definition of Sommelier

By Laura De Pasquale, Wine Director, NORMAN'S

Nothing makes me sadder than when a guest who comes into NORMAN'S to celebrate a special event brings that cherished bottle of 1961 First Growth Bordeaux pre-decanted. (Okay, world hunger, war and racism all make me a lot sadder.)

Generally, the following scenario ensues:

Noting that a guest has elected to bring in a bottle of wine, I approach the table.

"I see you've brought in a special bottle this evening. Will you require any specific wine service?"

"It's my birthday and I've been saving this wine for 40 years. I've already decanted it."

"Oh, yes. I see. When did you decant it?"

"Well, I wanted to give it plenty of time to breathe so I opened it this morning before I left for work, rinsed the bottle, let it dry all day, and poured it back into the bottle an hour ago."

Crestfallen, I reply, "Oh. Shall I pour it for you now?" - hoping upon hope that a sliver of fruit might remain for their enjoyment.

"Oh no, we'd like a bottle of Champagne first, but you must join us for a taste of the Lafite when you have a moment."

A while later, we all taste the wine. The guest looks genuinely heartbroken. "I guess I should have drank this years ago. All that's left are tannins. Maybe I should take a look at the list and order a good bottle of red."

This early-decanting tragedy could have been avoided because a 1961 Lafite is a spectacular bottle of wine.

So when do you decant? Well the battle continues to rage on between those who want to open all wines days and weeks before they're drunk and those who believe that big, tannic, young wines benefit from immediate decanting by getting some air into them and that older wines should be left alone. Me? I soundly fall in with camp #2.

In a perfect world, restaurants, sommeliers and collectors would stand their older vintage bottles up for a few days before opening them. This way, sediment would settle at the bottom, making decanting a one-step gentle process. A spectacular wine that has had 30 or 40 years of bottle age is a precious commodity and should be treated as such. Assuming the wine has been stored properly, an older wine at peak or peaking needs to be treated delicately. Air is one of wine's greatest enemies and decanting adds a lot of oxygen to that wine, upsetting the balance and quite often causing the fragile fruit to fade away sooner than later. Think of it as taking your grandmother, turning her upside-down and shaking her until her dentures fall out - not a pretty picture.

If an older vintage has been stored on its side, then the traditional method of using a cradle and candle should be used to decant, but again, fairly soon before consumption.

In an even more perfect world, a collector who decides to bring in that older, special bottle would call ahead and make arrangements to drop the bottle off so it could stand up in the restaurant's cellar and settle. One of the most spectacular experiences when enjoying an older vintage wine is to observe and savor the evolution of the wine in the glass. Why deny yourself this by decanting too soon?

Big, young, full-bodied beauties definitely benefit from the oxygenation that decanting provides. So when you order that 1997 Maya or Dominus ask for the wine to be decanted and request special glassware if available. I also like decanting young white Burgundies and big, fat California Chardonnays.

Truly, I can understand when a collector is hesitant to bring a valuable bottle of wine to a restaurant and turn it over to the staff for proper handling. Too often I have seen servers unable to correctly open a bottle of wine, let alone know what to do with something precious. My advice - CALL AHEAD. You should do this anyway to find out about the restaurant's policy and corkage fees. Find out if there is a sommelier on staff. If there isn't, ask the manager's advice. Perhaps he or she will assist you, or, with advance notice, seat you with an experienced, knowledgeable server. And remember, always offer the server or sommelier a taste.

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