Reasonable Ritual

I remember when I ordered my first bottle of wine at a restaurant. I had for some time been carefully observing the mystic ritual that was ordering wine, and now I was ready. With much nervousness I went through the ritual, smelling the cork, swirling the wine, smelling the wine, tasting the wine, finally nodding approval; all as if I new what I was doing. The thing is, I had no idea what I was doing. I was going through the motions, observing the ritual without any idea why the ritual might be important.

There is in fact nothing mystical about the ritual of ordering (or serving) wine. All of these traditional actions are there for good reason. So, let’s assume you’ve selected and ordered your wine and the waiter has returned with the bottle. And so the ritual begins!

Presentation of the bottle begins the ritual. It is not out of the question that the waiter might have misunderstood your order or simply pulled the wrong bottle from the racks. He is showing you the label so you can verify that the bottle he has brought to the table is what you wanted. Beyond the variety and vintner pay particular attention to the vintage. Be sure the vintage is that shown on the wine list. In many instances, vintage is an important component of the price, so be sure you’re getting the vintage that matches the price you’re paying.

Now the waiter will open the bottle and hand you the cork. The cork’s condition is very important. A cork in bad condition might mean the wine is spoiled, so look at it carefully. If it is crumbling, air may have leaked into the bottle. If the wine is red, you can also look for direct evidence of leakage. Look for one or more streaks of wine running from the bottom of the cork all the way to the top. This is the trail of the wine leaking out, and if the wine has gotten out, you can assume air has gotten in. If the cork looks questionable, point this out to the waiter and then take particular care with the next step in the ritual, tasting.

The purpose of tasting is not to determine whether or not you like the wine, but to determine if the wine has spoiled. The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass. The wine should be clear and pristine in appearance. If it is cloudy or has a brownish tinge it may be spoiled. Now swirl the wine, put your nose in the glass and smell it. The wine should smell more or less like fruit. If the wine smells like an old sock or like raisins it may be spoiled. Next taste the wine to confirm what your nose has already told you. If the wine tastes musty or like raisins, tell the waiter you think it is spoiled and he will bring another bottle.

What are the odds you’ll get a spoiled bottle? Not that large, but the more bottles you order or open, the greater your chances of getting a bad one. On average, I get a spoiled bottle about once a year.

Cellar Notes

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Gary Sitton, wine maker for Blackstone Winery; sampling several of his Sonoma County wines over lunch at the Mockingbird Bistro. Gary has only recently moved from Ravenswood to Blackstone and the wines we tasted are some of the first production reflecting his approach to wine making. I found Gary and his wines very refreshing, particularly the Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and his very interesting Rubric blend. I think you might enjoy them as well.

Reserve Pinot Noir (93% Pinot Noir, 7% Syrah)
Blackstone – 2007
Sonoma County
Spec’s, Kroger $15-$20

Rubric (55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, 7% Tannat, 5% Merlot, 3% Petite Sirah)
Blackstone – 2007
Sonoma County
Spec’s, Kroger $20-$25

Reserve Chardonnay (97% Chardonnay, 3% Muscat)
Blackstone – 2007
Sonoma County
Spec’s, Kroger $15-$20