Thursday, April 10, 2008

To Season or Not to Season?

After posting a report last week about a recent meal at Marc Vetri’s Osteria, comments came rolling in – not about the restaurant or its food but about wine. Most of them came in response to a brief observation I’d made in the context of a discussion about the state of wine service at Osteria: “All stemware is seasoned.” Feedback quickly went from simply inquisitive to positively contentious. Rather than continuing the discussion there and leaving all the fun buried in the comments section of a restaurant profile, I promised to elevate the thread to its own post.

For those that may not already be familiar with the practice of seasoning wine glasses, here is a snippet from my own response to one of the earlier comments:

In a nutshell, seasoning is the practice of pouring a small amount of wine into a glass. The wine is swirled and the glass tipped, with the idea being to entirely coat the inside of the glass. The wine is then poured into the next glass and the process repeated until all necessary glasses have been "seasoned."

The intention is to maximize one's olfactory experience of the wine and to totally remove any remaining traces of residual odor or detergent from the glasses themselves. The biggest bone of contention for those not in favor of the practice seems to be that the ounce or so of wine used for seasoning is usually sacrificed.

Though seasoning has been practiced in restaurants in the New York and San Francisco markets for years now, it’s still a relatively new – and rare – phenomenon on the Philly dining scene.

Rather than delving at length into my own thoughts on the topic, I’d love to open up the floor to you, my readers. To get you started, here’s the comment from local restaurateur Tom Hudson, of Wilmington’s Domaine Hudson, which got this ball rolling.

"Seasoning" glasses is totally irrelevant if you do what we do, 1) invest in a brand new, high temp commercial dishwasher, 2) provide a fresh glass for each bottle (irregardless if it is a second bottle of the same wine) and 3) serve the wine at the proper temperature as well as [in] appropriate sized stemware.

Now it’s your turn. How many, if any, restaurants in your neck of the woods include stemware seasoning as part of their wine service? What are your thoughts on the practice? Let us know, whether good, bad or indifferent.

18 comments:

Tom Glasgow (TWG) said...

In retrospect, I've experienced seasoning at Osteria and Rousillon (London).

The key to clean glasses is how well they are rinsed (number of rinses is more important than the volume of water). Seasoning could eliminate traces of detergent, etc. I doubt that few restaurants who engage in the practice serve dirty glasses or wines at the wrong temperature, it's just another level of service.

Edward said...

David,

I'd prefer the place just ensured glasses were clean and residue free prior to use, rather than waste even 20-30 mls of the wine I've just purchased.

Tom Hudson said...

David,

I would like to host an event at my establishment to have you and your fellow bloggers determine if seasoning a glass makes a noticeable difference in the taste of the wine.

I will pay for the all wines you select (I recommend 3 different wines), supply all the appropriately sized Riedel stemware, as well as some cheeses/appetizers that you recommend for the wines.

We have a private dining room in our place that holds up to 12 people for sit down and 15+ for standing.

All I ask is 1) if there are 12 people, you allow me to choose 4 of them (including myself) - you chose the other 8 from the first people who read your blog and request to attend, and 2) you report the results on your blog.

On my end, if the consensus is that seasoning makes a noticeable difference amongst the tasters, I will immediately implement that practice into my wine bar/restaurant. If not, I respectfully ask that you note the results of the tasting on your blog and stop recommending this practice.

Yes, I'm calling you out on this.

Tom

Brooklynguy said...

interesting idea tom hudson, but we'd have to be completely blindfolded, because you can see if a glass has been seasoned or not and that will impact the results of the experiment. what is your idea for how this would actually be conducted?

Tom Hudson said...

brooklynguy,

You get two glasses of each wine - one that is seasoned, one that is not. No need to be blind. Simply taste and report.

But you can always taste blind. I don't have a problem with that. Glad to add it if the concensus wants it.

Tom

Chevalier de Chezelet said...

My problem so far with the responses to this is that they fail to identify the culprit. Detergents, rinse agents, and water temperatures are meaningless when the napkin used to polish the glass is tainted. Glasses coming out of fresh, somewhat clean, or downright dirty water all have to be polished to remove water marks. It is the detergents and/or residual aromas of oils/food/lipstick/chemicals on the polishing rag that need to be removed from the glass.

Most of the time odors from napkin residue will dissipate enough to make seasoning unnecessary. However, as a restaurateur serving high end wine, I think the practice is valid, as it eliminates the possibility of a perfectly sound bottle being rejected due to off-putting aromas from a tainted polishing rag. Truly, though, only the person ordering and sampling the wine needs a seasoned glass, and that can be done tableside with little fanfare.

Judith Klinger said...

This is a somewhat common practice in Italy, but it always seems to be more of a show and a chance for the server to have a sip than anything else. There was a trattoria in Florence, where the owner was well knows for pouring himself a good glass of your wine...
But I digress.
As long as any residual detergent is washed away, I don't think it makes a bit of difference, and I've got a sensitive nose.
Tom, if you want to pour and prove, I'm game!
Cheers,
Judith

josephlogan said...

I agree with Judith. Ronya and I went to a place in Rome that made a huge show of seasoning, one which seemed particularly fussy. Would be a joy to participate in Tom's experiment if we were able to get over. It doesn't seem to me that my own experience (numerous unseasoned glasses and a very few seasoned ones) has been diminished through limited experience with seasoning, but I don't claim a highly refined palate.

bill l said...

i read thru all the posts on seasoning, and it is quite possible i missed it, but where exactly is mcduff recommending that glasses be seasoned?

Joe M. said...

The first time I experienced a server seasoning (or as he called it, 'priming') my glass was at a neighborhood restaurant here in San Francisco called Maverick. It certainly was quite the show, and intrigued both myself and the rest of my family. That having been said, I have never come across glasses with any sort of detergent residue or other type of off-putting odors at fine dining restaurants. I think I might be with Tom Hudson on the futility of this practice.

David McDuff said...

Well, it's good to see some interest here. Sorry to have taken a while to respond but it's been a busy couple of days.

First things first....

Mr. Hudson,

1. Bill L. kind of beat me to it, but I don't believe I actually recommended wine glass seasoning. I simply mentioned it as a new aspect of the wine service that has generally improved at Osteria over the course of the last year.

I don’t think it’s a practice that makes sense for most restaurants. It can’t really be done at the table, so it requires a dedicated wine service station (aside from a bar), or even several stations for a larger establishment like Osteria. Given the labor intensity of the practice, it also requires a large staff-to-customer ratio, something that’s not economically practical at most restaurants and wine bars.

2. It’s interesting to see you rise up and throw down the gauntlet so enthusiastically. I'd be more than happy to participate in the tasting exercise you've proposed. However, as you’ve more or less suggested, given the good condition of your stemware, I doubt that even the most sensitive palates would be able to discern much if any difference.

So far, only one or two people -- Judith and presumably Bill L. -- have put their hands up to participate. If we come to critical mass and you're still interested, let's do it.


TWG,
I appreciate your thoughts about rinsing. At home, I wash all of my stemware by hand, using natural/eco-friendly dish soap. I’m always thorough in rinsing several times before setting the glasses out to dry. I think your closing comment, though, kind of hits the big picture issue on the head. It’s not that seasoning is “better” service; it’s simply that it’s a “different level of service.” As mentioned above, that level would not be appropriate in many restaurants, based both on labor requirements and on the overall vibe of the restaurant.

Edward,
You should be in good shape, as what you prefer is the practice used at most bars and restaurants, the most important variable being the quality of their stemware combined with their cleaning and polishing practices.

Brooklyn and Tom H.,
For a blind tasting to work, given BGs astute observation that the eye will always be able to tell which glass has been seasoned, we’d need to use those crazy black glasses that Riedel and others are now marketing.

Most honorable Chevalier de Chezelet,
Very good point. Even when I set my glasses out to day on a perfectly clean dishtowel, they pick up aromas from the cloth. Further air-drying away from the towel usually clears those aromas away. However, wiping a glass with even the cleanest, most neutral cloth immediately prior to service is bound to add at least a tiny bit of aroma/detergent/oil/lint, etc. to the glass. Priming/seasoning is a valid way to help eliminate the possibility of even the slightest tainted aroma from the equation.

Judith, JLo and Joe M.,
It’s good to hear from you all. The show is certainly a big part of seasoning. I rather like it but only when it’s done without ostentation and when it’s in keeping with the style of the establishment. I can easily see how it could be bemusing or even off-putting to many.

All,
If there’s another primary element to seasoning that we’ve not touched on, it is in the attention it places upon the importance of aromatic expression in the wine tasting experience. Forgetting about the question of detergents, dirt, etc., for the moment, seasoning is like a magnified version of swirling wine in the glass. Coating every bit of surface inside the glass creates a high level of aromatic release. Assuming the client takes the time to “smell the roses” before gulping the wine, it’s as if the sommelier has already taken care of swirling your wine for you. That said, the difference between an extremely pre-swirled glass and a self-swirled glass goes right back to the differences between a seasoned glass and an unseasoned glass: subtle at best.

bill l said...

i'd also add that the seasoning at osteria was really a matter of fact process. i blinked and missed the whole process. i believe the wine was left in the last glass.

i doubt it did anything to improve or change the experience.

Edward said...

Hmmm,

What a storm in a wine glass :)

I always sniff my glasses - when they are empty and before they are used - at home and outside of the house.

David McDuff said...

And I thought I was the only one that does that, Edward. I've caught restaurateurs giving me strange looks when they've noticed me sniffing empty glasses.

It's definitely worth the odd looks though. Just the other night, while dining at a local sushi BYOB, I took a sniff of my empty glass and found that it smelled -- you guessed it -- a bit fishy. I ended up seasoning our glasses myself to wash away the unwanted aromas before pouring.

Terence said...

I encounter it mostly in Italy and always in tastings for the simple reason that we are reusing the glass.

If they do it in a restaurant it's OK with me. Or not.

And if the glass smells of something else, whether sushi or detergent, I demand another glass. It really is a matter of glassware "hygiene" than stylistic flourishes. Al mio parere.

David McDuff said...

Hey Terence,
Thanks for joining the discussion. I've seen seasoning in Italy as well, particularly during my last trip through Piedmont.

And of course, if there's a place where it's most common, it's certainly at trade tastings where, as you've pointed out, the same glass is often reused for several (if not scores of) different wines. I'm sure that's what Tom H. had in mind when he mentioned always using a fresh glass -- and thus not bothering with seasoning -- at his restaurant.

In my experience at restaurants, having a glass replaced makes sense if you've received one with a nasty dirty spot, i.e., leftover lipstick or a bit of baked on detritus. However, if one glass smells of detergent or food, it's likely that the next one will also. For me, self-seasoning the glass, even if it's inelegant at the table, is the preferred solution.

Nancy Deprez said...

Interesting! Thank you for referring me to this post and discussion, David.

I'm thinking this is done more in the trendy NYC and SF than in Europe.

I'm neutral about it. I'm fine if a restaurant does it or not. I'm not that picky about this aspect.

David McDuff said...

You're welcome, Nancy. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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