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.
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.
In some (usually high-end) places, 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. If a wine was completely oxidised, then you can 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.
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.
To sum up, the next time you will go to a restaurant and order a wine, try to follow this protocol:
- 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.
Image credits: Kenneth Cop