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Few issues of wine etiquette seem to cause as much consternation as the increasingly common practice of a sommelier taking a small sip of wine, usually unbidden, to test for soundness. Diners often are surprised to learn that their bottle has in effect been shared with the restaurant, even if it’s just the smallest amount.
The practice, which is more common at high-end restaurants with ambitious wine lists, can make diners uncomfortable. Some believe the restaurant may be taking advantage of them by consuming wine that they have bought. Others feel demeaned, that their role of assessing the wine has been usurped.
“I know I’d rather be doing the tasting because I trust myself,” Mr. Silberling said.
It’s a touchy subject, particularly because, from the restaurant’s point of view, it’s all for the consumer’s benefit. Some restaurants believe that, since they are more familiar than most consumers with the wines they offer, they can save diners from accidentally accepting a bottle that is not up to standard. “I think it’s an important service,” said Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group. “We want the sommelier to assure that the wine gets to the customer as it is intended.”
“It goes back hundreds of years, when the role of sommeliers was to ensure that kings or royalty didn’t get poisoned,” said Evan Goldstein, a wine educator and former president of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization dedicated to raising the standards of beverage service. “My understanding is that the tastevin was put on a chain and put around the neck of the sommelier exactly for that purpose.”