"Would you like to taste the wine, sir?"
A seemingly innocuous question that strikes fear into the hearts of so many. Those eight words can tear down even the most robust foundations of self-confidence. You’re on the spot. All eyes turn expectantly to you, and you’re thinking… “well I dunno, what am I supposed to say?”
I’ve been a so-called wine professional for a few years now, and I felt it the other day at a nice restaurant in Melbourne on my 10th Anniversary, when tasting a $200 bottle of white burgundy just popped. Add Scary French Waiter into the mix, and that’s some terrifying stuff.
What did I smell? I smelt nail polish. That says wine fault to me. “Smells like a bit of VA,” I replied meekly.
“You don’t like the wine?” he asked, jaw clenched.
“No, I love the wine, it’s just…”
“You want we try it?”
“Sure, that would be great…”
So he snatched the bottle and my glass and took it up to the counter. I didn’t look, but when he returned, he looked smug.
“There is nothing wrong with the wine, sir. It may not be to your taste, but it is good…”
And you know what? He was right. That acetone smell blew off in a few minutes, and I enjoyed one of the most beautiful Chardonnays I’ve ever tasted.
I’ve shared this little experience with you in empathy. I get the fear. But here’s my advice:
This is basically your chance to see if you like the wine. Nothing more, nothing less. So just swirl it around, have a smell, and if you like the smell, have a sip, and if you like the sip, then smile and nod and say thanks. They’ll take care of the rest.
Why are you swirling? It gets the wine aromas going, so you can smell more. If you want to look good doing this without spilling, leave the stem of the glass flat on the table, hold it between your fingers and move it in a circle. Never fails.
Why are you smelling? Same reason you smell food – it’s foreplay for your taste buds. If you’re confident with detecting faults in a wine, now’s the time as well, to save yourself an unpleasant mouthful.
Wet cardboard, wet dog, nail-polish, bandaids… these are all wine faults, but in small doses sometimes the wine might still be decent, so if you like the smell, then no problem. Don’t say “I think the wine is corked” unless if had a cork in it. Most are in screwcaps, you’ll look silly.
But take confidence in the fact that at least 1 in 12 corked wines are corked. More for older wines. I’ve had to send back 2 or 3 bottles on a couple of occasions, and it certainly doesn’t make for a pleasant exchange, but neither should you have to sit through a bottle of wine you don’t like!
If you think there’s something particularly unpleasant about the wine, just tell them you don’t really like the smell of it. You’re allowed. Sure, it’s confronting, and I’ll generally have a sip anyway, unless it smells dangerous, but it’s up to you.
Also if you don’t smell much, it might indicate a fault, but don’t worry about it, it might also just need some more time to open up, so just have a sip.
Sure, to get the most out of the wine, you should move it around your mouth a bit, get your tongue around it, and even suck in a bit of air while the wine’s in your mouth if you can manage it, it’ll help open up all the flavours.
But you can also just swallow it. The important thing here is just to see if you like it. Sometimes that first sip is a bit harsh, especially if you haven’t eaten anything. So don’t be afraid to take another sip.
Do you like it? Excellent. Not sure? Ask someone else at the table to try it, see if they like it.
And if you like it, well then that’s a job well done.
Just try to remember that you’re not actually the one being auditioned here, you’re just seeing if you like the wine. Faulty? Not faulty? That’s just the detail, and you can go there if you’re confident, or you can just keep it simple.
Most good restaurants are happy to try a wine for you as well, a good sommelier will tell you if he thinks the wine is faulty, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter in the end either, does it, if you don’t like the wine.
And that’s what you’re there for.
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