There has been a lot of chat on twitter about a food blogger who had a bad experience in a restaurant in Manchester. He began by ordering a bottle of Tondonia Blanco (a stunning, but distinctive white Rioja that I and most of my right-thinking friends adore), and then rejecting it because it wasn’t to his tastes. You can imagine the fall out.
But I think there is widespread confusion about the protocol of ordering a wine in a restaurant. The person who orders the wine gets to taste a small amount before it is poured. However, this assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the customer. It’s perhaps a bit unfair to assume that most guests know exactly what the ‘taste’ is for.
So let me explain. First, you order the wine. The sommelier fetches the wine, brings it to your table, and shows you the bottle so you can check what you have ordered. Then, one of two things happen. In most places, they will open it table side and pour a small amount for the person who ordered it. [I know wine can be sexist, but if a male orders the wine, that male will do the taste. If a female orders the wine and a male is given the taste, the sommelier has failed.]
In some places (and I like this procedure) the sommelier will open the wine at a station distant from the table and taste it first. Then, if it is faulty, they can discretely change the bottle. They will then bring the open bottle to the table and let whoever ordered the wine taste it, and there shouldn’t be a problem.
So, if you are given the wine to taste, what are you looking for? You are looking for an obvious wine fault, and usually this means cork taint. Theoretically, you could reject the wine if it was heavily bretty or reduced, but it would have to be pretty far gone for this to be appropriate. Mousiness? I would reject a wine for this, but it would take an accepting and skilled sommelier for this not to be a potential problem. If a wine was completely oxidised, then I’d also reject it, but for a very old wine this could be tricky.
What you are not doing is tasting the wine to see if it is just right for you tonight. The only acceptable reason to reject a wine is faultiness. Full stop.
The big issue here is what happens if you think the wine is cork tainted, but the sommelier disagrees. This should never happen: if you think it is cork tainted, the wine is cork tainted. Sommeliers: you can only lose if you start entering into a negotiation over cork taint or not. You have ruined your guests’ evening. Don’t do it.
This has only happened to me twice. Once I was in Sancerre and I got a bottle that was horridly corked. I mentioned this to the sommelier. He took the bottle away. Good, I thought. He’ll bring another. He didn’t: he brought a colleague and both began trying to tell me the wine was fine. Young French guys with challenged egos. Bring a replacement, I said, and we’ll taste them together. They brought a replacement under duress, but refused to try the two together. For the sake of a 30 € bottle of wine they were prepared to fight and alienate a customer, even though they were wrong.
The second time was in one of my favourite London restaurants. I ordered a wine I know. It was slightly corky. I sent it back. Member of staff tells me the wine is a bit reduced, that’s the style. I said, I know the wine, this is also a bit corky as well as being reduced. She wasn’t happy (she’d opened three that night and they all tasted the same), so I said bring another and if they are the same I will buy both. She says: wouldn’t you rather another wine, because you clearly don’t like this one. I stood my ground very politely. I didn’t at any point say, I know what I’m talking about. But that’s not the point: even if I was wrong and the wine was the wine, I’m a customer, and as a guest of a restaurant how can it ever benefit the restaurant to get into an endless negotiation about wine faults where the guest is left feeling stupid?
So I feel some clarity is needed on the restaurant ‘taste’. It is done routinely, and no one really knows the correct protocol, or the rules. This is an attempt to provide some clearer understanding.
- The person ordering tastes the wine
- In an ideal world the sommelier or server also tastes the wine, away from the table
- If the wine has a clear fault, it can be rejected
- Otherwise, the wine is then poured for the guests
- If the customer rejects the wine, then the wine is replaced. It is not the beginning of a negotiation: this cannot end well
What do you think? Have you had any good or bad experiences with the ‘taste’?
[Added later: on Twitter, someone has asked – I wonder how you feel about the case where the sommelier has recommended a specific wine based on the expressed preferences of the customer and has badly missed the mark? My response: That’s a very good point: I think in these cases you just have to run with it. Or the sommelier could say: do you like it? And if you say, not really, then if they offer to change it, that’s cool – it’s then their initiative.]
[Added later (2): Some wines are a bit weird. So If I was listing them, I’d discretely and sensitively make customers who were ordering them aware of this: do you realize this is actually a slightly unusual but wonderful wine?]