When Eric Hiatt, a litigator in New York, ate recently at Italienne, a new restaurant in Chelsea, he was confounded by what did not happen.
Hiatt, a wine lover, ordered a bottle of Ronco Severo ribolla gialla, and at first all seemed as usual. A sommelier presented the unopened bottle for approval, so he could affirm it was the wine he had ordered. She then took it away for opening.
At restaurants where wine is not a particular point of pride, she might have opened it tableside, while carrying on the usual banter with diners.But at restaurants that take wine seriously, like Italienne, the sommelier will open the bottle in a private corner of the dining room. She will then take a small taste to make sure that the wine is not corked or flawed in some other way.
That is how it went at Italienne. When the bottle proved sound, the sommelier returned to the table and poured the wine for Hiatt and his guest. But in a departure from decades of wine protocol, she did not initiate the service by first pouring a little taste for Hiatt to evaluate.
“Never in my dining life had I encountered that,” said Hiatt, 38, who considers himself an enthusiastic restaurantgoer. “I felt a little cut out of the process.”
I completely understand Hiatt’s feeling of disenfranchisement, having experienced it myself on my own visit to Italienne. Yet it raises a fascinating question for wine lovers: Does it make sense to eliminate elements of restaurant wine service if they seem pointless or cause agitation?
Wine is intimidating enough without saddling it with pointless rigmarole. Of all the anxiety-producing moments faced by consumers who simply want to drink some wine, the age-old restaurant ritual of tasting a bottle before it is served may be the most awkward. The purpose is not always clear, yet the pressure is high. Even for those well schooled in the formalities of restaurant wine service, performance anxiety may set in.
That moment can be fraught for all concerned. Those unsure of what to do or lacking confidence may simply go through the motions to avoid potential humiliation. Sheepishness abounds. And abuses can occur. Certain alpha personalities will reject wines for no reason other than to demonstrate that they can.
Erica O’Neal, the wine director at Italienne, had observed similar uncomfortable moments firsthand in her previous jobs as a sommelier at Maialino in New York and at Frasca, Bobby Stuckey’s wine destination in Boulder, Colorado. They made her feel awkward as well. She often found herself in the position of having to interrupt guests engrossed in conversations to burden them with a task they found unpleasant and perplexing.
If the ritual creates such consternation, she asked herself, why continue it? Other time-honored but increasingly stuffy elements, like presenting the cork to guests, were falling by the wayside. A recent trip to Sweden, where O’Neal noticed that quite a few Michelin-starred restaurants had already eliminated the taste, cinched her decision.
“The overlying factor is, what is the best service I can give my guests?” she said. “I wondered, how are guests expected to know these things? I don’t want to put my guests in the position of having to guess whether a wine is corked,” as happens in a small percentage of bottles that are contaminated by cork taint, a chemical compound that leaves the wine smelling like soggy cardboard.
In modern wine service, where the sommelier has already tasted the wine for flaws, this expertise is not required of guests. So what is the purpose of offering a taste at the table?
Back when guests were responsible themselves for detecting flaws, this was the sole purpose of the taste. When I was learning about wine in the early 1980s, I was pointedly told that when I selected a bottle, I had effectively bought it. I was to taste the wine for flaws, not to determine whether I liked it or not.
But we live in more enlightened times in restaurants now, and hospitality reigns. No reputable restaurant wants to stick a table with a bottle it doesn’t like. Nowadays, restaurants welcome guests to use that tasting moment to determine whether they like the wine, and will happily take back the offending bottle. They can sell the remainder by the glass (which is most likely more profitable then selling it by the bottle), or use it to educate the restaurant staff.
“I’m OK with it as a moment to pass judgment on the wine,” said John Ragan, senior director of operations at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, who is also a master sommelier. “The other option would be for someone to drink a bottle of wine they don’t like, and that’s not what we want.”
O’Neal said she would never want guests to drink a wine they did not like. But she added that guests were far more likely to decide they don’t like a wine after spending a few minutes with a bottle and perhaps discussing it, rather than under the glare of the tasting spotlight.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time at other restaurants, they’ve actually approved it at the tasting level, then called me over later,” she said. “I’ve found it’s actually easier for guests to talk about whether they like the wine without the ritual.”
O’Neal said that on the whole, guests have been almost entirely supportive of her policy. She added that if a guest still wanted to taste the bottle, she would be happy to offer the opportunity.
“We’re not trying to take anything from the guest,” she said. “We’re trying to give something to the guest.”
For his part, Ragan said he understood how uncomfortable the tasting moment could be, and he applauded O’Neal for what she was trying to accomplish.
“I love where she’s heading, how to make this a less stressful, less fraught ritual,” he said. “But I would still want to hold on to this process.”
Even though most sommeliers taste the wine for flaws before bringing it to guests to taste, Ragan suggested that guests deserved the opportunity to confirm the sommelier’s opinion.
“The question is how to take the stress out of the situation, how to defuse it,” he said.
He suggested that sommeliers could help by being warm and reassuring.
“I know it sounds corny, but I think a smile goes a long way,” he said. “I just like to see that look on people’s faces when they taste the wine, and their eyes light up and they say, ‘Let’s do it.'”
At the same time, while the Union Square restaurants have not wavered from the tasting ritual, Ragan would not rule out occasionally omitting it. If it seems as if a guest isn’t entirely at ease, it may be best to skip it.
“Do what’s comfortable,” he said. “Don’t chain them to our idea of what hospitality is.”
I have to concede that on my visit to Italienne, I missed having that moment to add my two cents. I felt a void. It almost felt a little arrogant to me, as if the restaurant was telling me that my opinion couldn’t be trusted.
But after speaking with O’Neal, I instead commend her bold experiment. It’s not the least bit arrogant to want to make people feel more comfortable with wine. I personally would miss the tasting moment, and I believe most confident wine drinkers want the opportunity to weigh in. But why not question whether it is an outdated step of service?
The elements of wine service were developed in less democratic circumstances, when the class lines between server and patron were more sharply drawn. We live in more collaborative times, and perhaps together we can agree on a less harrowing way to select what, after all, should be solely a pleasure.
Wine Service, Deconstructed
The set of rituals attached to ordering wine in good restaurants can sometimes seem arcane and confusing. Here is what happens, step-by-step, and suggestions for how to make it all work for you.
1. Reading the Wine List
Wine lists can be baffling, and becoming engrossed in a long list can eventually become antisocial. Many restaurants post their lists online, if you want to prepare by taking an advance look. If you are puzzled or undecided, by all means ask the sommelier to choose a bottle that will go with the various elements of your meal; it is his or her job to aid in all matters of wine. Many apps offer wine reviews that say they will help you make decisions, but I strongly suggest using the sommelier, who is in the best position to judge which wines go best with the restaurant’s cuisine. State your budget clearly — that is essential — and any other preferences you may have about wine.
2. Presenting the Bottle
Here is your opportunity to approve the selection before the bottle is opened. Make sure to check the producer, the appellation, the vintage and, yes, the color, to be sure it is what you ordered. Mistakes happen more frequently than anybody cares to think. It also gives you an opportunity to discuss decanting the wine, which is sometimes desirable but rarely necessary unless a fine wine is either very young or old.
3. Opening the Bottle
In the past, the bottle was opened in front of you in order to eliminate any suspicion that a lesser wine was being substituted. Nowadays, many sommeliers whisk the bottle off to a private place to open and decant, if appropriate.
4. The Sommelier Takes a Taste
In that private place, the sommelier takes a small taste to make sure the wine is not flawed. This is a great thing. Why should you be burdened with detecting flaws? Good restaurants should not bring a marred bottle to the table. Responsible sommeliers take this job seriously rather than seeing it as an opportunity to share tastes with their friends.
5. Your Turn to Try
At the table, the sommelier will pour a small taste for the person who ordered the bottle. This is your chance to confirm that the wine is not flawed. (If the sommelier opened the bottle at the table, rather than taking it away for a taste, then it is your responsibility to determine whether it is flawed; do so now.) This is also the time to assess the temperature of the bottle and to decide whether it requires chilling. This goes for red and white wines.
In classic wine service, the tasting moment was solely to check for flaws. Nowadays, you may say whether you like the wine. If not, most restaurants are eager to find something else that will make you happy. It’s fine for you to take a few minutes to decide whether you like a wine. It’s not fine to drink half the bottle, then try to send it back.