Sniff This Cork
ELV read some nonsense the other day about things you should never do when ordering wine.
The first one was “Don’t smell the cork.”
The second one was “Don’t beat up the wine.”
And the third one was “Don’t sniff the wine more than once.”
ELV loves reading mandates from 30-something “top sommeliers” telling 20-something feature writers exactly what they want to hear.
ELV loves it because what the naive writer and not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is somm are doing is pandering to the masses — in this case those Gen X, Y, and Millennials who want to be “in the know” even if they know absolutely nothing.
ELV also loves it because both the interviewer and interviewee know they have to say something new and fresh — something that scotches all those fuddy-duddy old rules — so their desperate-to-be-with-it readers will feel smarter and cooler than all those stuffed shirts that came before them.
When those are your rules, it matters not to you or your audience whether you know what you’re talking about.
And the “top sommelier” in this article, clearly does not.
Let’s take them one by one, shall we?
Item: Sniffing the cork.
Should you do it? Yes if the bottle is an old or valued one; no if it’s some supermarket chardonnay. If it’s an old or valuable bottle such as this treasure:
…you need to consider the cork, examine the cork, sniff the cork, smell the cork, fondle the cork…and hell, make love to the f*cking cork before you evaluate the wine. The reason you do this is to see if excessive damage or mold or bacteria or some fuzzy-wuzzy element has so tainted the stopper that some unpleasant odors or elements have been introduced into the wine.
If the cork looks older than Methuselah, no biggie. As you can see, after 30+ years in a bottle, these organic pieces of tree bark can get pretty wizened. If the darn thing disintegrates in your hand, though, all of you (the customer, the restaurant and the bottle) have problems.
Smell, however, is something else entirely. If the bottle is more than ten years old, you should always feel and sniff the damn thing. It should smell clean and winey, but not be too wet. If the bottle is really old (20+ years), it may give off whiffs of an old, dusty wine wine cellar, but nothing more. If you detect any off odors, hand it to the sommelier and ask their opinion. Unless you’re in some kind of clip joint (and who orders expensive wine in a clip joint?) they’ll give you their honest assessment — that’s probably more reliable, accurate and erudite than your first impression.
Item: Don’t beat up the wine, i.e., don’t excessively swirl or shake wine in your glass.
Again, unmitigated nonsense from someone whom, we bet, has tons of book learning (and tastings!) behind him (and every wine distributor in New York begging for his attention), but not a lot of real-life, hands on experience with the stuff. (He looks from his picture to be all of 35 years old.)
Wine is very sturdy stuff. Unless you’re talking about a 1947 Mouton Rothschild (which we’ve had – eat your hearts out), it can take a lot of abuse — especially of the swirling and shaking kind. In fact, more than once have we seen sommeliers and winemakers in Europe shake their (generally young) wine in a carafe like a martini to aerate it.
Swirl away….and don’t be shy. This is not a game of diminishing returns. You’ll be amazed at the different aromas released from the juice with every agitation.
Item: Don’t sniff the wine more than once.
Again, unmitigated b.s. Who is this guy? “The earthy smells shouldn’t overwhelm the fruity smell.” Excuse me, but in many French wines (and even a lot of Spanish and Italian ones) they do just that….and they’re supposed to.
He continues spouting idiocy: “If you think there’s something wrong with the wine there probably is.” Not if you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about (or smelling).
Unbridled pandering like this only convinces the uneducated consumer that they’re always right….which is just the kind of drivel this audience wants to hear.
Congratulations, John Ragan! You have single-handedly set back restaurant wine tasting thirty years with your overarching need to tell your younger customers that their first instincts about wine are always correct.
We know you and your employer are seeking to expand this market, and are desperate to empower this generation with the tools of winespeak (and to drink their way to your profit’s content), but feeding them this falderol is a disservice to them and the beverage you have devoted your life to.
Do everyone a favor. Teach a wine class instead of handing out erroneous sound bites that encourage people to always be wrong, but never in doubt.
p.s. Many thanks to food and wine friend Rob Kim for furnishing the lip-smacking Sauterne above to our latest “Lunch Bunch” gathering. The bottle was everything a dessert wine should be and much, much more
And yes, everyone of us sniffed and fondled that beautiful, 32 year old cork.