Decantress advises a self-conscious diner with taste-phobia.
How do you not look like an idiot when asked to taste if the bottle you ordered is good? Do people actually ever send a bottle back? –Etiquette-obsessed
The last thing your server or sommelier wants to do is put you on the spot or make you look like an idiot. Pouring you a taste is simply a step of service that allows you to check for a flaw known as cork taint (what we detect when we say a wine is “corked”) before serving the wine to everyone in your party. Anyone who’s encountered the flaw numerous times before can pick it out fairly easily by simply by smelling the wine in the glass. Give it a little swirl if you want; it helps to release more aromatic compounds into the air. Don’t if you don’t want to—nobody’s judging, and it’s your dinner, your prerogative. If the wine is badly corked, you probably won’t want to actually take a sip. Although it’s harmless to your health, the scent is pretty gross and can have the side effect of stripping the wine’s natural aromas and flavors.
Cork taint goes by a couple other names. You might hear the three-letter-acronym “TCA”, which is short for 2,4,6-Trichloranisole. It’s a chemical compound that sometimes develops in cork production and then later contaminates the bottled wine it comes in contact with. We perceive it as a musty or mildewy scent, sometimes described as wet cardboard, wet dog, or damp basement. In some cases, it’s only faintly detectable; in others, it’s overwhelmingly obvious. The icky compound is also not unique to wine. I’ve smelled it occasionally in tap water, cut mango, and commercially packaged “baby” carrots. Basically, things that have been treated with chlorine.
Nowadays, sommeliers usually smell and/or taste the wine upon opening. In part, this is to catch any flawed bottles before they make it to the table. If it’s corked, they’ll simply retrieve a new bottle and let you know what was wrong with the first one. If they don’t taste it, and you have doubts as to its soundness—you can always ask for their opinion and have them take a whiff. It’s not the result of anything the restaurant did or didn’t do (i.e. it’s not a sign of improper storage), nor is it the fault of the winery or winemaker. It’s simply an unfortunate and relatively common occurrence, so you can (and should) send the bottle back without worrying that you’re offending anyone. What’s more—the restaurant doesn’t lose money on that bottle; their distributor will credit them the amount they paid for it. No harm, no foul.
If you’ve never smelled TCA before, it’s useful to try a corked bottle next to a sound bottle of the same wine to observe the difference. It may seem silly to ask to keep your glass of the “bad” bottle for when you taste the good one. But if you explain that you want to compare them, the sommelier will not only comply but will be thrilled you want to go through the exercise.
Have a wine situation? Send your questions to Food & Wine's Decantress at firstname.lastname@example.org