Who’s Taking That First Sip…

A recent article by Eric Asimov in the New York Times, “When the First Sip is the Sommelier’s, Not Yours,” has created a tremendous stir both in the wine community and in various social media.

Mr. Asimov was referring to the practice of the sommelier tasting the wine before it is served to the customer, thus ensuring that the bottle is in good condition and free from flaws. This is common in Europe, but less frequent on this side of the ocean. Asimov observed that it was starting to catch on here. Interestingly, this was greeted by howls of outrage from many consumers. Some felt it was presumptuous, others saw it as an invasion of privacy, and a disturbing number of people thought they should be the ultimate arbiter of what did and didn’t appeal to their own palate.

Speaking as a former sommelier, I didn’t always taste the wine before I served it to the customer. I wish I had. I can’t tell you how many times customers accepted bottles that were corked, maderized or otherwise ruined, only to remark on their way out that the wine just didn’t taste right.

Sommeliers are trained to identify flaws in wine, and their standards tend to be stricter than those of the average consumer—most will automatically reject bottles with borderline problems, while many diners are unwilling to draw attention to themselves unless they’re certain of the wine’s condition. On top of that, typical wine drinkers taste three to five wines per week. Sommeliers usually taste 100-200, and have a good knowledge of what current releases are supposed to be like in peak condition.

Every bottle should be tasted by someone, and the truly dangerous situation in a restaurant occurs when a large party is about to consume their second or third bottle of a particular wine. Very often, when a server or sommelier approaches the well-oiled host with the bottle and a tasting glass, they receive this response: “I’m sure it’s fine. Go ahead and pour it.” In that scenario, the sommelier who didn’t taste it could end up pouring bad wine into glasses containing healthy wine, and ultimately have to replace both bottles (yes, this happened to me).

Asimov comes down on the side of pre-tasting, as I obviously do. A reasonable compromise is for the sommelier to alert the customer that he or she intends to taste the wine, or to ask them if it is acceptable to do so. A better solution is for everyone to relax and play out their assigned role in this particular drama, but that is not always possible in these perilous times.