There are four basic components of the traditional wine tasting ritual people perform when they order a bottle at a restaurant: Sniff the cork, swirl the glass, sniff the wine, and hold the glass up to the light to inspect its contents.
“People go through the ritual, but they don’t always know why they’re doing it,” said Union Square Hospitality Group’s John Ragan, who is the wine director for the events services arm of Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire. “That’s not a comfortable exercise.”
To help people feel less silly when ordering and tasting wine, Ragan is leading a 10-week, restaurant-grade course starting in March curated by USHG and the Institute of Culinary Education. Every Tuesday, guests will get the training servers and sommeliers receive: They’ll learn to navigate a wine list and discuss wine, have a chance to Skype with growers, importers and critics around the world, and most importantly, learn to properly taste wine.
Ragan shared some classic wine-tasting “don’ts” with Business Insider.
Don’t smell the cork: “I would skip the cork and go straight to the wine. The wine’s smell will tell you the most about whether it’s good or bad,” Ragan said. “If you’re talking about older wine, the cork tells you how well it’s been stored. You want it to be moist, not necessarily seeped in wine, so air hasn’t gotten into the bottle. But I’ve had some fabulous older wines where the wine crept up to the cork. I’d say the cork isn’t the most reliable tell.”
Don’t beat up the wine: “If I order a bottle of wine at a restaurant, I want it to come to my table unopened so I know it’s the right vintage,” he said. “Once it’s opened, you have to remember that wine’s been in a bottle for years at a time, kind of like a genie in a bottle. That wine doesn’t stand at attention immediately. Swirling opens up the esters and makes the aroma more accessible. But don’t shake the wine excessively. Three loose turns should do the trick.”
Don’t sniff the wine more than once: “Some of the most revered wines smell like earth, something people describe as mushrooms, truffles or leather,” Ragan said. “The earthy smells shouldn’t overwhelm the fruity smell, and you don’t want a dank smell like wet wood, wet cardboard or vinegar. If you think something’s wrong with the wine, there probably is. On the first whiff, you can usually tell. Trust your gut.”
Don’t fret about particles in the wine: “Wine is an agricultural product. It comes from the earth,” he said. “When you hold wine up to the light, you really only need to think of the colour. For white wine, you don’t want a brown, cider colour. Oxidation is definitely a flaw. White wine with age will gain a golden tinge. Red wines have more colour when they’re younger. Older reds should have less pigment and not be cloudy or murky.”
Don’t worry about lingo: “Don’t try to use someone else’s language,” said Ragan. “Use the language you’re comfortable with to explain what the wine smells and tastes like to you. A good restaurant should be able to decode your language and translate that into a good wine.”
Don’t beat around the bush about the price: “Some people point at a wine’s price on the list and say, ‘Maybe something like this,'” Ragain said. “But it’s better to be clear and say, ‘I want a great red for $US45.’ That’s game on for me, and most sommeliers like that challenge. If you ask for a midrange wine, a server might interpret that as $US75 when a guest is thinking he doesn’t want to spend more than $US60. Now you’re speaking a different language in a bad way.”
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