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On Tasting
Gordon Ramsay Says "Consult the Sommelier" - Is He Right?
Tuesday, 13th July, 2010  - David Farmer

Should you ask the sommelier for advice or blaze ahead with your own guess work after detailed study of the wine list? There is no easy answer but here goes.

This is what the master chef thinks his customers should do. The passage is from 'Gordon Ramsay's wise words for the wine bluffs', by Rowan Pelling, Telegraph UK, 10th April, 2010.

"I once interviewed Gordon Ramsay, who confessed that the sort of diner who most irked him was the man (apparently, it was always a man) who made a great show of picking an expensive bottle of wine, then performed the whole charade of wafting the glass under his nose and sluicing the wine around his mouth, before saying it would do. "Ramsay said such people were invariably morons who wouldn't spot a corked bottle if it was thrust up their fundament. Truly cultivated folk, he insisted, would consult the sommelier about the wine, as it was "their bloody job" to know what would go best with your meal."

I always ask sommeliers in Australian restaurants to choose the wine. After setting the price parameter, I just say, surprise me. Presumably they have selected what they are selling and made the selection because the wines were good for one reason or another. Thus they will likely return with a wine that currently excites them. How can you possibly pick something better off a list, unless you select what you already know?

This raises the first question and problem. If you know what you want then you have no reason to ask for advice but why keep ordering what you know? Blimey you must be a boring person to dine with - shake yourself up.

If you feel in the mood for a riesling or a chardonnay then say so, but let the sommelier make the selection. Even so I take the view that wines are more similar than dissimilar and it is best to abandon any style you have in your head; they know more and after all wine is about discovery and fun.

In restaurants where I have known the wine buyer, such as Seans of Panorama, Sydney, or the great Berowra Water of old, I would just walk in and ask for wine and food; and it simply arrived. I do this at the fabulous country restaurant, Fino in Willunga, S.A. Alas my favourite in the Barossa, Bob McLean's fabulous Bar Vinum, closed several years ago.

I can recall many memorable meals in Sydney where this approach has worked well and two stand out; an hilarious evening at Aria where they tolerated our antics as we tried to guess each wine and were hopelessly wrong, and an evening at Tetsuya's where the wine staff doubled their efforts to keep us happy and they did.

But you say. "What if I do not like the wine?" Face the first sad truth about yourself which is you know little about wines and as long as they have no faults they are all good to drink. Get over it and broaden your palate.

So what can go wrong with this approach? Sadly, plenty! The wine list may be poorly chosen and the staff may not know what they are talking about. I would not risk the method outlined unless it is in a starred restaurant. Never ask for advice in an Asian restaurant, but you know this anyway.

My experience in London with this method has not been good. Even in top-notch restaurants and being prepared to pay for a good wine will still lead to many disappointments. The heavy emphasis on French wines produces a lot of hit and miss and this has been amply documented in the on-going 'What We Drank Last Night' series. To be blunt, part of the problem is the belief continental sommeliers have that the wines from their country are superior at all times, making them blind to many faults.

There can also be fundamental stylistic differences as thin tasteless wines that do not show fruit and flavour are not my cup of tea and this was discussed at Catching Up with AFWE .

For expensive wines I am gradually swinging to the view that the use of an iPhone or some other gadget that has an application to Parker's Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator or a source you trust would be of great assistance though I imagine the friendly sommelier will get the sulks very quickly as you fiddle away in your lap.

I might have left these thought at this point had I not just read Eric Asimov's column 'The Pour' from the New York Times, July 6th. It's titled: 'When the First Sip Is the Sommelier's, Not Yours'. From a lesser paper I would have ignored this story but must assume it discusses a major concern of diners. Some quotes:

"Stephen Silberling, a tax lawyer who considers himself a knowledgeable wine drinker, could not contain his astonishment as he told me of his recent experience in a New York restaurant. He had ordered a 2007 Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Belleruche, a wine he and his date had enjoyed so much the previous week that they decided to drink it again. As they sipped their first glass, however, they both thought the wine tasted different, and they debated whether it was flawed.

"Listening to the conversation, the sommelier piped up.

"He said, 'I've tasted the wine, it's fine,' Mr. Silberling recalled. 'He tasted the wine? I was very surprised. I had never heard of that being done before.'"

There is more.

"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.

"Nonetheless, some consumers, even educated ones, are suspicious of the practice.

"'I've never seen it, and I would say I'm happy I've never seen it,' said Joe Roberts, who blogs about wine at 'I would imagine the first reaction would be, somebody's trying to cop a taste of my expensive wine.'

I doubt that these diners are quite ready for the Farmer method of ordering wine let alone my view that any time you find the wine is truly amazing you should offer a glass to the waiting staff.

If you are of the view that you would rather make your own mind up than listen to a sommelier then the debate becomes that of saying you need no advisors at all. This will cause consternation to publishers of wine magazines and wine writers who would be out of business.

Really this is not about, should you ask for advice, but whether you are relaxed enough to ask for it, and if given will you take any note anyway. As for Mr. Silberling, the Belleruche he so dearly likes is a third rate Rhone at best and he would do better next time to say, this is the wine I normally buy and for this price can you recommend something a whole lot better.

I think I need a drink - and no I will not be asking for advice - just this once.

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