A few years back, when I was studying to earn my “Diploma in Service” with the Sommelier Society of America (a school for wine professionals in New York City), I remember perspiring my way through the final exam, a pretend wine-service exercise. Two top sommeliers, Roger Dagorn (our terrifyingly-serious-but-charming French head teacher) and his right hand, the lovable “good cop,” Renzo Rapacioli, sat at a fully-set table playing hard-to-satisfy wine-ordering customers; I played the sweaty sommelier. Whenever I glimpse an episode of Shark Tank, I’m immediately transported back to that table-side interrogation, where I dodged grenades like “What might you suggest if I order the skate au beurre noisette, but my companion orders the boeuf Bourguignon?” and, “How many premier cru Burgundy vineyards are represented on your wine list, per chance?” and my favorite, “Would you say there’s a higher percentage of Tinta Roriz grapes in this Port or Tinta Barroca? Or perhaps even a touch of Tinta Amarela?”
If the oral examination part wasn’t terrifying enough, there was also the demonstration portion, which included everything I hate about formal (read: French) wine service. From the presentation of the bottle, swaddled in white linen like a new-born baby, straight through to decanting it with trembling hands over a candle (to look for sediment) on a tableside trolley, it bugs me. Personally, I bundle most of these maneuvers into what I call “the frippery” of wine service: stuff that makes most people I know slink down in their seats in hopes that the sommelier will call on someone else to taste the wine.
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But then I see that person: The Imbiber. He's the one—and it's always a man—who relishes the pageantry of it all, the pomp and circumstance, who imagines that everyone else in the room is intently watching this noble ceremony take place. And when the sommelier places the just-pulled cork on the table to the right of the glass, The Imbiber picks it up ceremoniously, rolls it between his thumb and forefinger, and takes a deep, satisfying sniff.
The Imbiber deserves to be dunked in a barrel of wine.
Rolling a cork—which is just a piece of bark from a cork tree, after all—between your thumb and forefinger is just plain silly. And sniffing it? Sillier. That is, unless (and this is an important unless) you’re the person pulling the cork.
Here’s why. If I’m pulling a cork out correctly (meaning, aiming the worm of the corkscrew, i.e. the part that looks like fusilli, straight down through center of the cork), I can tell on the first, careful turn of the screw whether or not that cork is going to come out easily or not. If not, there are a number of possible reasons. It might fall apart because it’s too old; it might snap in half because it’s brittle; the center of it might disintegrate, because it's soaked through and crumbly. If any of those things happen, there’s no cork to present to The Imbiber.
But if the cork comes out as it should, in one healthy piece, there’s no need to roll it around between your fingers. If I'm the server, yes, I’ll immediately smell the wet end to see if there are any “off” odors that might indicate the wine is flawed, damaged, or just plain dead. The wet end of a cork is still moist and porous, but the liquid at the tip either absorbs or dissipates pretty quickly. And a few seconds later, the cork smells like… cork. End of story. So why put it on the table? Because The Imbiber wants to show off. He wants to pick it up and sniff it slowly, thoughtfully, giving the world the impression that he's learning something vital from it. And in my experience The Imbiber doesn't even smell the end of the cork, which actually might tell him something. No, instead he passes it sideways under his nostrils as though it were a cigar. “Ah yes, excellent,” says The Imbiber, putting the cork down again. Really? Excellent what? Excellent tree bark?
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I, too, occasionally like some of the pomp that comes with wine service, especially if it’s a festive gathering and the sommelier plays to the crowd. But at the end of the day, all the customer really needs to do is give the glass a swirl and a sniff, assess if the wine has any of those “off” aromas, confirm that decision with a quick a taste, and, if all is in order, say, “Perfect. Thank you.” I mean, unless you really like having sommeliers think you're a twit. In that case, go right ahead, smell all the corks you want.