[NYT] Should Restaurants Offer Guests That First Taste of Wine?

Huh. How the hell could menthol get in there? Strange. The Domaine Combier or one of the Chaves?

I honestly don’t recall. It was her recommendation, and the bottle didn’t stay long on the table. I would have thought I was crazy but for my dining companion having an even more adverse reaction.

Needless to say, yes, I was glad that the restaurant offered me that first taste of wine.

But if THEY tasted it first wouldn’t the outcome have been the same? Hopefully?

Note it was a waiter that recommended the wine, not a sommelier. Waiters don’t taste the wine before serving it.

a) Bookwich is correct: “waiters don’t [generally] taste the wine before serving it.”

b) Remember that the wine was not “corked.” Certainly there are more “things” than just TCA/TCB that can negatively affect a bottle of wine, resulting in its return as a “bad bottle,” but Imnopm said that the “bottle wasn’t corked, it was just wrong.”

Wine can be “wrong” in many ways, but it boils down to two: either something was truly wrong with the wine – and, again, remember there are any number of things that could be – or the consumer just doesn’t like it.¹ In this case, I believe something was truly wrong.

I’ve identified menthol in wine before, once even from the Northern Rhône. In very low concentrations, it can be an interesting component – adding a certain je ne sais quoi to the wine. However, it can quickly dominate the wine and destroy it. (And no, Robert, I don’t know exactly what causes it.²) Because of this, it’s quite possible that another diner might find this character “intriguing,” while someone else might find it obnoxious and undrinkable – similar to Brett, in that way.

In any event, Chez Panisse handled the problem correctly as far as their customer was concerned.

¹ Technically, as previously stated, it’s illegal to return a wine simply because one doesn’t like it. In practice, however, many times a restaurant will take back a wine just to keep the customer happy. I do not think that was the case here.

² The most obvious example of menthol in a wine is the “eucalyptus-mint” character that Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet was famous for. At low concentrations, it added depth, complexity, and a truly “unique” (except it wasn’t) character to the wine. But at higher concentrations, it turned to menthol.

NyQuil flavored wine has no place on my table. I would have returned it also.

I was referring to the original article where the sommelier does the tasting.

Federal law prohibits returns of alcoholic beverages unless they were flawed or purchased in error, but it doesn’t seem like that should apply to a bottle of wine in a restaurant, since no money changed hands. The customer’s not returning a bottle they purchased but rather choosing not to purchase it.

Robert, be sure to let me know how that goes over the next time you order a Romanée-Conti or Échezeaux and then – once the cork has been extracted – tell the somm you changed you mind and are “choosing not to purchase it” . . . .


Again, depending upon what is “wrong” with a wine . . . as I said above,

For some, and depending upon the stain and concentration, the presence of Brettanomyces can actually add complexity to the wine, while for others, its mere presence is a flaw and cause to reject a bottle of wine. It’s a matter of threshold sensitivity. And so, even were the person tasting the wine a sommelier prior to he or she pouring the wine for you, s/he should STILL let you, the customer, taste the wine. Period.

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There’s no law against taking back a sound wine in a restaurant, but the restaurant could refuse to anyway.

I think spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a bottle in a restaurant is a special case. People either know what they want and won’t send it back unless it’s off, or they’re just spending for its own sake and they won’t care.

We had dinner at a super place in Vancouver, BC, a few night’s ago. They present you with the bottle, then go to a nearby table, taste it, pour into a carafe and then you a taste. Seemed to make plenty of sense to us.

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I was recently told the tradition actually started a long time ago when there were less wines to choose from and people knew more about wines and ordered accordingly. The sommelier gave diners a sip to make sure it was the bottle they ordered or had gone bad, not to see if they liked the selection. If this is true then I don’t understand the sip thing at all, as some diners have not tried the selection previously.

Additionally, some restaurants supposedly put unrecognizable names on their wine list so you won’t know whether or not they’re overcharging. Is this true as well?

Maybe this wine sip thing has become a pretentious cliché? I know I don’t like the practice, because I would never send wine back unless it was rotten.

Besides Valentino, how many ‘good’ restaurants actually have proper wine storage? Which can damage wine. Things like cork taint, though rare, are pretty obvious. If you are buying the house whatever then it doesn’t matter but If I’m buying a good bottle or something older It’s better to reject a bottle right away than having to flag someone down. Just my opinion anyway.

Ahh… ok, got it.

This is interesting. What do you think of the Mozzas’ selections and storage?

Couldn’t say! Haven’t been there in years. Really most restaurants don’t seem to have ever planned for wine storage so I doubt it. You just hope they have a good turn over on the wine they do have so it doesn’t sit at room temp for months on end considering room temp in LA is pretty hot.

Truth be told I much prefer French or Spanish wine to Italian. Last time I was at Pizzeria Mozza I had a Lambrusco IIRC that was perfectly fine with the meal.

First of all, “the sip thing” is NOT just a “sip thing,” AND it doesn’t matter if the restaurant’s dine has ever tasted the exact wine previously.

You are correct in saying that the somm / steward / server presented the bottle (“Yes, this is the wine I ordered”), then opened the bottle – and in so doing, offered the cork to the diner who ordered the bottle – and finally, poured he/she with a small sip to smell and taste, to make sure the wine “had [not] gone bad, not to see if they liked the selection.” In other words, you are, in a very real sense, looking for something wrong (and hoping you don’t find it).

Think of these steps as a traffic light…

  • Sometimes servers do grab the wrong bottle of wine, so when they show you the bottle before opening it, it is to show you that they pulled the correct bottle and vintage. For example, you may have ordered the 2020 vintage of Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, but the server brought you the 2011 vintage…or the Cabernet from Lodi, and not Napa…or the “regular” bottling rather than the “Reserve”; etc., etc., etc. Any of those things happen, RED light. Everything alright? GREEN light; proceed to the next step.

  • Offering you the cork gives you a chance to test the cork, squeeze it, sniff it, etc. For example, the cork might be really mushy when you squeeze it, or it might smell of wet dog fur, or have some other unpleasant odor. If so, YELLOW light – proceed with caution. If not, GREEN light. Either way, you move to the next step.

  • Smell the wine – does it smell good, appealing, or does it smell of wet dog, wet cardboard, a burnt match, a skunk, vinegar, baby poop, horse manure, and so on and so on. If is does, RED light – wine’s off/gone bad. If you have a lot of experience in tasting wine, you may not need to go any further; if not (or if you want to confirm your suspicions), treat this as a YELLOW light and proceed with caution. If none of these off-odors are present, it’s a GREEN light and proceed to taste the wine.

  • Taste the wine, at long last. Does the (e.g.) Cabernet actually taste like a Cabernet? (Doesn’t matter if you’re ever had this specific wine before.) Or doesn’t it taste off (e.g.: there’s no fruit; it tastes sharp and acetic, spoiled, or otherwise “off-putting.” RED light. Tell your somm to taste for him- or herself; the wine is off/gone bad. Are none of those qualities present? GREEN light – ask the somm to pour the wine for everyone, sit back, and enjoy your meal…


I understand step one, I have had the wrong wine brought out more than once, but it is my understanding that modern winemaking techniques ensure that corked wine has all but disappeared.

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Good Lord, NO!

Your only assurance that a wine isn’t corked is to purchase wines sealed with screw caps. Cork taint has nothing to do with winemaking techniques.

The chief cause of cork taint is the presence of the chemical compounds 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) in the wine, which in many cases will have been transferred from the cork, but which also can have been transferred through the cork rather than from it. TCA is a compound which does not occur naturally. It is created when some fungi are treated with chlorinated phenolic compounds, which are a type of antimicrobial agent used in the processing of wood. This compound is one of the chief factors responsible for the problem associated with mold liable to be found in cork.

“[M]odern winemaking techniques” can (and should) minimize those things that can spoil a wine that are within the winemaker’s control – things like excess sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, mercaptans, bacterial spoilage organisms that live in unclean barrels (think acetobacter), and on and on. But not TCA.

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