As a sommelier, I see guests reacting to the pomp and circumstance of wine service every night. For diners not used to wine service, it can be intimidating. Some are simply more comfortable with it than others.
Learning to become a sommelier takes dedicated practice. There are books to read and memorize, wines to taste and bottles to count. Anyone can be a wine lover, but not a sommelier. A sommelier means that you are serving wine to the public and counting inventory at the end of each month. It is a job firmly rooted in the costumer service industry. Without customers, I would be of no service. That said, being a good custumer takes some practice also. When faced with a sommelier and a wine list, I often see guests becoming intimated and forgetting that wine is just about having a good time and sharing a bottle or three with friends.
Therefore, I’d like to offer a few helpful suggestions so your comfort with wine service will increase and the entire dinner will be much more enjoyable.
Once you have ordered the wine and the sommelier comes back to present you with the bottle, make sure that it is the same as what is listed, and what you ordered. The vintage, producer and region need to be the same. If they are not, mention it and ask the sommelier if they have the wine listed. Vintages are the easiest to miss.
Now that the wine has been accepted, it’s time to open it. If the sommelier gives you the cork, there is no need to smell it. The initial reason for this tradition was when the live-in sommeliers/butlers would drink all the good stuff out of the owner’s cellar. They would then fill the bottle with lesser quality wine, and stick another cork in the bottle. The stamp of the real wine should be on the cork proving its authenticity. If you like, play the role of the lord of the manor and check to make sure that the wine’s logo is on the cork. This is one sure sign that you are not dealing with anything fake.
*There is a wine opener called the Butler’s Friend or Ah-So (see photo above) that would have helped an enterprising butler in those days. It is very useful for older bottles of wine where the cork might not be in the best condition. They take some practice to use well, but once you know how, it is a great party trick.
The tasting pour
This is not the time for you to determine whether or not you are going to like the wine. The wine has been spoken about and opened. Consider it sold; there is no going back now. The idea of the taster portion is to make sure the wine is not faulted in any way. There are many common faultsthat you can detect just by smelling the wine. Tasting wines only confirms your initial thought of the wine. Often the sommelier will open the wine away form the table and check the wine for the guest. At this point the sommelier may choose to decant the wine to get some air into a younger wine and help to “open up” the wine. When presented with a tasting pour, just a smell will suffice. When a second bottle of the same wine is ordered, a smaller taster glass will be presented so you can taste a portion of the new bottle. However, if the sommelier has already tasted the wine for you this step is simply a formality and left to the guest’s discretion.
Wine glasses have stems for a reason. If the wine is served at the proper temperature it can become too warm too quickly if you hold the glass like a goblet, warming it with your palm. Plus, all the sticky and greasy fingerprints are not nice to look at. Always hold the glass by the stem and learn to gently swirl it around a few times (releasing the aromas) and everyone will think you are a seasoned pro.
Learning how to do anything well takes time and practice. Reading textbooks and analyzing wines may be exciting for a few, but dining out is a pleasure for all!
Originally published here in Eat magazine