Grapevine: A Bottle of Wine is Filled with Longstanding Traditions

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Wine is rich in tradition.

It is rich in the ethereal tradition that embodies the efforts of millennia of winemakers who have produced wine following the time-honored precepts of their forbearers.

It is rich in the dynamic tradition of millions who have enjoyed it as a symbol of celebration. Raising a glass with others in a toast is a time-honored symbol – a symbol of success, of special occasions, of camaraderie, and even of military victory.

It is also rich in the more mundane traditions that have been passed down to 21st century wine consumers. Much of our interface with a bottle of wine comes to us from the limitations that early European winemakers faced in delivering wine from their winery to consumers.

From the format of bottle labels, to the means of sealing the contents, to the shape of the bottle, every known means was employed to insure the preservation of wines as they were stored in cellars and as they traversed the highways and dusty, bumpy byways en route to their destination.

Today, as we partake of a bottle of wine, several of these traditions and histories tend to lose their import.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when dining at a fine restaurant. As my wife and I settled in for the ritual of a restaurant meal – the proper dinnerware, the placement of the silverware and glasses at table, the fawning of the waiter and sommelier, the multiple food courses, and the presentation of the bottle of wine, I began to focus on one aspect of our dining experience.

Having perused the wine list (for an interminable period of time, which I am prone to do, and am always reminded by my wife), I ordered a bottle of wine for us to enjoy, confident in my choice.

When presented with the bottle, the “somm” cradles the bottle for my inspection. The tradition behind this? Simply to verify what is about to be poured is my selection. I believe this may have been one of the derivations of the term “bait and switch,” when the wine poured was not necessarily the wine ordered. I always check for the name of the producer and especially the vintage. It is upsetting to be presented with a wine from a more recent vintage. “We haven’t updated our wine list,” is not an acceptable reason to present the wrong wine.

Next, the somm will open the bottle in my presence, again to validate the authenticity of the wine.

Then I am presented with the cork, which I dutifully sniff. The tradition? In times past, wines were not always stored under ideal conditions. A dry cork may portend an oxidized wine; a cork should be moist. A cork with crystals? Not a problem – it’s a natural byproduct of cellar conditions. For a high-end wine, I always compare the name on the cork to that on the label. Yes, counterfeit wines have duped trusting somms and consumers for centuries.

Now the moment of truth. I am offered a sample from the bottle. The tradition? One in fifteen bottles is corked, conveying an odor of “wet dog.”  This is a valid reason to reject the wine. I rarely feel the need to taste the wine; a deep sniff into the glass informs me if the wine is corked, if it is past its prime or has any off-putting aromas. Remember, our ultimate appreciation of wine is determined by our sense of smell, not taste.

Once I’ve sampled and approved the bottle, I can comfortably offer it to my patient wife.

If the wine passes my evaluation, yet doesn’t meet my expectations? Sorry, this is not a reason for rejecting a bottle. Consider the experience a learning opportunity to refine your palate.

Traditions are steeped in history. Even in our age of instant gratification and search engine wisdom, they hold the answer to our enjoyment of fine wine.

Next week, the traditions of bottle shape and size, and the reasons for corks and foils.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine


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