I found this to be a great article by the NY Times resident imbiber. Take a read when you have 5 min to kill. Great inside to industry practices.
When the First Sip Is the Sommelier's, Not Yours
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: July 6, 2010
STEPHEN SILBERLING, a tax lawyer who considers himself a knowledgeable wine drinker, could not contain his astonishment as he told me of his recent experience in a New York restaurant. He had ordered a 2007 Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Belleruche, a wine he and his date had enjoyed so much the previous week that they decided to drink it again. As they sipped their first glass, however, they both thought the wine tasted different, and they debated whether it was flawed.
Listening to the conversation, the sommelier piped up.
"He said, 'I've tasted the wine, it's fine,' " Mr. Silberling recalled. "He tasted the wine? I was very surprised. I had never heard of that being done before."
Few issues of wine etiquette seem to cause as much consternation as the increasingly common practice of a sommelier taking a small sip of wine, usually unbidden, to test for soundness. Diners often are surprised to learn that their bottle has in effect been shared with the restaurant, even if it's just the smallest amount.
The practice, which is more common at high-end restaurants with ambitious wine lists, can make diners uncomfortable. Some believe the restaurant may be taking advantage of them by consuming wine that they have bought. Others feel demeaned, that their role of assessing the wine has been usurped.
"I know I'd rather be doing the tasting because I trust myself," Mr. Silberling said.
It's a touchy subject, particularly because, from the restaurant's point of view, it's all for the consumer's benefit. Some restaurants believe that, since they are more familiar than most consumers with the wines they offer, they can save diners from accidentally accepting a bottle that is not up to standard. "I think it's an important service," said Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Daniel Boulud's Dinex Group. "We want the sommelier to assure that the wine gets to the customer as it is intended."
I have noticed this practice more often in the last decade, but in fact it was one of the original tasks of the sommelier.
"It goes back hundreds of years, when the role of sommeliers was to ensure that kings or royalty didn't get poisoned," said Evan Goldstein, a wine educator and former president of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization dedicated to raising the standards of beverage service. "My understanding is that the tastevin was put on a chain and put around the neck of the sommelier exactly for that purpose."
Ah, the tastevin, the shallow silver cup that today largely evokes the image of the supercilious sommelier. In the United States, where most restaurants have tried to relax the formality of wine service, one rarely sees a tastevin. Le Bernardin in New York is one of the few that still employs it as a working tool.
"I want to ensure the wine I serve is in perfect condition," said Aldo Sohm, Le Bernardin's chef sommelier. "We use it. It's not just for show."
Allowing the sommelier a sniff or small taste of a wine is a sensible precaution for a restaurant to take, I think, both from its own point of view and from the customer's. No good restaurant wants to serve flawed or bad wine, and tasting the wine first is a step toward preventing that.
Many people, even those who know something about wine, are not comfortable suggesting that a bottle is flawed. They might feel uncertain, or embarrassed, and would rather endure a bottle they are not enjoying than send it back. If a sommelier can prevent that, I think it's worth the sip that's sacrificed.
At RN74, a top wine-oriented restaurant in San Francisco, sommeliers check every bottle, said Christie Dufault, who is a sommelier there and a wine and beverage instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. She is still haunted by a southern Rhône wine she once served a table without having tasted it. After they left, having consumed only half the bottle, she checked it and found it was badly corked.
"I've seen consumers become way more knowledgeable, but I recommended a wine that was completely foreign to these people," she said. "They didn't recognize that the wine was flawed. We don't want that scenario to ever be repeated."
Nonetheless, some consumers, even educated ones, are suspicious of the practice.
"I've never seen it, and I would say I'm happy I've never seen it," said Joe Roberts, who blogs about wine at 1winedude.com. "I would imagine the first reaction would be, somebody's trying to cop a taste of my expensive wine."
Ms. Dufault realizes the practice may require sommeliers to step into delicate territory.
"We want customers to realize that good sommeliers are looking out for their best interests," she said. "It's our job to observe our guests. If I observe a guest who really knows wine, then maybe this service isn't necessary."
Fred Dexheimer, a master sommelier whose company, Juiceman Consulting, advises restaurants on wine service, believes sniffing and tasting before serving is a sound practice.
"I want the guest to have the best experience possible," he said. "It's like a chef making sure all the sauces are correct."
But Mr. Dexheimer said he has seen the ritual abused by sommeliers who have poured themselves a little more wine than perhaps was necessary. He said sommeliers have to understand that some wines are more prone to problems than others, and therefore are more important to check. He mentioned unfiltered white wines, for example, or wines whose cork might have some visible mold on it. I might add to that list wines like white Burgundies, which are prone to oxidation problems that some consumers may not recognize.
Even if a sommelier has tasted a wine and found it sound, that does not ensure that a customer will like it. So what happens if a sommelier believes a wine has no problem, but the customer rejects it, as was the case with Mr. Silberling?
"The rule is, if the customer is not happy with the wine, take the wine back," Mr. Johnnes said. "It doesn't happen so frequently that we can't do that."
He suggests engaging in conversation with the customer. It may be that a wine needs to breathe a bit, or needs to be gently cooled. But if those options are not satisfactory, he said, just take the wine back.
Some bottles are obviously flawed, but others can be borderline cases. What is undetectable to some people, even to experts, is off-putting to others. Above all, he said, sommeliers should never argue with customers, even if they believe a bottle is sound.
Mr. Dexheimer remembers doing just that as a young sommelier. "I still have guilty nightmares about that 10 years later," he said. "Take the rest of that bottle and educate your staff, or pour it by the glass. There are ways to recover from that, but if you make a guest unhappy, you'll never get that guest back."
One way of alleviating the mistrust that some customers may feel, he suggested, is simply to alert guests that you, the sommelier, are going to taste the wine to make sure it's all right.
That would work for Mr. Roberts, the wine blogger. "It would almost go from something that seems malignant to something that's viewed as good service," he said.
Communication, Mr. Dexheimer said, is one more way to remove the pretension from wine.
"If you communicate everything you do to the guests, you help to create an atmosphere of trust," he said. "If you don't ask permission, you're going to get in trouble."