It’s an age-old ritual. You sit down with a wine list, attempting to divine the ideal bottle for the table, and take a stab at pronouncing it for your server—all the while pointing at the string of words and numbers, hoping you will understand one another correctly. A few moments later, a sommelier materializes, brandishing a bottle to confirm the transaction. You squint to closely examine the label, and nod in approval. The sommelier whisks it away, opens it, tastes it, brings it back and cedes judgment to you, the guest, to answer the unspoken question: Is this wine OK?
“It’s a beautiful ritual—a moment when [a sommelier] puts her expertise humbly on the back burner and gives the guest the power,” says Victoria James, sommelier of Cote in Manhattan.
It’s also a nexus of anxiety for drinkers. Though modern hospitality professionals almost universally insist that there shouldn’t be a power dynamic (perceived or otherwise) between them and guests, the sommelier’s specialization implies an imbalance in knowledge, which bears upon the dance drinkers do around tasting. In the moment between a sommelier pouring a taste and the guest’s approval, the drinker is forced to have an internal conversation about her own grasp of wine, whether or not this particular wine is representative of what was ordered and if it’s going to be enjoyable for the table at large. But behind those questions cascades another set of issues that are entangled with aesthetics, culture and the notion of who gets to have what. What if the skin-contact garganega or the nebbiolo from California isn’t representative of what was ordered? What if you realize, with that first sip, that somewhere a misunderstanding has occurred, and the bottle isn’t going to bring you or your table pleasure?
This 20-second transaction, ripe with subtleties and minor confusions, has always been fraught. But over the last decade, it’s been further complicated by a paradigm shift not only toward the relaxing of wine service, but by stretching the definition of “flaw,” and to whom these perceived flaws register.
“I think the culture has changed a lot from the first time we had this conversation [about wine service] in the early 2000s,” says Justin Vann, of Public Services in Houston. “Natural wine has changed it too.” James echoes the sentiment. “To some, there may be qualities of these wines that are favorable, but to others they might be considered flaws,” she says. These flaws, perceived or actual, include conditions like volatile acidity (aka VA, aromas of vinegar or nail polish remover), brettanomyces (aka “brett,” often described as barnyard-like funk), mousiness (literally what it sounds like) or ropiness (a slimy, viscous texture). Everyone’s threshold to accept or reject these qualities falls upon a spectrum, and as a wider range of wines enters the marketplace and a younger generation grows up with wines that fall ever further from the concept of “classic,” these thresholds shift—or are entirely demolished. A drinker’s knowledge must necessarily expand to navigate this new topography.
“It’s good to recognize [ordering wine] is not a science. It’s an interpretive conversation that has a lot of weird subtext within it,” says Los Angeles sommelier Taylor Parsons. Translation: The potential for misunderstanding one another is huge.
So how are drinkers to navigate this new paradigm, and with what language? On the hospitality side, it often comes down to intuitive calculations. At many establishments with a focus on natural wines or a wider range of styles, no longer is a sommelier or server simply attempting to gauge one’s taste in grape, region, vintage and producer, but instead a drinker’s openness to wines that stretch the notion of typicity. “We pour a wine by the glass from Sébastien Riffault in Sancerre,” says Daryl Nuhn of Peoples Wine, a bar and wine shop in Manhattan. “People feel so comfortable with the word [Sancerre], and we never push them away from it, but it’s a very atypical expression and can be a little polarizing.” Where someone may expect to get a crisp, mineral-driven white, these are wines that have often been affected by botrytis, fermented with wild yeast, aged on the lees and have gone unfiltered.
Nuhn’s staff is trained to talk guests through such idiosyncrasies and provide tastes before pouring. Likewise, Vann has instituted a system marking wines as “green-,” “yellow-” and “red-light.” Green lights are approachable and indistinguishable from a classic style; yellow versions still taste like the varietal in question, but might have some unusual qualities like a little VA, while red options are “challenging, most unusual,” and require a deeper level of conversation. The latter translate to seriously boundary-testing wines that require hand-selling, and the building of trust by both parties.
Every sommelier I spoke with expressed their hope that customers feel empowered to speak honestly when the wine presented isn’t representative of what they ordered, or what they desire. But when the spotlight is turned on, when we’re asked to ascertain the merits and flaws of a mostly subjective product, or evaluate another human being’s sincere efforts, we drinkers can crumble beneath the mistrust of our own judgments. A casual Instagram survey I conducted provided a peek into just how deeply some drinkers internalize the moment of judgment. A couple of people expressed that they don’t trust their own palates, and are afraid they might be wrong in speaking up if something tastes off. Another felt intimidated by the prospect of personally offending the sommelier.
Perhaps the most insightful answer came from someone who described the situation as one of assuming emotional responsibility for the consequences of speaking up. “For me, this question is more about whether a person feels comfortable registering disappointment, discomfort and coming off as difficult.” They went on to explain that the interaction has potential to incite an anxiety about something much deeper, that, at this moment in time, is particularly poignant. “In some ways it’s about class. My parents never lived a life that allowed them to buy a nice bottle of wine at a restaurant,” they explained. “I have the privilege of doing so now and it comes [with some] weight.”
At the center of all of this lies a more complicated discussion of how, in America, the connection between wine, luxury and socioeconomic status has not yet blown off, and perhaps never will. That even though we may interpret this moment as one of populist revolution, the revolution is still enmeshed with power and embedded with hierarchy. But it’s also a reminder of the ways in which we communicate with one another—that the human lexicon is vast and does not depend upon semantics alone. If we, on both sides of the bottle, open ourselves up to a conversation, what has the potential to feel like an archaic ritual could be transubstantiated into a common language, suffused with a renewed sense of beauty.