Sniff This Cork

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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:

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…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.

10 thoughts on “Sniff This Cork

  1. I don’t want to interrupt your fetish with old corks, but me thinks you are rather harsh on the article. I’m relatively new to fine wine compared to my friends, but it’s still been 20 something plus years. I’ve never encountered a situation where I would have found a flaw in the wine by sniffing the cork I wouldn’t have found quicker by sniffing the wine. There are lots of reasons to look at the cork, but using it to decide if the wine is sound is not one. Same thing with the multiple sniffs. I’m certainly not against it, but I’ve always found it really doesn’t take much sniffing to figure out if a wine is flawed. After I declare it good, I’ll sniff a LOT. Personally, I’m a fan of true old school where the somm tastes the wine for you and then ours if it’s good. Why do I have to be the one doing it? Finally, if I’m bringing an old wine from the cellar, the last thing I want the somm doing it spinning the bottle around like a flash bartender while the cork is removed.

  2. Honestly, if you need the advice from the article in question, you’re not going to learn anything by sniffing the cork, so I’ll let them slide on point number one. I agree that the second two points are silly.

  3. Great article. I agree about sniffing the cork. However, when I sniff a cork without a problem, I get a scent of the wine and, well, CORK! I always get a chuckle when someone smells a cork and then says something like “Ooh! That’s nice!”. NO! You can detect problems from a cork, but it’s not like enjoying the bouquet (which, if pleasant, I will do repeatedly). Every time someone “compliments” the cork, I want to say “Great, I’ll drink the wine, you just sit there and sniff the cork!”.

  4. Indeed, Mark, with a genuine cork, the *best* case scenario for taking a whiff is that you learn what the actual wine would smell like if it were corked. I’ll examine a cork, especially an aged one, for damage or seepage as a clue that I should be especially vigilant in tasting the wine, but smelling a cork won’t tell me a damn thing about a wine that I won’t learn *much* more accurately when I actually taste it. So, I basically never sniff the cork, and I can’t really think of a good reason to do so. I’ll let the sommelier do it if a question arises. That’s just me.

  5. Mark and npc are right.

    I’ve been a wine collector, and wine drinker for over 30 years. The oldest wine I’ve tasted was Chateau Latour 1863 at the Chateau.

    I never smell corks. Pointless. You get more information on the health of the wine by smelling the bouquet, then tasting the wine and letting it sit on your palate for several seconds, than you could ever get by smelling the cork.

    I splash decant almost every red wine post 1995. Younger wines benefit from a jolt of oxygen.

    Smelling the bouquet should be done endlessly until the wine is finished. Wine is about the sensuous experience of taste, smell and sight. Sometimes I wish i could “hear” wine.
    Alas, 3 senses will have to suffice.

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