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To Taste or Not to Taste? That Is the Sommelier's Question

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 16, 2008 10:48am ET

In this year's annual Restaurant Awards issue, Wine Spectator conducted a poll via our website that netted some very interesting consumer feedback in regard to today's level and style of restaurant wine service.

While we still see occasional wine lists entered into our program that omit vintages, have spelling mistakes or use the antiquated "captain’s list" format, these are now in the distinct minority, whereas just 10 years ago they seemed to proliferate. In addition, the American sommelier's role in restaurants has grown rapidly in recent years. The role has been modernized by American sommeliers who, as a group, have dusted off the more formal profile of their European counterparts to provide for a more accessible, interactive wine/dining experience. Clearly the role of wine in restaurants is bigger than ever, and service has improved with this growth. Everything is copacetic. Or is it?

Despite these trends, quite a few of you seem unimpressed. Out of the 18,000-plus respondents to our poll, 59 percent said they considered wine service in restaurants either "poor" or just "fair" as opposed to "good" or "excellent." A recent thread on our own forums took such an aggressively anti-sommelier tack, I had to turn away. So much for coming a long way …

For me, the most eye-opening result of the poll was the 84 percent of respondents who said they did not want a sommelier to taste the wine they had ordered before serving it to them. The sommelier’s taste, to ensure that the bottle is sound before pouring it for the host, is one of the most basic, generally accepted aspects of wine service. At least, that’s what I thought. That's what the sommeliers think too, many of whom were as surprised as I was at the 84 percent figure.

“I am disturbed to hear the results of your poll,” said Tim Kopec, head sommelier at Veritas in New York, a Grand Award winner. "At Veritas, we taste everything we serve. It is necessary because our reputation is for serving some of the greatest wines in the world on a daily basis. We want people to experience the wine in the state that it should [be]."

"I would love to show you the amount of corked or oxidized wines I have in my office,” said Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group. “I think [tasting the customer’s bottle] is a service we offer to the guests. I would hate for someone to drink a bad bottle of wine. Many times we don’t get a credit or a replacement on the [flawed] wines, but I feel as an 'ambassador for wine,' we owe it to the consumer. It is not only our job but our responsibility."

Most of the sommeliers who I talked to, including Aaron Von Rock of Telepan, Aviram Turgeman of Nice Matin, Mark Mendoza of Sona and Eric Zillier of Alto (which was upgraded to a Grand Award this year) were in agreement that no bad bottle of wine should ever make it to a customer (and that's why they taste them beforehand).

However, there were some who, in a possible nod to a diner perhaps perceiving they are being ‘taken’ in some way, do not necessarily taste each bottle.

"We feel as though we shouldn't taste the wine unless we know the guest well or they invite us to do so," said Richard Betts, wine director at The Little Nell. "We do, however, smell everything to get some idea and help to avoid the customer getting a corked bottle."

The miscommunication between diner and sommelier on this issue likely stems from the fact that American wine culture, for all its rapid advances over the past generation, is still very young. Despite the speed at which wine reviews of new releases move over the Internet or newly vinified vintages are either panned or lauded, the depth of consumer knowledge still has a ways to go.

In contrast to the tasting experience of most consumers, sommeliers at top restaurants typically taste thousands of wines a year and, in turn, use that knowledge to help not only ward off bad bottles before they get to the table (where the diner might recognize them as flawed or not), but also steer customers to what is in a peak period of drinking.

But it might be that this spread of knowledge between diner and sommelier, combined with wine pricing in restaurants (which has always been a thorny issue between consumers and restaurateurs) is what leads to a diner's misperception of a sommelier’s intention. Therefore it probably shouldn’t be too surprising then that many customers bristle when they see someone tasting their wine at a nearby server’s station (or worse, feel like they’re being taken for a ride when someone opens or decants their bottle out of view altogether). Perhaps the sommeliers should realize that more often than not, the customer knows full well that the $150 bottle they have just ordered can be found for much less via retail (and that perhaps the customer even owns the bottle at that price in their cellar at home).

Peter Kasperski, owner and wine director of Arizona-based Spaghetti Western Productions, which has seven Best of Award of Excellence winners in our program, including Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz World Wine Bar, was in the minority of those I spoke too: His restaurants have no official sommelier on duty despite the encyclopedic wine lists his restaurants provide—over 3,000 selections, many with paragraph-long descriptions.

"Our policy is no official sommelier on the floor, servers do their own sales and service. But there is always someone at a more expert level on property to provide assistance as needed," said Kasperski. "We would never taste a guest's wine unless the guest requested us to. Restaurant meals have evolved, restaurant service has evolved, and it’s about time wine service evolves, too."

That evolution needs to come from both parties, however—the sommeliers and the diners. If the relationship between the two can become more symbiotic, the dining experience only becomes better.

"At the end of the day we are here to serve and to make people happy," said Zillier. "So if someone objects to the practice [of tasting the bottle wine before serving the diner] ... let their objection be known beforehand [and] we will not taste the wine."

Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  July 16, 2008 5:13pm ET
James: I must ask, if the Somm is there to taste the bottle for you, why bother with the customary act of pouring a little in a glass for you to taste first?

you would only add tension if the customer does not agree with the somm at all.

I believe your fellow taster, mr. suckling even came across a situation where a sommelier disagreed with him over whether or not a bottle was bad.

The only situation where I feel the somm is in the right is where I order a bottle I have no idea about and it tastes funny to me (like the first time I tasted a wine with heavy brett). A well informed sommelier said it was fine and told me it just needed decanting to blow off. He brought out the decanter and he was indeed right.
Serge Laporte
Canada —  July 16, 2008 5:22pm ET
I absolutely agree with this very European and gentlemanly way of serving wine in a public restaurant, I guess Americans feel they are gypped of a sip..come on, guys, grow up :)
Bill Robinson
Calgary —  July 16, 2008 5:33pm ET
James,I have had experiences were I thought maybe the bottle was off, but it was clearly not "Corked", and I am reluctant to speak up(unless it was recommended to me by the Sommelier). Those are the cases were having a Sommelier who in all likelihood has tasted a different bottle of the wine I ordered that very night, would save me from suffering in silence. I say taste the wine.
Gary Fritzhand
Houston, Texas —  July 16, 2008 5:43pm ET
The real problem is that restaurant wine prices at 2 1/2 to 3 times retail prices often create an adversarial environment between sommeliers and customers.
James Molesworth
July 16, 2008 5:53pm ET
Jeffrey: I agree that if the sommelier tastes the wine to make sure the bottle is sound, the act of then pouring a taste for the host seems a bit redundant, but that is the tradition.

Since Americans tend to pride themselves on modernizing traditions however, this could be the place where a short conversation takes place - sommelier asking if the customers wants the sommelier to check the bottle or not.

In cases where the sommelier and customer might disagree on the condition of a bottle, there is still only one rule for that IMO - the customer is always right.

Bill - you should always speak up...! In wine, as in life, there are no dumb questions...
Matthew Weiler
Los Angeles, CA —  July 16, 2008 6:28pm ET
Sounds like a thinly-veiled attempt to educate the sommelier on the customer's dime (doubtful that staff get to taste some of the rarer and more expensive bottles on a wine list). Also, it's a bit condescending to assume a customer would not know an oxidized or otherwise flawed bottle. I often invite the sommelier to taste, especially when I have brought in bottles; it is a friendly gesture, not a quality-control mechanism.
James Molesworth
July 16, 2008 8:00pm ET
Matthew: I'm surprised you find it condescending to think that diners might missed a corked or off bottle. I've seen winemakers miss their own wine being corked...

Isn't it better for the restaurant to be over vigilant, and have the sommelier check the bottle, rather than take the risk of a diner drinking half a bottle of slightly corked or flawed wine and walking away from the table disappointed at the end of the night?
Daniel Backal
Mex City —  July 17, 2008 12:22am ET
That is all of course assuming that the somm is well educated and honest. I think you first have to establish trust with the somm, and in my experience that is not always the case. So if I don't even agree with his recommendations and the wine list is nothing spectacular, why would I want him tasting the wine?
Chum Lee
Mendocino, CA —  July 17, 2008 12:38am ET
I don't see any problem at all with asking the customer if they want the restaurant to taste the wine, before anything else happens - it's a great idea. That makes a lot of sense to me. You make everybody happy, unless somehow one is offended by the question, and if that's the case, they'll probably need something a lot stronger than wine to make them happy.
Mark Antonio
Tokyo —  July 17, 2008 1:26am ET
James, I think the problem here is in inconsistency, and as an extension, that many restaurants employ people as Sommeliers for cosmetic purposes and nothing more. Sommeliers are extremely important in the right time and setting, but they are not and should not be seen as a status symbol to somehow signify that a restaurant is serious about wine. It's often just pretentious. I agree with your statement that the customer is (within reason) always right and would add that I think that the customer is always different. Sommeliers should ask the customer what they want and respond accordingly to the individual. They are there to add value, not to impose. If I think that a wine is suspect I will always ask the Sommelier to taste. Where is the problem with that? I also agree that it is condescending for the establishment to assume that the customer will not be able to detect if a wine is defective. How many times do you visit a restaurant where the Sommelier is some young trainee or amateur wine buff who has never actually tasted the wine before? How many times have you actually had a bottle changed by the Sommelier? It hardly ever happens.
July 17, 2008 3:23am ET
i am sorry that most people have not had good experiences with sommeliers. i hope the wine community rises above this.
Robert Johnston
Washington DC —  July 17, 2008 8:24am ET
Maybe I've been lucky, but I've generally had very good experiences with sommeliers. But then I go into a restaurant that has a sommelier with the expectation that I will be treated properly, that the sommelier is there to make sure that I have an enjoyable wine experience, and that they will be professionals. I find that if you set you expectations high, they will usually try to live up to them. On the other hand, if you go in with the attitude that you know more about wine than they do, and that they are just trying to rip you off, you will probably be treated in the manner you deserve.As to sommeliers tasting the wine, I'm not upset as long as I have been presented the bottle for inspection before it is opened. On a couple of occasions the sommelier has tasted the wine and wisked it away and replaced it with another bottle because he said it was "off." The only time I've ever had a server argue with me when I said that I felt that the wine was corked, the sommelier came by and tasted the wine and immediately agreed with me.
Mike Holland
July 17, 2008 8:43am ET
I agree with Daniel from Mex City, there has to be a level of trust between the diner and somm. I would have no trouble allowing Betts or Parr taste beforehand, and trust their subsequent recommendation; they have an established history. Maybe your restaurant awards should include somm grades.
Jimmy Hwang
Atlanta , GA —  July 17, 2008 11:01am ET
It is so disheartening to hear that diners in America do not trust somms. I wonder how many "somms" there are which do not hold acreditdation from CMS, or another organization? How many were just handed the title and position by the restaurant? I dined at Bern's recently. The somm came to the table once to taste a bottle I thought was tired. He agreed, the bottle was replaced, and dinner moved right along. The service was seamless and spot-on. Somm grades sound like a good idea. Great lists should be supported by great somms. -Marshall Parker
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  July 17, 2008 11:16am ET
If I have ordered an expensive wine off the menu, say a Montrachet, and think that it tastes fine, I feel no obligation to share that wine with the sommelier. If I feel there is problem with the wine, I would gladly ask the somm to try it. To much of the exchange between the customer and the sommelier is based on personal taste. I have had somm(s) recommend wines that clashed horribly with the meal. I don't care if it's rated a 96, is doesn't go with the steak! Too often, the tannins in the recommended wine are harder to chew than the meat, and the oak splinters are pungent to the taste buds. But that is the wine experience the somm personally enjoys and will recommend. To them saying a wine is over-oaked is as oxy-moronic as telling an "over the top" chilli lover that some dish is to hot. Personal taste gets in the way of sound judgement.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  July 17, 2008 11:56am ET
I usu don't accept a taste unless offered later in the dinner a 2nd time. I do however try to get a whiff of the wine as I open & decant wines and have spoken up when I detect a flaw. And as to the markup of restaurant wine, have any of you ever done the math on a martini vs cost of a btl of absolute or a salad vs the cost of beefsteak tomatoes? I am disheartened by the mistrust of sommeliers and can only tell you that I try my best to ensure the guests enjoy their experience-wine included.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  July 17, 2008 12:58pm ET
I also agree w/ M.Antonio's above comments:"... extremely important in the right time and setting...They are there to add value, not to impose." We are not the type of place where every guest wants or needs my service. I usu aproach a tbl when asked by the server or if it is obvious the guest needs a guide. Certifications aside, I think listening & reading the guest is a most important aspect. Some want me to pick the wine, others want me to confirm their choice & others just want me to listen to their wine stories and to tell me about their cellars (which I love & feel IS a part of my job).
Charles Marlin
New Market, Alabama —  July 17, 2008 1:41pm ET
First, I compliment Wine Spectator for hosting such an exchange. I feel more educated now about wine and the protocol of wine in restaurants.I have not seen a sommelier taste a wine without being asked, but I have interacted with only a few sommeliers at all. In general, the experience has been helpful. At Mario's in Nashville, the sommelier steered me toward a luscious Amarone and even explained the Botrytis fungus. Once at Bayona in New Orleans the sommelier helped me avoid an unfortunate choice and taught me that Cabernet Sauvignon and salmon clash. I had experienced the clash before but did not recognize its origin. Another sommelier at Bayona served us a Cote Rotie that I now consider way to young to enjoy, but at the time I just struggled through the tannin. Could be an example of what Sandy says about the sommelier's personal taste trumping his ability to intuit what the customer likes. Rather a difficult task, helping a client pick a wine that the client will like. I like JM's suggestion that Americans initiate a practice of having a discussion with the sommelier. Each can learn. It also gives the customer a chance to size up the sommelier and judge how good his advice may be. As far as the tasting goes, I do not begrudge the sommelier (or the server) his sip; in fact, I encourage it: the novice tastes another wine, the talented one offers an observation that expands my appreciation.
Kyle Whitney
Vienna, VA —  July 17, 2008 1:48pm ET
This column is a good example of the problem with Somelliers today. The pole finds 84% of the respondents don't want their wine tasted. What do we get, an acknowlegment that the people have spoken or an argument defending the practice? Marking up the product 300 to 400 percent and then taking of 5% off the top is a bit much.
Matthew Weiler
Los Angeles, CA —  July 17, 2008 3:13pm ET
Well, if it was apparent to the customer the wine was flawed after drinking half the bottle, it should be apparent when the customer samples it. Having the sommelier taste the wine perhaps saves the customer the anxiety of having to explain that he believes the wine is flawed, and I understand that even restaurants renown for wine can't assume that all customers have a palate trained to detect flaws, but I still find it patronising. I suspect that others who took the survey feel the same way (those who frequent WS online do not tend to be casual wine drinkers).
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  July 17, 2008 5:42pm ET
I too have had good luck with sommeliers and enjoy conversations with them to find hidden gems on the wine list. In fact, I am a big fan of most sommeliers and find that they add a great deal to the dining experience. I think that the disconnect comes when sommeliers are too rushed to build rapport with the customer. A simple question asking for permission to taste, with a brief explanation as to why s/he is tasting should suffice.

One suggestion for future surveys would be to try to pair the "class" of restaurant with the ratings. I am willing to wager that Michael Mina offers a great wine experience for its customers, but I have also been to restaurants with wine on the menu and an untrained wine director or wait staff that made it difficult at best to enjoy the wine. I think your respondents would be glad to indicate the differences.
John Wise
milwaukee, wi —  July 17, 2008 5:43pm ET
I think it is fine for somm to smell wine, and IF guest offers, taste.You don't see the waiter tasting your steak to make sure the chef did it right do you? There are probably just as many badly cooked meals as corked wine.IF the diner doesn't like it, that is all that matters.
Matthew Habdas
connecticut —  July 17, 2008 5:49pm ET
Obviosly most the people in this blog and on this web site can detect a corked bottle, but in general I would be suprised if 1 out of 10 casual wine drinkers was able to determine if a bottle was lightly corked. I am a sommelier (I havn't reached a master level yet) but when I serve a bottle (especially when I reconmmended it) I am genuinely conserned about the experience held inside the bottle. A true sommelier would never make a recommendation on his own tastes, instead they would try to determine what the taste of the person purchasing the wine is and how you could match their taste to correspond with what they are eating.Yes a somm should ask before tasting a wine, also a bottle should never be opened or decanted away from the guest. And don't be insulted if you do get asked if you want your wine tasted because most people are clueless about wine (even though they like to pretend they do.) I've been asked if I have any nice mover d's on the list or if I could recommend a nice chablys or Mount-ratchet. Not to mention that you may know about wine but I doubt you know every bottle on a wine list, usually no one knows a wine list better than the person who built it and maintains it, I don't care if your James Molesworth coming into my restaurant or Rajat Parr. Don't assume a somm is trying to screw or belittle you from the second you walk through the door. Most of us want you to have a great wine experience so you come back and bring all your wine geek friends with you!
Brian Johnson
Rochester, NY —  July 17, 2008 6:46pm ET
I don't understand the controversey here...go to restaraunt, order wine, taste wine...if you have a question / comment / concern...ask for second opinion. Easy as 1,2,3.
Andrew Stover
Washington, DC —  July 18, 2008 3:43am ET
As a practice, I normally do not sample the wine unless the customer asks. I would like to comment on the whole restaurant mark-up issue. Restaurants are for-profit businesses not non-profits. There are countless examples where the mark-up of an item way exceeds 2-3x what it might have cost the producer to make or retailer to purchase. Take for example, clothing. A shirt may cost $2 to produce yet the customer pays $75 retail. Most customers won't think twice about buying overpriced clothing yet gripe about wine mark-ups. After all is said and done, many restaurants are lucky to make 5-10% profit after expenses, rent, salaries, etc. In most major metropolitan areas, the price of rent alone is astronomical. The problem is that wine pricing is so transparent with so many more venues to purchase wine via retail and with the internet. I have even had guests pricing out wines on their i-phone in the dining room. To compensate, I go to great lengths to find boutique, small production wines that guests cannot pick up at the corner liquor store or their favorite wine shop. I am constantly traveling to small wineries to find new wines. I think that Soms/Wine Directors need to be sensitive to this issue and not serve items that customers see all over town in retail and grocery stores. Dining out is a chance to experience something new--find a new favorite wine and that is what I strive to do.
Andrew Stover
Washington, DC —  July 18, 2008 3:43am ET
As a practice, I normally do not sample the wine unless the customer asks. I would like to comment on the whole restaurant mark-up issue. Restaurants are for-profit businesses not non-profits. There are countless examples where the mark-up of an item way exceeds 2-3x what it might have cost the producer to make or retailer to purchase. Take for example, clothing. A shirt may cost $2 to produce yet the customer pays $75 retail. Most customers won't think twice about buying overpriced clothing yet gripe about wine mark-ups. After all is said and done, many restaurants are lucky to make 5-10% profit after expenses, rent, salaries, etc. In most major metropolitan areas, the price of rent alone is astronomical. The problem is that wine pricing is so transparent with so many more venues to purchase wine via retail and with the internet. I have even had guests pricing out wines on their i-phone in the dining room. To compensate, I go to great lengths to find boutique, small production wines that guests cannot pick up at the corner liquor store or their favorite wine shop. I am constantly traveling to small wineries to find new wines. I think that Soms/Wine Directors need to be sensitive to this issue and not serve items that customers see all over town in retail and grocery stores. Dining out is a chance to experience something new--find a new favorite wine and that is what I strive to do.
Matthew Lo
Zurich, Switzerland —  July 18, 2008 5:43am ET
I drink a lot of wine myself. I often order wine that I have in my cellar just to check if it is ready so that I could open the case. Sometimes, I venture out to order wine that I do not have. In both occasions, I would like the sommelier to taste the wine first then we could share experience. In Europe, sommeliers are normally very formal. You need to ask and make a conversation. One can always learn something. When I could not find something I know, I would ask for advise but I would tell the sommelier what I like first so that he could size up my requirements. I also believe it is the job of the sommelier to ensure nothing is wrong with the wine. That is part of the service.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  July 18, 2008 10:21am ET
James,Two things come to mind when I think of this topic. First, I think ¿how dare you indulge in a sip of my over priced bottle of wine you elitist pig¿ is one of many battle cries that attempt to kick wine and sommeliers down a peg in a society that has no tolerance for anything that smells elitist. It¿s a funny and awkward position that many American wine drinkers find themselves in. For years, drinking wine was for snobs. The common man drank beer. Beer was safe. You didn¿t need to justify it. But now that wine is much more mainstream than it was 20 years ago, wine and wine service comes under scrutiny for the old fears of elitism have not completely died off. I hear people complain constantly about sommeliers and their bad attitudes. I personally do not find myself disappointed as others consistently seem to be. I¿ve found most sommeliers (and those who slept at a Holiday Inn the night before) generally enjoy the dialog and are happy to serve a guest engaged in the experience as long as they don¿t exhibit any hostility. If the wine expert on hand can offer me some service by keeping tainted wine from my glass, I say its fine with me. I trust the chef tasted the food to ensure it was seasoned properly right?The second thing that comes to mind is that there is a large discrepancy between those sommeliers that you interviewed for this topic and those that pose as sommeliers at restaurants of lesser caliber. Most people don¿t eat at Michael Mina¿s restaurant on any given Saturday night¿.especially in this false economy. So they find themselves at places with good food (I hope) but perhaps not the 4 star experience of some of those mentioned. I think you would agree that the wine service and expertise is different in those restaurants. Its not to say that its poor, but certainly not as polished and much less informed. If wine service with it rituals lives up to the intended purpose, its perfectly in order. Dan J
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  July 18, 2008 11:15am ET
what i love in the world of wine is that its a single "religion" were people from all over the world agree or disagree, talk with pasion, and a lot of drama take place. It is wonderfull to see how people who really love wine are educated and well manered. I believe it because as soon as we are epicurian, life lover persons we tend to share what we like. It is indeed a "tradition" in european restaurants that the sommelier taste the wine, for educational and for service reasons. Indeed, you dont want the sommelier to try your wine but you want him to know absolutly each and any bottle of wine. I agree that the consumer doesnt have to pay for education but it is for better service purpose. On the other hand, i believe its a very rude tradition. I have never tried a bottle for a client unless he invited me to. Surprisingly, 99% of the guest i have met in my career invited me a sip of the wine their having, specially if the wine is a amazing stuff.I would not dare to pour myself a sip, glass, hint of anything that is for a guest of mine.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  July 18, 2008 11:22am ET
Re: Andrew

A shirt may cost $2 to produce yet the customer pays $75 retail. Most customers won't think twice about buying overpriced clothing

That's the wrong assumption. A bottle of wine also costs 2$ to produce. When someone buys a tshirt for 75$, chances are for that same exact brand, they probably couldn't get it for much cheaper.

Using your example, it's like going on vacation and seeing a shirt for 300$ and knowing that back home the same exact shirt can be had for 75$. Would you pass? Most likely.
David Tayor
west palm beach —  July 18, 2008 8:25pm ET
I wonder how many of the 84% have asked to taste a wine by the glass only to reject it and ask for a taste of something else. It's a service, and 99% of the wine drinkers out there would suffer through a bad bottle rather than risk looking foolish to the somm. Consumers need to realize that we are trying to help them, not get free tastes of their $60.00 merlot
David Tayor
west palm beach —  July 18, 2008 9:33pm ET
I think that the lack of proper wine service across the board is what is causing this issue. I rarely taste a bottle that the guest has ordered with out my help. I will smell the bottle and make sure that it isn't off. I will always taste a bottle that I recommend. I do this because I need to make sure that I haven't mixed up a wine with another and got my notes confused and end of serving the wrong type of wine. In an earlier post, someone mentioned training from the Court of Master Sommeliers certification, i think that means very little in terms of customer relations and selling wine. While I think its great that you can blind taste wine, I prefer my somms to be able to deal with people on all levels and I find that Master Sommeliers and those at the advanced level have a very hard time doing that. Also, how is it you can fail something up to four times and then finally pass and call yourself a master!
Mark Antonio
Tokyo —  July 18, 2008 10:08pm ET
David, be that as it may, you need to understand that not all consumers need your help all the time. Ask first.
Jim Callen
July 18, 2008 11:43pm ET

Have you ever taken any of the Court's examinations? Have you ever talked with a Master Som about wine? A significant portion of the examination is dedicated to service and guest interaction; essentially being able to converse and discuss wine, beer and spirits in incredible detail.

The ladies and gentlemen who have passed what is an incredibly rigorous and broadly-scoped exam are the true professionals of our industry, and do not deserve such uninformed bashing on a public forum. Every Master and Advanced-level Som I know is both a bastion of knowledge and incredibly eloquent when talking about wine, else they wouldn't carry said title.
Jeff Johnson
Costa Mesa Ca, —  July 19, 2008 1:05am ET
This reminds me of a story. Robert Mondavi was in a restaurant in Napa and ordered a bottle of wine. This restaurant opens wines at the bar to expidite service. The manager brought the wine to the table and was about to pour the wine when Mr. Mondavi spoke up and said " How do I know this is the wine that I ordered" the manager responded "How do we know if this is the wine we purchased" Exactly. True Story
Brian Johnson
Rochester, NY —  July 19, 2008 3:34pm ET
"I've been asked if I have any nice mover d's on the list or if I could recommend a nice chablys or Mount-ratchet."Wow. Matthew, where in CT do you work? If you are selling "chablys" and "Mount-ratchet" you must be doing an amazing job!
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  July 19, 2008 6:30pm ET
I have had some great experiences, and I have been subject to some "less than positive" experiences as well. I personally want the Sommelier to taste whatever I am drinking, if for no other reason than to share the experience with one more person. Wine is meant to be shared, enjoyed, and add to our life. A sommelier is there to guide us in selecting something that will compliment our meal, and hopefully open our eyes to something new. The more they taste, the more they learn, and the better they will be able to serve as the years pass. I think it is a shame that more Sommeliers don't have the same reputation that Rajat has. I have heard from several people that have had great experiences with him (both in the industry and out of the industry) I have yet to hear a story that would call his integrity into question. It seems to me that the leadership of Michael Mina seems to support his decisions to place the quality of wine first¿maybe more restaurant owners need to adopt this way of thinking before we will see a change.
James Molesworth
July 20, 2008 8:20am ET
Guys: This blog is not for sniping....
Eric P Perramond
Colorado Springs, CO —  July 20, 2008 7:04pm ET
I would say that any good sommelier can detect 90% of any potential flaws by smelling out of a glass. And I would have no issue with it - especially when you're paying the mark-up in a restaurant that actually has a sommelier.If it's an expensive bottle (anything over $200?) then the bottle listing should warn customers that the sommelier may ask you to pre-taste to ensure customer satisfaction. That would do it for me. epp
James Molesworth
July 21, 2008 1:42pm ET
There have been lots of good response on this topic, many of which were lengthy, but well thought out.

And that's to be expected, as wine specializes in eliciting a lot of passion from consumers and professionals alike. I think there are a couple of things to keep in mind...

Professionals - sommeliers, critics, winemakers - are not that much different from consumers. Both groups are linked by their love of wine, which carries with it a love of knowledge. Yes, some people have more knowledge than others. But each and everyone one of us needs to keep in mind that there is always something else to learn. And that's whether it's an esoteric grape type or new wine producer, or what our preferences are when it comes to service, selection, glassware, etc.

It all boils down to communication. One shouldn't feel so unsure of themselves when it comes to wine that they are too shy to ask a question. And conversely one should never feel so sure of themselves that they feel they are above offering an explanation. No one here was born knowing everything they know...

There are many instances where I've dined in restaurants, and a wine server or sommelier has offered me a simple nugget of information on a wine I've reviewed, not realizing what I do for a living. There were other times where I've debated over a wine being corky. I still get asked about Yellowtail from time to time. And so on.

I've taken no offense at any of these situations. There's nothing to bristle about. I simply approach each situation as a learning experience, each conversation as an opportunity to pass along some knowledge while receiving some in return.

If you're a consumer who thinks the sommelier is out to get you, or if you're a sommelier who's throwing your hands in the air because your customers don't drink what you want them to drink, you're in the wrong neighborhood. It's wine. It's supposed to be a good time. And to that end, a little conversation is the best start...
John Lahart
New York —  July 22, 2008 9:36am ET
The wine server or sommelier should smell the wine which is all that is required to ascertain whether or not the wine is corked or spoiled.Then a taste should be offered to the person who ordered the wine for their approval (or rejection).If the server tastes the wine before the customer then they are placing that customer in an awkward position should the customer decide the wine is unacceptable. The implication being, "an expert has tasted the wine and approved it beyond basic drinkability." I would love to know exactly what a sommelier is "looking for" when tasting a wine. In other words, what exactly is the reason a sommelier should taste a wine prior to serving?
James Molesworth
July 22, 2008 9:44am ET
John: Traditionally the sommelier tasted the wine before the diner to ensure it was in good condition. I agree on the surface that it then makes the final approval by the customer seem like a redundant exercise...but not all traditions make perfect sense.

Today sommeliers also use the taste to see where the wine is in its evolution. Some people here have felt that they should not be helping the sommelier further their personal wine education at their expense. I feel this is a bit short-sighted - expanding someone's knowledge is a benefit to all, as subsequent diners can then benefit from the information the sommelier has in regards to wines that perhaps are more closed down than others, etc.

Education is a two way street - both the diner and sommelier need to share in this exchange for mutual benefit, as well as the benefit of others. Besides, the sip that we're talking about is nominal at best, in terms of the overall quantity of the wine.

After all, isn't the best bottle of wine the one that is shared?
David Tayor
west palm beach —  July 22, 2008 6:51pm ET
a response to two comments posted in reply to mine. First to Mark from Tokyo, all my somms ask if a guest looking at the wine list could use our assistance, but look at my comments again, we only taste wines that we suggest. Secondly to respond to Jim Callen comments about Master Somms, I do agree that they are very knowledgable and passionate, my point is that doesn't translate to the average customer. Having tasted with several MS at professional functions, there is a disconnect, in my opinion with someone at the level relating to the basic dinner guest. Their knowledge and passion for the subject of wine is with out reproach. They are amazingly smart, and probably could of achieve similar accrediation in any number of fields outside of wine. But, I did notice in your staunch defense of the program, that you didn't address my comments about the mulitple failures and then getting to wear that pin. Do you think that if you finally pass after your 4th attempt, you should be able to stand next to someone who passed on the first attempt, let along a Krug Cup winner, and consider yourselves collegues? My point is that the court seems more concerned with the process than the results. If they weren't why wouldn't there be dozens and dozens of classes geared toward the continuing education of potential canidates, the certified exam is only 1 day!! How much can you learn about the sublties of service and dealing with people in that one day?
Matthew Habdas
connecticut —  July 26, 2008 11:45am ET
Brian I worked at Mortons Steakhouse, I've moved around since. Sound like your not doing too bad at your place, you a somm. as well?
Bernard Sun
New York, NY, USA —  August 1, 2008 2:13pm ET
David,I'm not sure I really understand what your point is about the MS program. First you praise them then you diss them by saying you can become one even if when you pass on the 4th try.I don't think you are aware how long and hard this process is. First you need to pass the Advanced which is no easy task in itself. To pass at the Master's Level you need to pass all sections within a 3 year period whereas if you fail any of the sections more than twice you are required to retake and repass all the other sections again which is not always a given.To reach the pinnacle of any profession, many a times it's about the journal as much as it is about the results. Sure there are a handful of folks who can breeze through these tests to become an MS but for most folks in the program it a hard fought, hard earned process. Just because someone stumbles along the way doesn't make them any less worthy, if anything else it would give them more of an appreciation especially when they do arrive at the top.

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