Should sommeliers sip wine before serving it? A debate is rekindled

Should sommeliers sip wine before serving it? A debate is rekindled

Sip or sniff? Should sommeliers be pre-tasting wine? (Image: Eduardo Pavon) 

Once upon a time, sommeliers would graciously pre-taste the wine of kings and queens in order to foil potential poisoning attempts. That tradition has stuck around over the centuries, morphing into something less dramatic: in some restaurants, the sommelier will take a small sip from a bottle before serving it to a customer—usually without the customer knowing—in order to ensure the wine isn’t flawed. It’s a practice that Eric Asimov of the New York Times is seeing more and more often—and it’s coming with more and more controversy.

Some customers are appalled at the prospect of sharing their expensive wine with the house. But a small taste from the sommelier can often prevent feelings of uncertainty or embarrassment, which makes it worth the sacrifice, as far as Asimov is concerned. After all, nobody wants to serve a bad bottle of wine, and customers are often reluctant to speak up if they suspect their bottle is not up to par. Others say it’s condescending to assume that a customer can’t decide for themselves.

“A sommelier worth his salt will let the customer decide on whether the wine is drinkable or not,” Toronto wine expert Tony Aspler tells us. “A quick sniff of the cork will alert the server if there is a potential problem with the bottle. At that point, the server can warn the customer that there may be a fault.”

For sommelier Zoltan Szabo, allowing customers to make their own decisions is a win-win scenario. “Once they have declared that the wine is fine, they will enjoy it,” he says. “They have to. After all, they just finished saying it was excellent, and they are also proud of their choice, showing off in front of their dinner companions.”

One thing is certain, though: a zero-tasting policy is decidedly less interesting for the sommelier. Jamie Drummond, a Toronto sommelier and director of programs at Good Food Media, admits he’s learned “a hell of a lot” about wine through years of working at establishments where the practice was commonplace. Still, he thinks it’s outdated. “I think that the practice is now viewed as being rather démodé and archaic,” says Drummond. “Although, I can still see it working in certain establishments—namely démodé and archaic ones.”