Are you intimidated by wine?

Sommelier David Herren wants you to enjoy your wine experience at Jessica’s Restaurant. Here’s how.

Are you intimidated by wine?

All too often sommeliers are viewed by our customers as if we have some kind of magical power with respect to wine. True, there is much to learn about wine—that’s one of its appeals as it never becomes dull or “old hat.” The last thing a sommelier wants, however, is to intimidate diners. Let’s be honest. More than anything, a sommelier just wants to build trust with guests and to ensure that the guest has a memorable experience, devoid of stress!

The reality is that wine is easy to approach, and the wines themselves are very forgiving. There is just no reason for a diner to fear the process of selecting a wine or to feel intimidated by the “ritual.” 

In this post, I hope to demystify the wine ritual. Wine should always be fun and pleasurable. Let’s get past this anxiety!

The List

If you are a casual wine drinker, it can be somewhat intimidating when approaching an extensive wine list such as the one at Jessica’s. But there is no need to fear! I rarely see wine buyers in the grocery store showing signs of panic as they gaze upon the wall of bottles. Restaurant diners can take a cue from the grocery store shopper. Do you, the diner or shopper, need such a large selection? Probably not. But the wine list is the tool kit that the sommelier will use to craft your dining experience. Experienced oenophiles enjoy poring over expansive lists, but as a more casual diner, you needn’t worry about the length of the list. In fact, you should take comfort knowing that the sommelier has a wide array of tools with which to ensure a pleasurable experience for his or her customers.

I, at least, also feel that a central part of my responsibility as a sommelier is education. Use your sommelier. Ask questions. Share what you do know and don’t know about your own personal preferences. A good sommelier will be better able to find you a wine that you’ll enjoy with your meal.

Wine Pricing

Are expensive wines better? Maybe. Wine prices have a great deal more to do with supply and demand than being an inherent measure of the quality. There are many good, even excellent wines to be had for a price that will fit your budget and comfort level. Truly great wine is expensive to make. Truly great wine is usually made in smaller quantities. Thus the rarity of those wines commands a higher price. But let me say this plainly and clearly: you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a bottle of wine that will be memorable and which will enhance your dining experience.

Is it fun to splurge occasionally?

Of course!

Work with your sommelier, build trust. He or she will learn about your preferences and be better able to tailor his or her recommendations to enhance the dining experience. For that special occasion, your trusted sommelier will be able to make dinner even more special. 

Wine and Food Pairing: Do I have to drink red or white wine with certain foods?

The short answer: No. Do you only like white wine? Then drink white wine with your steak. Do you only like red wine? Then drink red wine with your scallops. It’s ok.

Why all the fuss about pairing? Might there be a better pairing? Almost certainly. But the bottom line is, you should drink what you like with the food that you have. It is true, that what “grows together, tends to go together,” but these aren’t hard fast rules. You aren’t making a mistake departing from the “accepted wisdom.” The only thing you really need to concern yourself with is what I call the toothpaste and orange juice phenomenon.

(If you don’t recognize that phenomenon, then give it a try. Have some orange juice with breakfast. Leave some in the glass. Brush your teeth, and then finish the glass of OJ. You won’t want to do that again.)

There may be better or lesser pairings, and it’s your sommelier’s responsibility to guide you in that regard. Should you drink a young California Cabernet Sauvignon with spicy Thai food? Neither the food nor the wine would enhance one another in that scenario (approaching the toothpaste and orange juice phenomenon). Are you supposed to know that? No! That’s a job for your sommelier! Would drinking that Cab with your spicy Thai noodles be the end of the world? No. Seek guidance but trust your own palette.

champagne bottle

Raventos i Blanc de Nit Rose 2018 sparkling wine from Spain. Photo by Serena Kim

The Presentation of the Bottle

And now to the next part of the “ritual.” The sommelier has made a recommendation and comes back to the table with the bottle, presenting it to the party. Are you expected to comment upon the bottle in question? What is this part of the ritual all about? What are you supposed to do?

The presentation of the bottle is nothing more than a way to confirm that the wine you selected or were recommended is the same wine being presented at the table. A good sommelier will repeat the name and vintage of the wine as it is presented. What are you, the diner, to do? Easy. Is the bottle in front of you the same name and vintage as the wine agreed upon? Yes? Ok. Acknowledge that the sommelier (a human being and just as prone to error as any human being) has successfully pulled the correct bottle from storage. If it doesn’t look or sound like the wine you understood you were ordering, say so. Mistakes can be made. We sommeliers want you to be happy. If I have misunderstood your selection, or pulled the wrong bottle from the bins, the presentation is your opportunity to rectify the error. Please don’t accept a wine if you think it’s not what you ordered. Doing so will only make your sommelier and your party potentially unhappy.

The Cork

Now, the opening of the bottle. OK, yes, every sommelier loves the drama and flair of opening a bottle. The squeak-squeak as the “worm” penetrates the cork, and the pop as the cork exits the neck of the bottle. The anticipation and excitement are palpable!. The sommelier presents the cork to the table—what are you to do?

Are you expected to smell the cork? Read it? Squeeze it? The reality is, you can generally pretty much ignore the cork. You may want to take a look at it to see if it appears sound. Is it still firm or does it show signs of decay or rot (it should not!)? The status of the cork can give you some indication of how the wine has been stored. A dry, crumbly cork is not a good sign—that wine has probably been stored upright far too long. A black, moldy looking cork is trouble. Don’t panic. At this point the cork serves primarily as confirmation of the status of the wine but its importance shouldn’t be overstated.

The Initial Pour

Next, the sommelier pours a small bit of wine for one of the guests. If that happens to be you, don’t panic. You are not expected to be able to pontificate on the qualities of the wine or it’s aromas. The only thing you need to do at this point is actually quite simple. Does the wine smell like a damp, musty basement or a wet dog on a summer day? If so, the wine is not sound. It may be “corked” (just one of the many ways a wine might be considered to be “spoiled”). If the small bit of wine in the glass smells like wine, and looks like wine, you have just purchased the wine! The small pour is not about whether or not you like the wine. It’s all about whether or not the wine is sound. You don’t need to taste it, You need only smell it. In fact, if the wine doesn’t smell sound, then tasting it is a bad idea!

What’s up with all that swirling?

Ok. So the sommelier has poured the sample and the host has confirmed that the wine is sound. The sommelier will then proceed to pour the wine for the remaining guests. What’s up with all that swirling you see wine lovers doing? Is it necessary? Is it meaningful? What are you to do?

Think about it this way. Imagine that we get past all these Covid restrictions and we can travel again. You lock up the house and head off to visit the grandkids, perhaps take a vacation somewhere warm. A week or so later you return to your closed up house or apartment. What’s the first thing you want to do? Why, air out the stale air of the enclosed home, of course. Open the windows. Get some fresh oxygen in there. That’s what you’re doing when you swirl your glass of wine. That wine has been sealed in an essentially oxygen-free environment for months, years, even decades! Just like your house, you want to air it out a bit. 

Wine is a complex blend of aromas and flavors. Too cold, and wine won’t give up its true self. Too warm, and many of the aerosol compounds will evaporate before you have a chance to appreciate them. Swirling helps to release and concentrate the volatile compounds in the upper part of the glass where you are best able to appreciate them. Take some time to note the aromas. Do you recognize any of them? Detecting and describing aromas is not a requirement to appreciate a good glass of wine, but it can be fun.

What if I don’t detect black currants and leather?

Wine critics and writers are frequently wannabe poets. I’ve read descriptions of wines in some of the major publications that are over-the-top poetic but don’t, in fact, convey any useful information to me—and I work in the industry! At this point in your dining experience, there is really only one important question to ask yourself as a diner and wine consumer: Do you like the wine? That’s it.

As you become more experienced you may find that you enjoy pursuing nuanced analysis of the wine in your glass. Or, more likely, you may just enjoy the warm sensation of sharing a bottle of wine and a meal with friends and loved ones. The beauty of wine is that the wine itself doesn’t judge you. It can be as simple as a daily meal, or it can be a poetic muse. The wine doesn’t care. Your sommelier cares only that you enjoy your experience. Drink up!

1 thought on “Are you intimidated by wine?

  1. Very interesting and informative. Will make us amateurs more relaxed when ordering of wine.

    Also glad to see David is still at Jessica’s. Hope to meet again when all this pandemic stuff is over.

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