The practice of the sommelier tasting wine for the table began with royalty. The sommelier had two jobs to perform. They would select a bottle of wine that paired with the meal and taste the wine to ensure it was still good and not poisoned. While the idea of being the tester may now seem unsavory, the practice has shifted. When you order a bottle of wine at some establishments the sommelier may take the first sip. The sommelier wants your wine experience to be pleasurable and offer you a perfect bottle. They are looking for wine that has not been tainted by a bad cork or has flaws. A bad cork opens the wine to early oxidation, trichloroanisole, or other bacteria that leaves the wine with undesirable flavors. The sommelier will use their senses to pinpoint any flaws and provide you with the freshest bottle.
I was in New York City this past Thanksgiving and while eating at a fine dining restaurant, my parents decided to order a bottle of wine for the table. Because my parents were tucked away in the corners of our table the server looked to me.
He brought the bottle we selected, and he presented it.. At the time I was 21 and had not experienced this presentation before. The server showed me the bottle facing the label towards me. He asked if the bottle was correct and if I was willing to taste for the table.
So many questions popped into my head. Was that the correct bottle? Why did he choose me? What do I look for in the flavor? Will I like it? What if I don’t like it? And many more questions.
He proceeded to pour the sip and gave me time to try it. I swirled the glass, glanced at the color, smelled the bold aroma, and gave a sip. I did everything I see in the movies. Moral of the story is the wine was good and I approved the bottle. But that most important question has stayed with me. What was I supposed to be looking for?
After a little research and with help from Amanda, I got the answer. The reason the server or sommelier presents the label of the bottle is so you know it is the one you ordered.
If you are familiar with the flavor of the wine, the label and the taste should match, making sure a lower valued or incorrect wine was not put in its place. Restaurants practice this so that you know your wine isn’t counterfeit and in case the server brought you the wrong bottle.
After they pour a sip, swirl the wine to allow the aroma to build and check the color. Smell the wine and make sure there is no off putting scents. When you taste the wine, look for any unsavory flavors. These may be presented as mildew, vinegar, or a musty taste. That may mean the bottle is flawed. If the bottle is correct and not flawed you have done your job and the table can enjoy.
This is a little bit of a tricky one to answer. There are a few factors that may sway you to keep the bottle. If the wine is not flawed and the distaste is based on preference, it can be hard for them to take the bottle back.
The price of the bottle can also influence their decision. A $25 bottle is more likely to be taken back than a $250 bottle. This is because the restaurant is in the business of making money. Once a bottle has been opened it has a limited amount of store time for them to resell the product.
Sending a bottle back may result in the restaurant having to put that bottle on special or offer limited glasses to patrons. Another solution is to ask the server or sommelier to aerate the wine to break down the sharp flavor. It is in best practice to assume that when a bottle is opened for you, you own the bottle. Use your judgment but explore various options before sending the bottle back.
Inevitably the eyes of the table will be one you during this process. You have either selected a bottle or someone has curated a selection for you. This is the moment to show off some of your wine knowledge. See if you can pinpoint the notes you get from the wine. Try and explain why that wine pairs well with your meal. Wine is an art that has been carefully crafted for your enjoyment. Take the time to appreciate the differences in wine from around the world.
AJA takes pride in our crafted Malibu Coast wines. We hope this provides a little history and information on how to taste wine for the table. As always we thank you for supporting AJA Vineyards. Stay tuned for more wine content coming soon!