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Is Wine Tasting at Restaurants Losing Its Flavor?

The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov chats with Brendan about a restaurant that's changing how we drink wine.

Photo Credit: / Michael Blann

You know when you’re at a restaurant, and you order a bottle of wine, and the waiter shows up with it and offers you a sip first? That tradition might be going out of style. The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov recently wrote about a Manhattan restaurant called Italienne that serves wine in a totally different way.

Brendan wanted to learn more about how the ritual started and its intended purpose. So, he lured Eric to the DPD New York studio by promising they could drink Beaujolais while they talked about this. Eric also shared a few pointers for sending back a wine that doesn’t please your palate.

Interview highlights:

What was the original purpose for the wine taste testing ritual at restaurants?

Eric Asimov: This ritual of taking the taste is meant to see if the wine is flawed in any way, if it’s marred by cork taint, which is maybe the most common kind of flaw.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, is it fair to say the initial ritual was to make sure the bottle is not flawed, but has expanded to be, “Do you like the wine?” And if you don’t like it, a restaurant may take it back and say, “We don’t want you to be drinking an entire, like, four glasses of something you’re not into.”

Eric Asimov: Exactly. And it’s not as if the restaurant is going to lose money on the deal. There are all kinds of things they could do. They could serve that bottle by the glass at the bar… Make a lot of money because they always price the by-the-glass wine above the by-the-bottle wine. Or they could use it to educate their staff, which is always useful. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a win-win situation.

How do you tell if a wine is flawed?

The bottle of Beaujolais Brendan and Eric drank during the interview. Brendan then set down that bottle of wine in the staff kitchen... and when he got back 20 minutes later, it was empty.
The bottle of Beaujolais Brendan and Eric drank during the interview. Brendan then set down that bottle of wine in the staff kitchen… and when he got back 20 minutes later, it was empty.

Eric Asimov: Well, the first thing you would do is take a sniff. Often, you don’t even have to taste it. So I can take a sniff, and anybody who has enjoyed a Beaujolais can probably sniff this and say, “You know, that smells like a good Beaujolais, so it’s OK.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. And then you’re going to sip.

Eric Asimov: Then, I would take a sip if I wanted to be — I don’t say this as pretentious, but some people might — I do the little swirl and the sniff and then swirl it around the mouth to get the full effect of the flavors. And I would say, “That’s good.”

Why is the New York restaurant Italienne is getting rid of this tradition?

Eric Asimov: The sommelier, Erica O’Neil, has noticed in past jobs that this moment of tasting for the consumer is always a little bit fraught with anxiety. The spotlight is on you. If you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do there, it can feel really awkward.

She has seen how it makes people anxious and wondered if we really need to put people through that. So, her solution was to completely omit this tasting moment and just pour the wine after she had checked whether it was flawed or not.

What she’s saying is that the whole ritual of serving wine has been done in the same way for a very long time and maybe it’s time for us to rethink it, to ask questions about it. And she’s absolutely right. If the result is to cause anxiety for consumers, what can we do to alleviate that?

What is the best way to send back a bottle of wine for people who maybe aren’t wine snobs?

Eric Asimov: Well, you know something, that’s one of those unpleasant moments in the ritual, when you have some guy, it’s always a guy, who wants to show off how much he knows and sends back the wine just to demonstrate he can do it.

First of all, when you have a flawed bottle, there’s no question it’s got to go back. If you’re not sure but you’re wondering whether it is, ask the sommelier to take a taste.

If it’s just something you don’t like, it depends on whether the restaurant recommended that bottle of wine to you. I often tell people the best way to order wine is to ask for help. Tell them your budget and be honest about it.

There’s nobody better equipped than the sommelier to recommend a bottle to go with the food you’re ordering. And they know how everything tastes, so they have a good idea and they want you to be happy. If you’ve asked for a recommendation and it’s really not something that is up your alley, say something and most restaurants will be happy to take it back.