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The Sommelier’s Cup – It’s Still Romantic

by Sara & Monty Preiser

Preiser’s Reserve: When we first met Stephen and Sue Parry a few years ago, we thought their relatively new Cabernet Sauvignons (the sole varietal they produce) had great potential. And now we are happy to say we were right. The current and immediate past releases from Parry Cellars, perhaps Napa Valley's smallest single vineyard winery, are quite beautiful, with silky mouth-feel, luscious fruit, and almost perfect balance. The 2001 ($46) is deservedly sold out, but some 2000 (at a bargain $35) remains. We haven’t tasted the just released 2002 ($48), but are anxious to do so this week while we are in Napa. All Parry fruit grows on rocky soil studded with obsidian right in the family’s front yard on the Silverado Trail just north of St. Helena. The small acreage allows an average yield of only about 200 cases per year, so we suggest you hurry to obtain some. Feel free to contact Sue or Stephen, two of the nicest people in the business.


The Sommelier’s Cup – It’s Still Romantic

It isn’t always easy to find a fresh topic for a column, so we love it when readers ask questions that call for answers that will include a bit of somewhat offbeat information. Today’s column was inspired by an inquiry from Megan Castillo of Julieanna’s Patio Cafe in Yuma, Arizona. Megan was interested in obtaining information about the silver or silver plated flat bottomed shallow cup often worn on a ribbon around the neck by sommeliers. While at first blush we thought we knew what there was to know about this device, upon only a little reflection it became clear that we really didn’t. So off to the books (more accurately in this century – off to the Internet) we went, and what we found was, we believe, interesting enough to share.

To begin, we thought it might be nice to identify the subject of our column with a name. What DO people call it today? So we started asking sommeliers at dinners, whether they wore the cup or not, what it was called. Significantly, most used no name other than “sommelier’s cup” – not very exciting, to be sure. Nevertheless, while that may not have been the European name for the vessel at the inception of its use, nor might it be the preferred name in Europe today, that identification seems to be accepted by most in this country. As we said, not the most fascinating piece of news you have ever heard, we are sure, but at least you will be able to refer to the instrument by an accepted name when you dine in the U.S. This is assuming, however, that you ever see one again. You may not, as the traditional sommelier’s cup is rarely employed in this wine enlightened society (except as an affectation), and almost never by a wine server who is actually evaluating the wine for consumption. A little background helps explain why the sommelier’s cup was valuable in days gone by, but no longer.

Quite obviously, at some point in early European wine history it became necessary for wine to be tasted, and its quality assessed, by the trade and by cellar masters. For this purpose, only a small amount of liquid was needed, and thus only a small vessel was necessary. Size notwithstanding, the container needed to be made of a material that would allow one to judge clarity, which was robust enough to withstand the rigor of daily commercial use, yet of such material that would not taint the wine.

Therefore, the French (more particularly, the Burgundians) designed a small concave container (20 to 50 cc) made of silver, nickel silver, or other shiny metal. This vessel, with each one having individual patterns and depths of indentations, came to be known in English as a wine “taster,” and in French as a “tasse a vin” (vin meaning wine and tasse meaning cup). Ultimately, the words combined into “tastevin” (tah-stih-van, though a passé, yet correct, pronunciation can be tat-ah-van).

The selection of the metals abovementioned was logical indeed. It was simply easier to judge the color of a red wine when it was poured in a shallow layer over brightly reflecting silver than into a glass where it sat in a greater mass, or into porcelain where there was no reflection at all. The silver itself allowed the reflection of light, an important factor at a time when evaluations often occurred in dimly lit areas illuminated only by candle or flame. Helping the process were the angular nooks and crannies in the shiny cup, as they also catch and reflect light. While porcelain tasters are known to exist, it is not surprising that the majority of survivors are silver. By the 17th and 18th centuries these implements were so popular that even today they remain the acknowledged ceremonial symbol of Burgundy, and are still referred to in Europe as “tastevins” on more occasions than not.

Despite their rather romantic history, and the fact that the tastevin has become sort of a symbol of wine tasting, it is really a rather useless and impractical tool. Because it is broad and shallow, it does not allow proper appreciation of a wine’s aromatics – as important a factor in assessing wine as any other. Further, a moist lip can too often cause the silver to leave a metallic taste in the mouth.

The ideal implements for tasting wine are long stemmed, narrow lipped wine glasses that are slightly narrower at the top than at the base, and hold about 12 oz. of wine. For tasting purposes, the glass should be filled to about 20% of its capacity so as to permit the wine to be swirled vigorously without spilling in order to release the aromatics. To examine the color of a red wine, all one need do is hold the glass by its stem and tip it towards one side, thus distributing the wine over a broader and shallower surface. The thinner the glass, the more vivid the actual flavors.

None of this should discourage those who can afford them from buying tastevins, as they are to some highly valued collectors' items. Further, they remain in use as traditional "badges" for the sommelier, even if their actual utility is limited. A number of wine-accessory shops and websites that sell tastevins are available on the Internet for wine lovers who want a little piece of history for their own collection. We have a number of tastevins, and make good use of them. They make a nice addition hanging in our wine room.

Recently we were asked about non alcoholic wines. Unfortunately (at least so we thought at the time), we had not tasted any lately. So off we went to find someone to suggest a few to non alcoholic Chardonnays to sample. What we discovered was that even those who sold the wine cautioned us to buy only one as a starting point.

If you have the notion that non alcoholic wine is simply non fermented grape juice, you may disabuse yourself of that idea right now. We had to do that very thing when we read the back label of an Inglenook St. Regis Reserve Chardonnay ($4.99) from Inglenook Vineyards in Gonzales, California. Interestingly, the vintners tell us that this product began as a premium wine made with Inglenook’s “distinguished” traditional wine skills, from which the alcohol was gently removed. So this wine did in fact did undergo fermentation. Who knew?

So how was it? Hmmmmm . . . .

We almost didn’t drink it because the nose was so off putting, but anything for a story, some say. So we sipped, and the first thing that was obvious was that the taste was better than the aroma. We split on whether we would have identified it as wine or grape juice had we sampled blindly (that’s the plan for the next one – if there is a next one), but it did have a fuller mouth feel and less obvious acidity than normal grape juice. Nevertheless, we think that if taste was the only consideration, we would choose the grape juice over this product. However (and a big however in this health conscious age it is), calories in the Inglenook were only 25 per 8 ounces, while grape juice may be four times that. A tough dilemma, perhaps.

If you have a non alcoholic wine you like, please tell us about it. Until someone sends us a recommendation, our tasting of this genre is, as they say in the TV industry, on hiatus.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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