We love to smell things, those of us who land on the wine and food spectrum somewhere between “Interested In” and “Obsessed With.” Smelling is a huge part of our pastime. Just about everybody gives wine a sniff, and lots of others have no problem lowering their faces above recently-set-down dishes of food as they click through the sensory checklist: view, smell, taste, emote.
I’ve long been an indiscriminate sniffer, and I can safely say I’ll smell anything once.
Early in my wine journey, though, I refrained from smelling corks for any reason, first because I thought I would look stupid doing it, and second because I didn’t know what to smell for. Like gazing through a jeweler’s loupe at a diamond, unless you tell me what I’m seeing, it doesn’t really mean much to me.
That reticence served me well, because, luckily for me, I was clued in very early on that there is no need to smell the cork when a restaurant server sets it in front of you. Smell the wine, not the cork.
Your job when that first small splash of wine is poured into your glass is to let the server know whether the wine is spoiled or not, not to say whether you like the wine or not.
I assume that a few people have sniffed corks in my presence through the years, but the only time I clearly remember it happening was at a winery, where a visitor insisted to the winemaker that the wine we were sampling was affected by cork taint, or TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), the compound that can create unsavory aromas in wine, ranging from wet cardboard to musty boathouse.
The winemaker couldn’t smell anything wrong in the wine itself, so he lifted the cork to his nose and rolled it, quickly and precisely, as he sniffed. It was clear he had employed this maneuver many times before. He shrugged, opened a second bottle and did the cork roll all over again. As far as he could tell, both bottles were good.
The winemaker was not sniffing for pleasure — he was trying to sniff out a culprit because he found no clues in the wine itself. The cork was his last line of defense, and if you smelled something off in a wine that you ordered in a restaurant and the server or sommelier couldn’t smell what you were smelling, he or she might resort to smelling the cork too.
But generally, all anyone needs to do is smell the wine. You don’t really even need to taste it when that first pour lands in your glass. It’s never a bad thing to taste it, and after you do, there’s no penalty for saying, “Mmm” or “Wow, my life officially just began,” but no server expects such a proclamation. Just say that it’s good (as opposed to spoiled), and let the pouring continue. Don’t even give that cork the time of day.
If you don’t like the wine you ordered, here are two dead-language words for you: caveat emptor. It’s not a restaurant’s responsibility to take back wine — or food — because it doesn’t suit your tastes.
A restaurant should take back food that has been improperly prepared, according to the description you understood or the instructions you gave. A restaurant should do the same with bad wine, as long as it’s objectively bad — not stylistically bad. The bad wine has to be corked, or oxidized, or cooked or something that makes it clearly sick. It can’t just be untalented, disappointing or a poor fit for your food or mood.
Show the server you know what you’re doing by ignoring the cork and simply smelling the wine before giving your approval. A head nod will do the trick. You’re not going to come across many spoiled wines in your life, and if you do come across one and don’t notice, it won’t kill you. Sniff the wine, and if something doesn’t seem right, run it by your server.
Before you leave, drop that cork into your pocket as a keepsake, and if curiosity gets the best of you later, give it a whiff. What you choose to sniff in the privacy of your own home is your own business.