Going out to eat, particularly at an upscale spot, is fraught with landmines of personal interactions with various restaurant staff in an atmosphere charged with one-upmanship and general social posturing. Nothing demonstrates this more than navigating the wine list with a sommelier.
For whatever reason, the subject of wine brings out people's insecurities in surprising ways; trying to stump the sommelier, showing off your wine savvy to your guests, asking for a glass of malbec without looking at the list, etc etc. Good sommeliers want you to have a wine that makes you happy. Good customers will work with the sommelier to that end. So here are five things that your sommelier really doesn't want you to do.
See also: Riedel: A Lesson in Silliness.
Don't use the word "smooth"
"Smooth" is one of those wishy-washy words that really has no meaning. Sommeliers can try to extrapolate what you're saying into a wine you might like, but to make the process more successful we need more info. Start with what you usually like to drink. A good somm will ask these questions. "What do you usually like to drink?" "What are you thinking about eating?" Answer them honestly, if you like to drink jammy fruit forward zinfandel, say so. If you are a fan of pinot noir tell your somm. Also take a moment to mention a wine or two on the list that you had your eye on, this will give your sommelier an inkling as to your price range. This discussion is not a contest, nor should it feel intimidating, if it does than you're in the presence of a crappy sommelier. Good somms want you to be happy with the wine in front of you so work with them to make that happen.
Don't sniff the cork.
Once you've selected a bottle and the sommelier has presented it and removed the cork; he or she places the cork in front of you for your inspection. This inspection does not involve sniffing it. Pick the cork up and give it a quick squeeze, it should be firm, supple, a little moist, not crumbly or dry. This process should take approximately three seconds. Sniffing it just lets your somm know that you are a neophyte who is trying to show off.
Don't make a show out of tasting the sample pour.
After you've inspected the cork, the sommelier will pour a small taste of the wine for you to further inspect. The reason we do this is to check the wine for obvious flaws, is it corked? Does it have volatile acidity (vinegary). In other words, is the wine sound? This is not the time to take five minutes to swirl the wine, check the legs, sniff it, slurp it or otherwise try to demonstrate your vast knowledge of wine. The approval process should last no more than ten seconds. Take a sniff, nothing wrong? Pour it, that's all. Don't overfill your glass.
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A perfect amount of wine in a reasonably nice wine glass is four ounces. Good sommeliers will pour that amount for you and your guests, and keep pouring that amount. Don't be an idiot and pour your nice Riedel Sommelier Series wine glass three-quarters full. You look dumb. Don't reject a wine because you simply don't "like" it.
If you've followed the first directive this should not be a problem. But half way through a bottle if you decide you don't like the wine, too bad. Buyer beware. If there were a problem you should have noticed it during the sample pour, that's why we do it. Otherwise, the wine is yours. Sommeliers will grudgingly take the wine back and try to make another selection for you, but really this is indicative of a failed process, so do your part to make that process succeed. Sommeliers love wine, and want you to love wine so engage them and give them the information they need to make your dinner an enjoyable experience.
When I'm not writing this column, or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can find me pouring wine at FnB