Murder the moonshine: considerations on corkiness

The food and wine blogosphere went a little nuts a few weeks ago after Christopher Hitchens wrote this rant on wine service at Slate and Frank Bruni chimed in over at Diner’s Journal. Their core lament, it seems, is that waiters refill their wine glasses at inopportune moments or overly enthusiastically. I must confess that I share their frustration, mainly because when a glass of wine is topped off, the process of aeration is interrupted: I like to linger over my wine and observe how it changes with aeration. The other night in a very fancy Los Angeles restaurant, a waiter actually poured water into my wine glass (but that’s another story). As one commentator noted on Frank’s blog, this issue can be resolved simply by politely asking the waiter not to top off the glasses.

It’s another issue that concerns me most: the age-old practice of having the patron taste the wine to determine whether or not it’s “corked.” Corkiness is a delicate subject and I’ve seen it lead to heated arguments between wine professionals — the one claiming a wine is corked, the other claiming it’s not. And corkiness can be so subtle that its virtually undetectable. In fact, the lack of fruit on the nose of a wine (and in the mouth) can be the first tell-tale sign of cork taint and it often takes considerable aeration for the corkiness to reveal itself fully.

Above: a bottle of 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco. The cork crumbled as I pulled it but — with patience and my favorite wine key — I was able to extract it entirely. A crumbled cork is not necessarily a sign of corkiness and in fact, this wine was in great shape and drank beautifully.

Why then, I ask, do we force the average patron — who generally lacks the experience needed to detect corkiness — to make that evaluation? The other night in a San Diego restaurant, a sommelier poured tasting pours of a red wine for a married couple. The wine had just been opened at the bar for the by-the-glass list. The couple told him that they liked the wine and the sommelier poured them each a glass from the same bottle. Halfway through their meal, they called the sommelier over and asked if the wine should smell so “corky.” I offered to smell the wine and it was indeed very corked.

This all could have been avoided if the sommelier would have tasted the wine before he brought it out on the floor.

“Murder the moonshine,” Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti once exhorted. It’s time to do away with the anachronistic, obsolete practice of having the patron determine whether the wine is corky or not. How is she/he to do that — on the spot — when she/he is distracted by her/his dining companions’ conversation, the unfamiliar surroundings and smells of a restaurant? It’s generally accepted that up to 8% of bottles are corked. Check out the results of this study. The waiter should present the bottle, pour her/himself a tasting pour, evaluate its fitness, and then serve it.

What do you think?

Above: the 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco (classico) was paired with a roast leg of lamb last Easter Sunday.

12 thoughts on “Murder the moonshine: considerations on corkiness

  1. In addition, I always feel like I am being asked to perform a slightly embarrassing role in this – I completely agree, anachronistic – ritual. The sommelier pours the wine, and I am expected to knowingly swirl, sniff, quaff, pretending to know what I am tasting for (I haven’t a clue) and the sommelier pretends to defer to my educated judgment (no doubt sniggering inwardly at my obvious confusion.) It is a useless exercise and I always imagine a laugh track somewhere in the background at my expense.

    I’m glad you brought it up and I think from now on I will ask him / her to taste it for me. We’ll see how it goes over.

  2. why murder the moonshine, “uccidere il chiaro di luna”, Jeremy, is so romantic!
    I totally agree with you: “It’s time to do away with the anachronistic, obsolete practice of having the patron determine whether the wine is corky or not”. We pay, we must choose if the wine is corky or not!

  3. Pingback: The Wine Connoisseur » Blog Archive » L’Original 2006 ~ Fitou ~ Mont Tauch

  4. i say yes, isn’t this the job of the sommelier? BUT, in restaurants without one (read: most of the ones i patronize), i would certainly prefer to determine this myself. waitstaff is typically sorely undereducated, much more than some of them seem to think. which brings me to another gripe.

    i was at a wine bar a couple of weeks ago where i ordered the riesling. i asked the bartender if it was good, and instead of answering, he said it was sweet. i said, “but is it good? complex?” he insisted that it was sweet. reaching a point of exhaustion, i said, “but would YOU drink it?” he said, “of course! it’s great.”

    oh, so i’m too much of an idiot to understand the wine? it gets better. he poured me a glass. i suspected cork, along with general funk, but it was so cold (save that one for another time) that everything was masked. i walked back outside, warmed it up between my hands and determined that cork was the least of its problems. i went back in to change it with a pour from a new bottle…more abuse…and what a difference! what a beautiful little glass of germany! as if this all weren’t bad enough, the waiter came outside an hour later and continued to insist that the bottle was fine. he said, and i quote, “i’m drinking it right now!”

    i rest my case.

    why would he feel such a need to be right? even if i were wrong, he takes no hit on that bottle, nor does the owner. this is a common occurence as well, which could be solved by having actual wine professionals at the helm.

    major digression, sorry!

  5. Tracie B. thanks for the insights and thoughtful comment. It’s a delicate subject and there are so many variables to take into consideration. No easy answers or solutions to this conundrum…

    Lena, thanks for stopping by: the sommelier should also be familiar with the wines on her/his list and so has a better handle on what’s drinking “correctly.”

    Jason, I couldn’t agree more!

    Franco, I think I liked the Marinetti quote just because of the alliteration!

  6. It always presents an odd situation when you are forced to determine, immediately after the bottle is open, while conversation at the table has stopped, to tell whether a bottle is flawed. Sometimes it’s immediately obvious, but many times not. I hate that feeling after I’ve “approved” a wine and then consumed 1/3 of the bottle only to have a serious flaw to appear with aeration. Of course knowledgeable wine staff will get it, but less experienced servers will undoubtedly be confused…

    On the flip side I think many people would be slightly irritated if the sommelier tasted “their” bottle first.

  7. Another amusing and worthy post. It would be nice to see some of the more ridiculous aspects of so-called wine etiquette erased from Western dining culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this problem only seems to occur in countries without a long wine tradition (eg. the USA and the UK).

  8. noah–i think you’re right about the irritation. i was taking a somm course in italy and they mentioned that with traditional service, the somm tastes the wine, but they’re getting away from this practice because people tend to think that it’s brutto for the somm to take wine for him/herself. (?) i went to a beautiful restaurant in an olive garden by the beach in ischia and they had the full-on traditional wine service. it was such a ceremony, i loved it! i did find myself hoping that she knew what she was sniffing for…

  9. Ciao, Jeremy:

    The practice of handing the recently disengorged cork to the customer is equally confusing, since no one seems to know what to do. Sniff it, squeeze it, taste it?
    And heaven forbid if the customer should indicate he/she knows more about wine than the server.
    I’ve had great service in bad restaurants and bad service in great restaurants. Neither has changed the enjoyment of the wine but it does make one wonder what if any education is happening behind the swinging doors of the wait-staff area.
    Nothing like returning a third-empty bottle of wine for being corked to raise some eyebrows, but the good restaurants understand these things happen.
    divertiti….

  10. Many people will object to the sommelier tasting the wine first, especially at today’s prices.
    On whether the wine is corked, sensitivity to corkiness will vary among persons, if the sommelier isn’t especially sensitive to corkiness it presents a problem to a customer who is.
    In spite of my limited experience in Italy, I can only note that in the less expensive restaurants the waiter would pull the cork and then deeply inhale the aromas of the cork, perhaps to put on a show for the Americans. More expensive restaurants didn’t bother with any display of cork ceremony.

  11. Just ran across this and wanted to comment…

    When I worked at Babbo, the ritual was this:

    -Retrieve wine and appropriate glasses and bring all to sideboard/center table.

    -Present closed wine to patron.

    -Take wine to sideboard, open AND TASTE.

    -Upon approval, rinse the glasses with the wine and bring the glasses to the table (with the drop left inside, invariably someone would say “Oh! we ALL get to taste the wine!” or the patron would actually think that the miniscule amount left in the galss was actually his taste)

    -Pour an adequate taste to the patron for final approval.

    -Serve.

    I stopped dozens of corked wines from hitting the table this way.

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