There is a piece of advice, regarding the etiquette involved in bringing your own wine to restaurants, that I have read in several reliable books and even passed along. In essence, the advice is that it’s always courteous, when bringing your own bottle to a restaurant with a serious wine program, to offer the sommelier a taste. I am feeling disillusioned about this particular suggestion. Several times in the last three months, I have made just such an offer, and only once was the response positive: at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville, California. I had a very old bottle of nonvintage champagne that should’ve been quite good back when it was fresh. But nonvintage champagne isn’t meant for aging—although it can improve in the bottle for several years—and I had literally no idea when the bottle had been released. I also had no confidence that it had been stored properly. Therefore I had asked the sommelier if we might open it, reassure ourselves that it was drinkable, and only then commit to having it with our meal. I think he enjoyed the crapshoot quality of the enterprise, and felt as curious as we did, and thus appreciated the opportunity to share the moment. As it happened, the stuff had darkened considerably, lost some but not all of its fizz, and deepened in flavor in a very strange way. The sommelier then did a wonderful thing: Agreeing with us that it would contribute nothing at all to the main part of our meal, he set it aside and brought us wine by the glass to pair with each course, and then returned to the champagne during the cheese course—when it turned out to be, strangely, a fantastic pairing.
But that experience was the exception. Other than that one instance, each time I have offered a sommelier a taste of a bottle I’ve brought, I’ve gotten a response that varied from polite uninterest to befuddlement to a vague whiff of contempt. (And why not? How could I possibly have imagined that such a distinguished sommelier wouldn’t be intimately familiar with my pedestrian midrange bottle from a nearby winery?) So I think I’m going to update my own relationship to this advice: From now on, I will only make this kind of overture when I feel virtually certain that my bottle could offer something of interest to the sommelier. Otherwise, I will avoid what is coming to seem a misguided gesture.