December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

All Corked Up

By |2018-03-21T18:19:34+01:00July 1st, 2005|Food & Wine Archive|
Breathe deeply through your nose: Can you smell the fruit?

ack when I worked in restaurants, I remember presenting a puzzled customer with the cork from the wine he just ordered. He looked at it like it was a stain on the table next to his plate before deciding to put the end of the cork in his mouth to taste it. “Delicious!” he announced proudly.

Then there was the gentleman who, when I presented the wine to the table, viciously snatched the bottle and corkscrew from my hands so he could open it himself. And I remember the woman who casually added a splash of Coca Cola to the sample wine I just poured her before she tasted it and told me it was fine.

My point is this: Wine service at a restaurant is a mystery to a lot of people.

Which is a shame, because I think that — unlike some of the folks I met during my days as a wine steward — a lot of people who aren’t quite sure how to behave during wine service often just decide to skip it all together. And when they do, their meal is reduced by the absence of what I think of as pure sophistication and romance in a glass.

I look at wine service like a ballet, and as the customer, your role in the dance has only four steps: swirl, gaze, sniff, and taste. Nothing else is important.

There’s really no need to pay more than passing attention to the cork when it’s placed on the table. The cork is given to you only so you can make sure that what’s being served is what was ordered (years ago, unscrupulous restaurant owners would sometimes fill labeled bottles with inferior wine, and so honest restaurants took to presenting the cork in order to show the wine-maker’s imprint on it, as proof of authenticity.)

The dance starts off in earnest when a small sample is poured in your glass. Pick the glass up by the stem — holding it by the bowl brings the wine closer to your body’s temperature, which is a little too warm — and swirl it in the glass to release the wine’s perfume. Look into the wine: Is it clear? Breathe deeply through your nose: Can you smell the fruit? And then taste it.

When you first taste the wine, you don’t do it to figure out whether you like it or not, but only to determine whether it’s flawed in some way.

The most common flaw, by the way, is caused by a bad cork, which creates a musty odor in the wine, something that reminds me of a wet, rotting newspaper. On the palate, the wine will taste flat and astringent, with a raspy finish. Other possible flaws could come from air entering the bottle because of a poor-fitting cork (the wine will have a vinegar taste as a result) or it could have been stored too long in overly hot temperatures (it will taste flat and recall overly candied fruits). If the wine is free of these problems — in my experience, I find only one or two bottles in 50 seriously flawed — then the dance moves onto intermission, at least until the next bottle.

There are variations on the theme. One of my favorites is (as far as I know) unique to Italy, where in some restaurants clean glasses are prepared for service at the tableside by pouring a small amount of wine into one glass and then tilted and twisted to bathe the sides of the glass before that wine is poured into the next glass for the same treatment. It amounts to a kind of “baptism” for the glass, and it illustrates a romantic Italian attitude toward wine that I absolutely adore.

The baptism of the glass doesn’t require any work on your part, but other variations can be more complicated. What if the wine they bring to the table is not the one you asked for? Or what if when you taste it, the wine indeed seems flawed? And what happens if there is no flaw in the wine but you just don’t like it?

Whole books could be written handling variations on restaurant wine service, but all you really need to remember is that you are the customer and you are almost always right. You are the one who must walk away pleased. Do you want a white wine with your steak? A dessert wine with your pasta? No problem: Let the dancing begin. Just don’t chew on the cork.

About the Author:

Eric J. Lyman's monthly "Pane al Vino" essay appeared from 2004 through 2006.