The act of presenting the bottle for "approval," is very common, especially if the restaurant (ship in this case) is into doing it correctly.

            1.) Present the bottle, prior to opening, for patron's approval - is this the correct wine, vintage, etc.?
            2.) Open and present the cork. This is a bit more show, but in days gone by, it usually indicated that the producer's name and vintage data on the cork, matched what was on the label. If there is a problem with #3, one can refer BACK to the cork, which might yield a clue, or maybe not.
            3.) Pour a small taste for the host (or whomever has ordered the bottle of wine). The host should look at the wine against a white tablecloth, or napkin, judging the color(s), then sniff the wine. Last, they should taste the wine, and give the server either the go-ahead to pour, or discuss any problem with the wine. If a problem DOES seem to exist, see #2 above for a possible clue.
            4.) The pouring of additional glasses of wine is most often to the female guess, then the male guests, then the host. Only reason for pouring the host's wine first is in case any cork has become dislodged and is now floating in the bottle. Usually, the initial light pour will get this into the host's glass. With regards to any cork particles, the host should usually quietly extract this/these in silence and with little fanfare, or "just take one for the team."

            Now, to the Bud and the mixed drinks. They are less likely to have flaws, like wine can. This is not to say that they cannot be damaged, in some way, just that it is less common.

            To address Coastie's comment, re: sediment, this is a common situation with many red wines. With time, they will likely throw sediment. The two ways around this are to decant the wine, and in the process, separate as much wine from the sediment, as is possible. OR, to pour the wine with great care, stopping before any of the sediment is included. With proper storage of the wine, and gentle handling, prior to opening, one hopes that the sediment, will not be put back into solution with the "clear" wine. This second method is also common with white wines, that have been stored too cold, or have experienced cold somewhere along the line. Tartaric crystals can form. They are harmless little transparent/translucent "beads," that cause no harm, but are a bit unsightly. White can be "decanted," as well, though this is usually done to aerate the wine and is most often called "caraffing," the wine.

            The "proceedure" and pomp of serving wine is built on tradition, but also for good reason. The better places do it always, regardless of the cost of the bottle, however great care must be taken if the bottle is expensive, as any mistake, or problem, can cost the restaurant. That is why the host should ALWAYS read the bottle, when presented (and also look at the bottle shape, as it tells some of the story), before permission is given to open the bottle. Once opened, there are only two reasons to decline on the wine: it is flawed, or it was the sommelier's recommendation, and just does not appeal to the host. If it is the correct wine ordered (without the recommendation of the sommelier), and it is not flawed, the host has just bought it, whether he/she chose wisely, or not. At that point, it is unacceptable to say, "oh, I just don't like this wine." If the sommelier has made a bad rec., then it is up to him/her to take the bottle back (sell it b-t-g, or use it to train the staff that evening, or give it to the cook to prepare food with - provided that it is not flawed), and try again. At this point, the sommelier should be asking a bunch of questions, before making another rec.


            [Edit] Seems that Gussie was saying the same thing, and typed more quickly than I did. Maybe my post should now read, "what Gussie Finknottle just said... "