The Pour: Should Restaurants Offer Guests That First Taste of Wine?

I completely understand Mr. 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?

After opening the bottle in a private area, Ms. O’Neal takes a small taste. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

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, Colo. 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 Ms. 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 in a telephone interview. “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.”

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 O.K. 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.”

Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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, Mr. Ragan said he understood how uncomfortable the tasting moment could be, and he applauded Ms. O’Neal for what she was trying to accomplish.

Ms. O’Neal further inspecting the wine. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

“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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Ms. 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.
NYT > Food

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