the ancient sommeliers, being in charge of the baronial wine-cellar, needed something to carry the key to the cellar.
A sommelier’s standard-issue equipment includes a small silver sampling cup, called the tastevin. It has become showy and unnecessary since restaurant sommeliers have neither the time, the need, nor the liver to sample every bottle of wine sold in the place.
Don’t be put off. The wine steward is there to serve you, and you should depend on his recommendations.
By all means feel at ease, and feel entitled to ask him, “What would you recommend?” Probably he will recommend the most expensive wine, if not the best!
If you’re not in a position to buy the most expensive wine, and you don’t know what is almost as good but less expensive, ask to see the wine list. Nearly all wine lists carry the selections in category groupings. Cheaper but similar wines will be listed with the expensive ones.
Suppose the wine steward points to a Bordeaux that sells for $20. There will be another Bordeaux, probably, listed near for, say, $9. Your line would be something like: “What do you think of this?”
The sommelier can’t really put that one down, can he, since his cellar stocks it? But the odds are he may say something like: “It is a marvelous wine, but perhaps this vintage is not quite up to par as yet.”
In the case of such a check-padding gambit, a perfect counter-move on your part would be to select another wine-at your price choice – in that same category and say, “Well, just give me the so and so which you recommended two weeks ago. It was great, too.”
Most of the sommeliers after several of your visits will remember you and never try to oversell.
When your wine is brought to the table, a good sommelier will give you more than a few drops for your initial tasting approval. It is your place to taste the wine for your date and other dinner guests, but be sure he gives you enough of a sample – at least an ounce – so that you can taste it.
He will also give you the cork to prove its soundness. By all means make the show of rolling it in your fingers, examining it intently and smelling it deeply. But please, please don’t ruin the spectacle by smelling the wrong end of the cork!
And don’t be timid about refusing a bottle that is spoiled or overaged. Generally, there are three reasons for which you can refuse a bottle of wine: if it has a vinegary smell and taste; if the wine looks muddy; or if it smells and tastes of cork. If the sommelier doesn’t agree to take back the bottle, you are perfectly within your rights to call the manager. But by all means be sure you have a good case.
No matter how formidably dressed or elegantly spoken the sommelier is, he is there solely to serve you and to help you enjoy your wine with your dinner. He should be tipped 15 percent of the wine or bar tab, but never less than a dollar. Please make sure he personally gets it. Tips have a way of disappearing between different echelons of restaurant crew.
Remember these points – most of all, not to be intimidated – and next time you wine-and-dine out, you’ll get your just desserts. And apertifs, and all the wine in between.