Waiter, waiter: please don’t put the cork on my table!

A restaurant professional recently told me that she had been instructed by a Master Sommelier (as in the Court of Master Sommeliers) to always place the cork on the guest’s table after extracting it from the bottle. She had been attending a seminar in the Society of Wine Educators “Certified Specialist of Wine” program.

I was really surprised to hear this. And so I looked up the Court of Master Sommeliers Service Standards wherein it is clearly states that the cork should be presented. But it also clearly states that the cork should be placed on an “under-liner” before being placed to the right of the guest on the table. In other words, it should be presented on a small tray.

The bottle is also supposed to be placed on an under-liner. And the last step of “standard service,” according to the document, is to ask the guest if the cork may be removed.

One of my pet peeves in casual wine service today is when servers: 1) smell the cork at the table before placing it on the table; 2) place the cork on the table without an under-liner; and 3) leave the cork on the table throughout the meal, sometimes accumulating more than one cork that can roll around precariously as the meal is served.

In casual wine service today, presentation of the cork is often an affectation of a practice that has little or no bearing on the guest’s enjoyment of the wine or confidence in the server’s ability and performance.

In another era, the cork was presented to the guest as evidence of the bottle’s provenance. Especially when serving older, rare, and expensive wines, authenticity is vital and the cork and the branding and/or printing on the cork are key elements in determining its provenance (I often get emails from auctioneers who ask me to review the text on corked pulled from rare bottles of Italian wine, for example; and btw, by branding I mean that the text is literally branded on the cork using a hot iron in some instances).

In the photo above, you can see the corks extracted from a flight of rare Italian wines at a lunch I attended in New York a few years ago. After the sommelier opened the bottles, he placed them on an under-liner and presented them to our party. After we examined them, he removed and reserved them in case we wanted to revisit them.

But when a sommelier is removing a cork from a bottle of young, fresh Cerasuolo di Vittoria or a current-release Bardolino, the question of provenance or authenticity is generally inconsequential. Over the course of a shift, a server or sommelier will remove a number of corks from youthful, inexpensive wines and the question of provenance should be resolved — in my view — before the bottle is presented to the table. When’s the last time you remember a guest in a casual restaurant inspecting a cork and saying, excuse me but this bottle of Pinot Grigio has a counterfeit cork in it?

The cork can tell you something about the fitness of the wine. But this generally only holds true when it comes to older wines.

More importantly, and this is one of the greatest misunderstandings about cork presentation in my experience, smelling the cork doesn’t reveal whether or not the wine is corked or otherwise defective or damaged. Just because a cork smells rotten doesn’t mean that the wine is corked. In fact, wine can be corked even when the cork is in perfect shape and vice versa, the wine can be in good health even when the cork is in bad shape. As I wrote yesterday, you determine the fitness of the wine by smelling the wine (and if needed, by tasting it). Not by smelling the cork.

I agree with the Court of Master Sommelier’s steps of standard service and I have the utmost respect for the court’s over-arching level of professionalism and the generally high caliber of its educational components.

But when it comes to wine service in casual restaurants and the presentation of young, fresh wines where the question of provenance and authenticity has little bearing, I believe that the cork shouldn’t be presented unless the guest expressly asks to examine it. And when it is presented, it should be presented exclusively on a small tray and the server should ask to remove it once the guest has inspected it.

The guest is always right, as the saying goes. And if a diner feels compelled to challenge the provenance of her/his current-vintage by-the-glass Pinot Grigio, then fair enough. But this anachronistic and — in my view — affected practice has no place when everyday wines are concerned.

4 thoughts on “Waiter, waiter: please don’t put the cork on my table!

  1. I once heard that the practice of “smelling” the cork had a very different origin. “Back in the day” (I have no idea when) openers of wine would but the cork to their lips to determine whether the cork were wet and thus proving that the wine had been stored on its side (which, as you know, keeps the cork expanded and thus preventing oxygen to enter the bottle). Over time, people assumed that the servers were smelling the cork, which always smells like, well, cork.

  2. I’ve noticed in Italy they ALWAYS smell the cork at the table, without fail, whether its a Michelin restaurant or a small trattoria, but we never see it in the states. My husband, who used to sell wine, is always amused by that. They don’t seem to be testing the wetness as the previous comment suggests, but smelling it.

  3. Hi.
    I completel\y agree with you on “Just because a cork smells rotten doesn’t mean that the wine is corked” etc. However here in Europe we believe, that guest in restaurant buys a whole bottle, including a cork. He deserves it as he pays for it. I can agree with your conclusion that it doesn’t tell much about the wine, but he paid for it and so the cork is his. It doesn’t matter much if he paied 6 EUR or 250 EUr, he paied for it. It doesn’t matter if he can detect a fault or anything from the cork, he paied the price. You can have nice memories even for the wine you paied 6 EUR… Justice for everyone :-)

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