In recent months friends have asked me for help in negotiating restaurant wine lists, usually in anticipation of an important work event or a special birthday celebration. I’ve done my best to steer them this way and that and so far, knock wood, things have gone well on the day in question.
A few days ago I was stopped cold, out of the blue, with this thought: what if the wine is bad? Most of the folks I’ve been advising have never heard terms like brettanomyces or TCA, oxidized or volatile acidity. They’ve most likely heard of wines being corked, without actually knowing what that means, but that’s probably the depth of their wine flaw knowledge. So, if they head off to the restaurant, confidently armed with the choices I’ve helped them make, and are confronted with a bottle that just cannot find its way past their nose or lips, what are they going to do? What happens if they complain and the wine steward or manager pushes back, and my friends are intimidated by whatever pseudo wine baloney the sales-eager staff is pushing? What are they supposed to do when their inexperienced palate is up against the alleged professionals? And all of this in front of friends, family, or worse, work colleagues?
First things first. When the waiter or sommelier pours an ounce or two into your glass, it’s your job to assess it. Simply going through the motions is foolish and risky. To start, look at it. Hold it against the tablecloth or up to the light. Is it clear, or does it have a haze to it? Are there foreign bodies floating about? Way too many tiny bubbles for what is supposed to be a still wine? What about a young white that is way too golden dark, or a young red wine that has way too much orange around the rim? These phenomena are what you’re looking for when you begin to assess your wine. Most diners, especially those who know what they don’t know when it comes to wine, order wines that are on the younger side. These wines should be clear, if not bright or even brilliant. They should not be hazy or have bubbles or solid objects floating in them. (The one exception to this might be a white wine that, due to temperature changes during fermentation, might have tiny crystals of tartaric acid in them. These crystals are harmless and tasteless and the diner should not be alarmed or put off by them.) If the wine looks off due to the appearance of any of the above conditions, the person ordering the wine should point them out to the waiter.
Second, the person assessing the wine needs to stick their nose into the glass, both before and after swirling, and take some serious whiffs. (If you’re worried about sloshing the wine all over the place due to poor swirling skills, get a decent wine glass and practice at home. You’ll be a pro when you’re put to the test in public. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUKkjGUBJzo
A correct wine might have no aroma to start, or, if an aroma is present, it should be something that is commonly associated with good wine: flowers, fruit, grass, stones, damp earth, coffee, chocolate, and so on. Some wines cannot clear this simple threshold. Instead of the pleasant odors above, the wine smells like something out of a barn, or Grandma’s basement after the yearly flood. Some wines might smell like urine or damp animal hair. There are wines that give off whiffs of Band-Aids, nail polish, automobile oil, or gasoline. While most wine drinkers consider these last smells to be off-putting, if not completely revolting, there are people in the wine game who like a bit of barnyard funk, or who might not be able to pick up that damp and moldy smell when sniffing a wine. Unfortunately, sometimes these same folks are waiters or sommeliers, and they are likely to push back a bit when complaints are made about the way the wine smells.
This is where the old line about “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” comes into play. You are the paying customer, and while the sommelier might want to persuade you that the wine is not flawed, despite smelling like a wet pack animal, you have every right to say, no, this wine is flawed, I won’t accept it.
If the wine has survived the sight and smell tests, it’s time to give it a taste. Again, a correct wine will not have off-putting flavors that far exceed typical descriptors, similar to the aromas already noted. Your wine should not taste old and worn out. It should not taste like vinegar or burnt toffee or prunes. If it does, do not be afraid to say so. A smart restaurant will keep you happy and fetch another bottle. If they disagree with you, there’s a very good chance that the bottle in question will be poured by the glass at the bar within a matter of minutes. But that’s no concern of yours. What matters is that despite not having the knowledge that comes from years in the wine trade, you correctly assessed your wine and stood up for your own conclusions.
Ordering wine in a restaurant should not be a stress test. And the more comfortable you get with evaluating wine, the less it will be. Here’s to paying close attention to the things in life that matter. Like wine, of course. Cheers!