Don’t Bogart That Sip: Should Sommeliers Taste Your Wine Purchase?

Vinted on July 12, 2010 binned in commentary

Last week, I was quoted in a very interesting article by Eric Asimov in the New York Times, based on a conversation that Eric and I had about restaurant sommeliers taking a small sip of their customers’ wines to ensure that they are sound prior to being served.

Many of you out there (at least, the ones who sent me all of the e-mail) were surprised that I hadn’t encountered the practice before.  Based on those e-mails (the ones in which I wasn’t called an idiot, anyway), the practice seems much more common for patrons in Europe than for those of us here Stateside.

Also, for those readers I should note that I’m a born-and-bred Mid-Atlantic U.S. boy, which means I’m naturally suspicious and pissed off until you do something nice for me, after which I’m convinced that it’s a ruse plotted to rip me off somehow and I’m really pissed-off at you.

Anyway, my quotes were (of course) part of a longer conversation that Eric understandably didn’t include in full in the article; so I thought the topic worth revisiting so I could expand a bit on the view I represented in that conversation…

To summarize the gist of the NYT piece, I offer this quote from Eric:

“Few issues of wine etiquette seem to cause as much consternation as the increasingly common practice of a sommelier taking a small sip of wine, usually unbidden, to test for soundness. Diners often are surprised to learn that their bottle has in effect been shared with the restaurant, even if it’s just the smallest amount.”

I basically play the role of “educated consumer” in the article, and was thinking that while I myself might not be perturbed if a good sommelier tested a small  portion of the wine for me before serving it, I’d sure as hell wouldn’t want many of my friends to see it – if it happened without warning, I’m pretty sure my Italian-American cronies would surround the guy (a girl might get away with it, so we can safely ignore that scenario as far as my buddies’ ire is concerned) and demand to be reimbursed for the ounce of expensive wine he just consumed “for our benefit” (yeah, right… the mooch!).

Additional (great) discussion on this article and the topic in general also took place over on – in that piece, Alder Yarrow made an impressive case for patrons to give sommeliers a break and let them get on with their job, which might entail tasting your wine.

I’m pretty sure that many restaurant patrons simply don’t know enough about a somm’s job to understand when that person might be doing them  a favor by sampling their wine purchase – or, sadly but I’m sure just as likely, some patrons don’t understand enough about the somm’s job to know that the somm. will do it better than they could.

Eric touched on this point, which was an important part of our private conversation, when he mentioned in a follow-up post on the NYT Diner’s Journal blog that it’s not the practice itself that might put patrons off, but the perceived surreptitiousness of the sampling, coupled with a healthy dose of “don’t tell **me** that you’re smarter than I am, Mr. Super-Sommelier Guy!”:

“Suspicions are not the only reason some people object to this practice. Others feel they are the best judges of whether a wine is flawed or not, and do not appreciate sommeliers appropriating their role.”

I’m wiling to bet that if a sommelier asked if the patrons wanted their wine sampled or if he could assist them in ascertaining if the wine was sound that the practice would instead be viewed as impeccable service – assuming, that is, the sommelier is good at what she/he does.

Show me a wine geek, and I’ll show you someone who had a run-in with a sommelier, server or wine director over a bottle of flawed wine that the restaurant employee pronounced to be fine.  I’m not totally sold that the restaurant should automatically side with a customer even if that person is out of their mind when they decide a wine must be off-kilter; however, given an impasse it’s always going to be the right call to offer the customer the opportunity to have a replacement if they seem to truly believe a wine is flawed.

Have you had a run-in with a wanna-be somm.?  Or had to argue your way during a restaurant meal to a replacement bottle that didn’t smell like a New Jersey basement after a creek flood?  Let’s hear about it!







  • @girlwithaglass

    I'd have to have experience with the somm. Anyone can call themselves a somm and if I don't know their creds, I don't know if I bring more to the situation than they do. Sure they are supposed to know the wines, but I go to a lot of trade tastings where I meet people of all levels who are restaurant wine somms–a lot of enthusiasm but I'm not handing my credit card over to them to tell me if wine is good.

    I can't remember ever having a "run in" with a somm but I have refused wine, I've refused suggestions and I've accepted wine that was just a bad choice if I made the choice.

    If the somm made a bad pairing choice, I let them know subtly that it's not rocking my world and if they are good, they try again with graciousness. What it comes down to for me, is not who's the more experienced, it's my credit card and my dining experience, tasting my wine for me is waaaay down on the list of how they can make my experience enjoyable. Btw, at better restaurants I ALWAYS use the somm for suggestions, how else would I know if s/he is any good? And my fav restaurants have somms that I like and appreciate.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Alana!

    • revorg

      A lot of chefs and all the best ones taste the sauce or a check if the vegetables are crisp etc before the dish gets to you, to insure the guest has a perfectly cooked meal…. how is .5oz taste different … is it because you can see it in the bottle… let it go is my suggestion we all know its your credit card and all but no one is there to steal your wine.

      Not everyone is as knowledgeable as you are and if you don't want anyone to taste your wine say so …after all may be the restaurant is doing the tasting to help the majority of the people who do not know when the wine is good or bad.

      • 1WineDude

        I think the main thing is that if you're a somm. you either need to taste the wine outside of the patrons' view if possible, or let the person who ordered know that you will offer to taste the wine for them.

        The somm. is not the same as the chef, in my view. In this case, they're closer to the waitstaff – after all, they are serving the product, they didn't make it themselves.

  • Richard Scholtz

    I can't say that I've ever had a bad encounter with a somm. The few times I've encountered a flawed bottle, the somm. has always tried and concurred with my conclusions.

    However, I think there is a big difference between someone thinking a bottle is flawed, versus a bottle that doesn't match the purchaser's tastes, or worse, the bottle is perfectly fine, the buyer just doesn't like it. Then what do you do? I've seen it happen where someone was describing what they wanted, and it turns out the bottle didn't match what they were describing. It puts everyone in an awkward situation, where you have someone not getting what they want, but the bottle is already open. I don't think any restaurant would tolerate opening bottle after bottle to find something someone likes.

    • 1WineDude

      Interesting dilemma, Richard – in that case, has the somm. misinterpreted the request, or did the patron miscommunicate what s/he wanted…?

  • Brian

    Either I'm not going to the right restaurants or living in wine country precludes restaurants from having a Sommelier on staff, I'm not sure which. It could also be that the smaller restaurants I usually frequent don't see the need. Anyhow, I'd be pleased to let a Sommelier taste my expensive wine, there's nothing worse than corked wine to ruin a night!

    Joe, how do sommeliers treat bret wines? Or do they just know that a wine house has brett and it's stylistic instead of flawed?

    Just wondering

    • 1WineDude

      Good question, Brian. I'm guessing that somms. will put a bretty wine on their wine list deliberately if a) they happen to like them and/or b) they have patrons who happen to like them.

      If I was the somm., the answer on how I would treat bretty wines would be "not with a 10 ft. pole!"


      • bill duval

        Traditionally, one of the duties of a sommelier is to help build a wine list; a major way to establish the credibility and reputation of the house. He/she owns the list and is entirely responsible for the condition of any wine that is served. The house is bound to try the wine before pouring and, should you encounter a sommelier who has not tasted before pouring, it is a courtesy to offer him/her a taste. None of the aforesaid applies to MacDonald's. Duval, Santa Barbara

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, Duval! I would especially welcome the practice if the somm. were also fulfilling one of their ancient duties, which is testing my wine to ensure it hasn't been poisoned :-).

          • bill duval

            all can be arranged.

  • Revorg

    I have worked in restaurants with sommeliers for over 10yrs … restaurants pay them so then can elevate the guests experience. They are not there to steal your wine, I think that's being small minded in your part. I mean when you come to a 3 or 4 star restaurant why not let your guard down and try to enjoy the experience.. unless off course the restaurant is on Canal Street where you must hold on tight. Having said that there are some pretensions sommeliers … my suggestion is say something to prevent them tasting, hopefully in a nice way or don't visit them again.

  • Santiago

    I am a sommelier evolved in to a winemaker. I had a 850 labels wine list representing almost every important wine region there is out there, I attended 3 or 4 wine tastings a week, visited regions and wineries, talked to the winemakers, read about them and, EVERY single bottle on that list was chosen by us, sommeliers in that restaurant for taste, philosophy, price/value to quality, etc. hard work, lots of work, just as a chef looks for the best ingredients and puts his carrer on a plate every night.
    Therefore, and KNOWING that almost every single bottle – under natural cork- is different (most consumers don't know this) is a MUST, to taste every single bottle, and believe me, that is not an easy task in the middle of restaurant service CAOS, it's hard, but it's part of RESPECTING the work a wine producer and winemaker has puto into that wine AND the costumer that is paying up to 150 % markup for that wine, chosen from OWR restaurant list. SORRY to all that do get offended (never encountered one) but is my job, is in fact what you are paying for.
    99% of the times that a wine was flawed, even if minimally tainted or oxidized more thatn what it should be, the customer didn't know, of course it didn't have to know, it's my job to know. It's a fine line to tell the customer this… you have to be extremally profetional, sometimes I had to open another bottle and showing them to see if they would preffer the other one, it's a "fresher bottle" (trying not to exagerate). that is also part of my job. SO, the customer is drinking what is paying for and the winemaker happy becouse people is paying for what he really made. I htink is fair. Also worth saying that in the middle of maddness, in the middle of service, going to get a new bottle, opening it, decanting it, changing glassware!! and serving the new one being extremelly polite and as fast as possible is NOT EASY!
    –I am a winemaker now and I hope people get what I have put into my wine, remember this: a bottle of wine is a 2 year process from the vineyard to your glass (for most over $20 wines) that is a lot of work, I want people to enjoy that wine, that's what wine is made for, enjoyment, so, if someone is out there making sure that happens, I thank them, a lot.

  • DAA

    I've had sommeliers taste wine in restaurants and totally hate the practice Particularly since they always pour more than needed. In here (France) the price ratio from wine shop to restaurant goes up to 6 or 7. At that level, if the sommelier tastes the bottle without asking, it becomes his ad he can bring me a new one … Sorry sommeliers out there who think you're doing us a favor, you're not. If the client refuses the bottle, then it becomes an entirely different story.
    Actually, one of he most likely explanations for this practice to "come back" is the price of wine: by tasting your wine the sommelier can follow wines in the restaurant's cellar and keep up to date of their evolution without opening a bottle for himself. I am not willing to pay for that, they have enough of a markup.

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