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 Vinography.com – 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!