Oeno Files

A Stupid Question for a Sommelier

Seastar’s sommelier tells us when we can (and can’t) send the bottle back.

January 25, 2010

Yashar Shayan says you can send a bottle back if you don’t like it, but he himself employs a wait-and-see approach.

The questions in this new series aren’t really stupid. But the whole wine thing can be so (unnecessarily) intimidating. Good thing for you I have no shame.

This week’s expert is Yashar Shayan, a sommelier at Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar (Bellevue, South Lake Union). Shayan says he loves the way wine allows you to “experience the world’s cultures and history one glass at a time.” Another reason he became a sommelier: “I thought it would make me look cool.”

When he’s not at Seastar, Yashar helps out in the cellar at Woodinville winery Efeste.

Here, a stupid question for Yashar Shayan.

When I order a bottle of wine, can I send it back if I don’t like it, or only if it’s bad? Also, how can I tell if it has gone bad?

Many restaurants will take the wine back simply because you don’t like it. We won’t force you to pay for, and drink, a wine that you don’t like, because we like our guests to enjoy their dining experience.

Personally though, when I have wine, I don’t really analyze it on that first taste. I don’t look at color and legs, or consider things like complexity. When I get the first pour, I smell it and make sure it’s drinkable, meaning it doesn’t have any off smells or serious faults like TCA (a compound present when a wine is “corked,” more on that below) and oxidation. From there, I’ll take my time and examine the wine over the entire course of the meal, see how it opens up and how it interacts with various foods. I’m almost always surprised how a wine that may not have really grabbed me at the beginning has me wanting more by the end.

The main reasons a sommelier pours you that small taste of a bottle before serving it are: 1. TCA (I think we should stop calling it “corked” and figure out a new, more accurate name for it) and 2. oxidation. Corked wines, which smell like moldy newspapers or damp basements, get that way when chlorine (specifically a group of chemical compounds known as Chlorophenols) interacts with fungi found in nature to produce the compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA for short. Though the cork is the most common carrier of TCA, it can lurk on a variety of surfaces porous enough to grow fungus. I’ve had shoes with “corked” soles, I’ve eaten carrots and scallions that were tainted with TCA (or something like it), and even been served corked water at restaurants. This means that wines using cork alternatives—yes, even screwcaps—can be tainted if they pick it up from a bad barrel or another source before bottling, but that’s far less common.

An oxidized wine is exactly what it sounds like, a wine that’s gone bad due to overexposure to oxygen. To me, oxidized wine smells like vinegar or an apple that was peeled and left on the counter for a day or so. That vinegar smell is caused by acetic acid, which you’ve smelled in your bottle of vinegar at home. The old apple smell I typically associate with Acetaldehyde. If you find your wine is oxidized when it’s freshly opened, it could mean that the cork was bad in the sense that it didn’t seal perfectly. Screwcaps can also fail here if they were damaged or crushed during assembly or shipping. I have opened several bottles of the same wine and found they all seemed bad, which led me to think they were oxidized before being bottled.

Neither TCA nor oxidation is dangerous. In fact, there’s generally nothing in a bottle of wine—good or bad—that’s harmful to humans. Still, you should always send back a bottle if you think it is off.

Dawn Smith explains what to do when a sommelier hands you a cork.

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