Why Do You Taste Wine In Restaurants Before It’s Served?

The traditional explanation is that you taste the wine to make sure it's not corked, but this explanation never made a lot of sense to me. First of all, wine doesn't get corked all that often — I've received corked wine maybe three times in years of eating at restaurants. Second, you could figure out it was corked after it was poured. Why the necessity to taste it first? And third, waiters go through the tasting ceremony even if it's a screwtop bottle or plastic cork, which means the wine isn't going to be corked.

But I recently came across an alternative explanation in Benjamin Walker's Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man:

'tasting' used to be the common preliminary rite in ancient times. Generally the first drink was taken by the chief of a tribe because he had to be served first as the representative of the god. It also symbolically lifted the taboo that prohibited drinking on ordinary occasions, and neutralized the mana that inheres in sacramental drinks. It was also an assurance to guests that the drink was not poisoned.

Even today in western society the man ordering a bottle of wine for his companions, or offering wine to guests, often has the first sip from his glass and then has the other glasses filled. This is a survival of the old 'tasting' custom, by which the host 'approved' the drink, and ensured that it was free from poison. In Moslem countries the ruler had an official taster, and only after he had tried the sultan's food and drink in his presence without ill effects, did the latter partake of them himself.

I have a hunch Walker is right — that there's nothing very rational about wine tasting in restaurants. It's just long-established ritual. But, of course, there are all kinds of odd customs and superstitions associated with wine, so that shouldn't be too surprising.


Posted on Tue Mar 20, 2012


I always figured it was to see if the wine tasted good...lol
Posted by Crafty Dragon  on  Tue Mar 20, 2012  at  08:54 PM
Well, bear in mind that 100+ years ago wine corking was somewhat less exact science than it was today, so you would get much higher percentage of corked wines. So a necessary component of the meal, taken to ensure that you don't get a nice refreshing glass of vinegar, becomes a tradition, with its own pomp and ceremony.

I do think Walker has missed a more basic element of the tradition, though: showing off. By following the ritual - smelling the cork, tasting the wine, muttering about the flavorw - one is proclaiming oneself as an expert on the matter, with all the smug pretension that follows such things.

Me, I'm fond of the reds from the Charles Shaw wineries, aka 'Two Buck Chuck'. I did have a rather excellent Moselland Riesling recently. Tasted *exacty* like biting into a Granny Smith apple.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Wed Mar 21, 2012  at  12:07 AM
Having a screw-top bottle or plastic cork doesn't mean that the wine cannot become 'corked'. 'Corking' is not necessarily due to the cork, but the result of contamination of the bottle, e.g. when a bottle has not been cleaned well before being filled with wine. A cork can be the source of this contamination, but need not be. Using a screw-top or plastic cork reduces some of the risk, but not all.
Drinking wine is and in the past certainly was a social event (unless you are an alcoholic). Tasting basically avoids a host of a dinner the embarrasment of discovering too late that (s)he served spoiled or bad wine to his guests. I doubt it has anything to do with poison. It has to do with avoiding social embarrassment.
Posted by LaMa  on  Wed Mar 21, 2012  at  01:59 AM
Plus, as Robin points out above, the ritual display of "knowledge" is part of it, certainly.

Yet I do think the main purpose was and is simply to see whether the wine has no "cork", both to avoid social embarrasment with respect to the guests and to avoid unpleasant side-effect of even mildly corked wine (which not everybody might detect). It is not just that 'corked' wine tastes less good: drinking wine with 'cork' also leads to bad hangovers.
Posted by LaMa  on  Wed Mar 21, 2012  at  02:04 AM
In addition, I also wonder whether part of the ritual was meant to test whether the wine served was indeed the wine ordered or sold. i.e., a test if one was not conned with a cheap substitute when ordering a specific wine.
Posted by LaMa  on  Wed Mar 21, 2012  at  02:18 AM
Most people wouldn't necessarily be able to tell if the wine was the one they ordered. That's why you're presented with the cork after the bottle is opened, which should be while you're watching. (The metal or plastic cover should still be on the bottle, too, when it comes to the table.) An unscrupulous restaurant might switch labels on you, passing off a cheaper wine as the one you wanted, but the cork would be labeled with the vineyard's name, making fraud a lot harder. When presented with the cork, inspect it with that in mind. You're not supposed to sniff it.
Posted by J. Jacob Markin  on  Wed Mar 21, 2012  at  02:30 PM
This is why I stick to vodka...
Posted by Nettie  on  Wed Mar 21, 2012  at  04:52 PM
I´ve worked in a Michelin star restaurant as my wife (in another restaurant). And the moment the bottle was openend the sommelier sniffed the cork. If there was something wrong he would apologise and went to get another one.
If the client who was offered a taste and rejected it it was clear to us that he was just trying to impress his guests (who in 99% of the cases were of the younger female variety...). ALL bottles rejected by customers were fine. No exception.
And indeed with really old wines the cork can screw up the wine. But those were always intercepted and replaced even before the customer got his snobbish lips on it.
The good thing was that I (and my wife) learned a lot about wines and tasted a lot of the "rejects", some very exclusive... 😊
Posted by Unfairly Balanced  on  Thu Mar 22, 2012  at  12:50 PM
A statistical study from a few years back indicates that on average, 1 out of every 72 bottles of wine with a cork has some degree of contamination. The inferred idea is that with modern sterilization methods, that number has improved, though corked wine is a result of TCA (triclroroanisole) contamination, which may occur only with the result of using cork and rarely from oak barrels.

Screw-top wies and plastic cork wines are rarely "corked", and if those wines have "turned", it wil likely be for other reasons.. Other types of contamination are "cooked" wine, which are a result of heat damage and a number of other problems which are a rare in comparison. Sniffing a cork tells you very little, as most corks have trace amounts of mold, which may not reflect the condition of the wine. Tasting the wine first is essential, as it is the best way to indicate if the wine has "turned".
Posted by Rob D  on  Tue Mar 05, 2013  at  10:08 PM
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