Weirded Out by Wine

Is ordering wine in restaurants making you crazy? Dear Dara prescribes anti-psychotics.

Dear Dara,

Ordering bottles of wine in restaurants leaves me weirded out every time: I feel like an idiot talking to a sommelier, especially when he asks me questions I don't know the answer to. (Do I like white Burgundy? Beats me. It's like asking me if I like a movie I've never seen.) But it's even worse when I have to order where there is no sommelier. What the heck am I supposed to do then? And, god forbid, if something's wrong with the wine, what then? I'm so out of my depth with this stuff that I don't feel confident making them take it back.... What then? Seriously: What then?

Perplexed in Kingfield

Corked and abandoned: If the wine smells like an old, wet dog, don't be afraid to send it back
City Pages
Corked and abandoned: If the wine smells like an old, wet dog, don't be afraid to send it back

Dear Perplexed,

Let me tell you a true story. A horrible, true story that happened to little old me, right here in our own western suburbs. I frequently visit restaurants that I don't end up writing about. On the night in question, I was in an iffy-looking strip mall following up a reader tip. The restaurant was fairly pricy, but inside it looked like a diner. I persevered. Our server was 300 years old. She was the oldest working woman in North America, and still bore battle-gore from pulling the wounded off the field at Antietam. She creaked over to our table, and sat down in the booth next to me: "I don't know how much longer I can do this, my hip is giving out," she confided. We discussed her hip, and the inability of doctors to do anything worthwhile even with their fancy motor cars and electric whoozigigs. We eventually approached the subject of food, which she assured us was all good—though she hadn't tasted it, as it was foreign food and did not agree with her. Then we all settled in for a lengthy exegesis on foreigners and digestion. However, she confided, a lot of people did like the food, and the people who made it were so sweet, you wouldn't believe it. I came to believe it, as I heard about how the oldest sons of the family had taken it upon themselves to drive our server to the very ends of god's green earth, and also to Byerly's. "Do you know how much Ritz Crackers cost today?" she demanded.

Suffice it to say that my date and I decided to help minimize this woman's suffering, and put our order all in at once—appetizers, wine, dessert, everything. And then we helped her write it down on the pad, because she had arthritis. When the domestic Pinot Noir arrived, it was gruesomely corked—which is to say, contaminated with a funky-smelling compound called TCA. Specifically, it smelled like an old deck in the rain. And on this deck lay an old, wet dog, an old, wet dog who amused himself with his rotten mushroom collection, which he kept in a special folio of moldy cardboard.

My dinner date, who knew almost nothing about wine, observed: "Everyone likes Pinot Noir now because of Sideways, but I don't think I do." I ignored her, and pushed the glass far away. When one of the restaurateur's sons came to deliver our food, I tried to discuss the wine with him, but he didn't have the language, and sent for our old friend. "Do you like this?" demanded my friend, finally pushing her glass away. "I don't get wine, I guess." I explained to her that it was corked, after which point she brightened considerably: "Well, then, we're supposed to send it back!"

While I am well informed in all things wine—and, I like to think, completely unafraid of servers and sommeliers—I couldn't do it. I just couldn't face explaining to this woman and her supporting cast of gold-hearted immigrants what corked wine was, or that they could return it to their distributor, free of charge. Why do I tell you this? Only to say that social anxiety sometimes hits us all in the wine glass, Perplexed, even if we know way too much about wine. My mother always shrugged off parking tickets, saying: It's just a random fee you pay sometimes, for living in the city. I have adopted this philosophy, and now consider parking tickets to be as randomly undeserved and value-neutral as hail, which may or may not be entirely true, but keeps me peaceful.

I consider interactions like the one with the oldest living server and the corked Pinot Noir to be the parking tickets of restaurant-world: They're just a random fee you pay sometimes for living in a world with wine. But please know that people in wine-world regard it that way too: Wine shops should always take a corked bottle back free of hassle, because they simply return it to the distributor, and a distributor should always take it back, because they should have a cushion built into their profit margins to absorb corked wines. Corked wines account for somewhere between 1 and 15 percent of all wines—the higher percentage being the number promulgated by the screw-top makers, and the lower one being the one supplied by cork-makers. In any event, it happens. There's some thought that it's actually happening more now, because the compound can form when a naturally occurring fungus in the cork interacts with pesticide. And no, this is not a matter of some particular pesticide that is applied to the cork trees, just the average ambient pesticide that we all breathe every day from everyone overspraying pesticide everywhere. Is this enough of a canary in a coal mine for you? It is for me. So if you're reading this while spraying pesticide: Knock it off! Among other evils, you're also increasing social anxiety about wine. But I digress. In order to stop digressing. I phoned up two local sommelier types, and asked them your questions.

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