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The Wine Ethicist: In Which I Put Myself In The Dock

2012 January 10
by Mike

Although I’m usually a courteous guest (or so I think), my manners almost always fail me when I encounter a wine glass with an off-putting aroma. You know those “If you see something, say something” warnings on trains and subways? When I smell something, I say something. Several years ago, at a friend’s dinner party in Paris, I was given a wine glass that had a pronounced whiff of dishwasher detergent. Stemware zealot that I am, I immediately made the problem known to the entire table, which did not thrill my host. A few months ago, I was at another dinner party, and several of us noticed that a just-poured wine had a somewhat musty aroma. I put the glass to my nose and determined that the wine wasn’t off. I then started sniffing the outside of the glass, realized it was cabinetry that we were smelling, and blurted out to the hostess, “Did the glasses come from a wood cabinet?” It was only after I got home that it occurred to me that I might have embarrassed or offended her (I’m pleased to report that the friendship has survived, although I suspect I’ll be drinking wine out of a plastic cup the next time we are invited to her house for dinner—and it will serve me right).

So I’ve acknowledged that I can be impolite when it comes to malodorous stemware. Calling attention to a faulty wine glass is perfectly acceptable in restaurants, of course, but is it always rude to do so in someone’s house? I ask because I once refrained from making an issue of some aromatically compromised glasses, and I’m not sure that I made the correct decision. Some years ago, my wife and I auctioned off our cooking and sommelier services on behalf of a local charity. The dinner took place at the winner’s house, and we supplied the food and wine. I brought two very good bottles, a Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tourtine (I can’t remember the vintage off the top of my head) and a 1998 Beaucastel. Unfortunately, the host’s glasses stank of detergent, and I found it impossible to enjoy the wines. No one else seemed all that jazzed by them, either, and I have to assume it was because we were mainly smelling Cascade rather than mourvèdre (back off, pedants: I know the 98 Beaucastel is primarily grenache, but you get the point). Keeping my mouth shut avoided causing any offense, but it also condemned us to a night of disappointing drinking.

Was I right to let us all suffer in silence, or should I have said something? Wine geeks can usually be relied on to take good care of their Riedels and Spiegelaus, but the general population is not always as scrupulous. Is it ever okay to tell a host that his or her wine glasses quite literally stink, and under what circumstances would you pipe up? Have you ever encountered situations similar to the ones I’ve described above, and what did you do? And a bonus question: if a friend or family member has defective stemware, can you volunteer to supply better glasses, or is that just rude? I know that I’m not alone in being a pain in the ass about foul-smelling glass; what’s acceptable stemware etiquette?

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  19. January 18, 2012

    Rule #1: never insult or embarrass the host.

    There’s no need to get all Asperger’s about the glasses: just find an excuse to get into the kitchen or bathroom and rinse out your own glass. Truth be told is that most people in the room probably couldn’t tell or could care less if the glasses weren’t hygienically clean.

  20. January 12, 2012

    Musty wine glasses are definitely one of my pet peeves. My friends mean well – they bring out their best china and glassware – the ones they save for special occasions – which means they haven’t been used in months, are dusty and need a good rinsing. Luckily, my friends aren’t too mad at me when I swoop up the glassware, rinse and paper-towel dry them.

  21. Matt K permalink
    January 12, 2012

    Mike, I thought about your last comment, and I think your question could be generalized into “If something in your area of expertise is flawed, even though most people won’t notice the flaw, should you mention it anyways?”

    As a guest, I would answer “no” – I think part of being a gracious guest is to accept that things aren’t always going to be perfect, and if that’s the case enjoy the company (and if neither are true, why be there? :-) ).

    For example, one of my friends is very particular about his TV setup for movies – his TV has the “blackest blacks”, he won’t even consider a DVD player under $1000, and has 10 mathematically placed surround sound speakers to deliver the most accurate sound. My system is not even close. When we’re talking, he’ll give me a hard time about it all in fun and I don’t take offense, but I would be offended if a bunch of us were watching a movie and he got up and said “that is not a true black color, the sound is not centered, etc, etc.” and brought it up then. Yes, it may affect his enjoyment of the movie, but that’s the social cost of having friends and family. (And this is coming from someone who was told to bring a “pink wine, I think it has the word Barefoot in it” to a family gathering. I know how to suffer in silence ;-).)

  22. Robin C permalink
    January 12, 2012

    I think that most wine lovers make their priorities crystal clear, and if people make dinner for someone (you, for example) whose priority is good wine they should not be surprised or particularly offended (maybe some eye-rolling) if you or another commits a slight faux pas in the interests of showing the best qualities of a wine.

  23. January 12, 2012

    Kurt, that’s an excellent point. In my experience, people are generally very careful about the china and cutlery they put out for dinner parties; they should be equally attentive to the stemware. But that’s obviously not always the case.

    Merriman Wines, thanks for stopping by. I’ve noticed the same thing: oftentimes, people just aren’t aware that there is a problem with the stemware; they are not all that sensitive to these off-aromas or they are not really paying attention to what they are drinking–either way, it’s not a problem for them. And as Glen suggests, the stemware issue is one that divides wine geeks from more casual wine drinkers; we are just much more attuned to this issue than people who aren’t so wine-besotted.

  24. January 11, 2012

    I’m with Matt K. Depends on whether the wine has a leading role or is just a bit player in the context of the occasion.

  25. January 11, 2012

    Howard, there are clearly ways of finessing this issue, and you’ve obviously found them. Me? Not so much! (but I’m working on it). And, again, with friends or even family members, I think it really depends on what the relationship is like and how relaxed the host is or isn’t. Pointing out a problem with stemware, even if handled with great tact, can still cause offense. It’s a tricky issue. As Scott says, there is a good chance that any intervention will immediately mark you as rude, so it has to be handled with extreme care.

    Scott, you raise a key point–some people are just not that sensitive to these off-aromas. At that dinner party in Paris, another guest asked to smell my glass after I discovered the problem (quite the dinner party, huh?), and he simply could not pick up the detergent aroma.

  26. Glen Simister permalink
    January 11, 2012

    I never make stink about the glassware unless the party is “all about the wine.” If it’s a casual get together or dinner I would never make such comments. But, as last week, we had our weekly wine night and a glass or two wasn’t washed properly, smelling slightly of detergent. We discreetly noted, washed and then poured.

    If you have an atypical aversion or phobia of strange glassware, inspect before the pour. If you must ask for another glass or quick wash, do discreetly. For some of us it may be hard, but not everything has to be announced; particularly when a host may blush.

  27. January 11, 2012

    I wouldn’t say a word. The times I’ve noticed the glasses smelling like something other than neutral, I’ve noticed not many others did if anyone did. These aren’t wine geek dinner parties, these are normal people dinner parties, like the ones you described with your inlaws. I eat with my inlaws every single night, and when my glass is off, I quietly go rinse the glass out at the sink. I don’t rewash it, just a water rinse with my hand and maybe a discreet paper towel. They don’t notice, and my wine tastes great and they don’t know any better.

  28. January 11, 2012

    It’s always the in-laws, Jeremy. My glass story is nothing compared to the time I tried to make the case for common-law marriage to my father-in-law, but that’s a tale best left untold! Anyway, I think you’re right–if you are using one glass for the entire meal but multiple wines are being served, you can perform some heavy duty rinsing between bottles. Otherwise, though, it is as you say: a quandary with no easy solution.

    Sherman, if the opportunity arises to have a “teachable moment”–and to properly clean the glasses in the process–I say grab it. But it obviously depends on how receptive the host is likely to be such intervention. It sounds as if your friends are great in that regard.

  29. Kurt Burris permalink
    January 11, 2012

    Any dish, not just glasses that has been in a cupboard long enough to pick up an off odor should be washed before using. And it isn’t too hard to inspect (sniff) the glass you are about to pour your wine into to insure it isn’t dirty. I would hesitate to use a fork with dried food or soap residue left on it. (My dishwasher does not remove rice grains from between the tines). My family knows I am in the wine business and appreciate (or maybe indulge) me taking care of the wine service even when visiting. I’m the one washing the glasses if they aren’t up to snuff (or sniff) though.

  30. scott haverstick permalink
    January 11, 2012

    rude? of course! the question is whether you’re able to take ( with good humor ) the inevitable scorn/criticism you’re frankness will spark.
    I’m not particularly sensitive to smell so, unless over the top, it may not occur to me that there’s a problem – if it were apparent I’d be inclined to tactfully call attention to the matter, with the emphasis on tactful.
    you need to be prepared to be considered a pompous ass, so decide whether it’s worth it.

  31. Howard G. Goldberg permalink
    January 11, 2012

    In others’ homes and in restaurants if I detect off odors in glasses I sidle up to the hosts
    or discreetly signal the waiter and tell them, sotto voce, that the glasses need a quick
    rewash — a problem, I immediately tell them, that I sometimes have at home, now and then because of the water pipes, which is true. (Our building dates to the 1920s.)

    As guests, since the glass problem is noticed as we are about about to sit down, hosts can find a way to momentarily delay the sit-down for a quick hand-rewash. Waiters simply bring a new set of glasses and replace the first set, murmuring that the first set doesn’t please them; people understand that something professional is up and let it go at that.

  32. January 11, 2012

    Sebastien, thanks for sharing that story; I’ve been in the same boat. As I said, my in-laws (and my wife, too) still bring up the glass incident from time to time. Hopefully, there will be a statute of limitations in your household; there doesn’t seem to be one in mine!

    K Yeung, thanks for dropping by. So you will actually clean the glasses, too? That’s fantastic, and it’s great that you have friends who are willing to entirely hand over the wine duties like that. As to the point about suffering in silence–so even in a situation where really good wines are being served, you would refrain from trying to remedy a problem with the glasses?

  33. Sherman permalink
    January 11, 2012

    All of my friends know that I’m the geekiest wine geek in the house at any function, so they may raise an eyebrow or make a joke about me letting the OCD side loose when it comes to such things as stemware (yep, there *is* a difference between how the wine tastes in a proper glass and I’ve demonstrated it to friends on many occasions — when asked ;).

    I also use it as a “teachable moment” to talk to my host/hostess about proper stemware storage and how to clean them prior to use. Again, anyone who has invited me to a function knows that I’m a resource for them in all things wine, so I’m usually being asked all sorts of questions about wine and service, so taking a few minutes to wash & rinse stemware isn’t an issue.

    Demonstrating the difference by using the “out of the cabinet” glass and the “fresh from the rack” clean glass is usually enough to show that it’s worth the extra time and effort to do things right. We use clean pots and pans to cook the food, clean dishes to serve it — we should use the same standards regarding stemware. We want the best possible presentation if we’re going to take the time and effort, right?

    And it’s *always* about the wine — otherwise, I’ll be sipping beer from a red Solo cup. No worries about detergent contamination there!

  34. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    January 11, 2012

    I don’t see any really tactful way out of this quandary. Even under the pretense (however sincere) of education, you are bound to offend or render the host defensive. The best course of action, which does involve a little luck, is that there be an aperitif served in those same glasses, before the meal is served and while everyone is standing up. Then you can sneak off to a sink and give your glass a proper rinse or use the aperitif wine to cleanse it of the detergent. Otherwise, I try to discreetly rinse the whole glass with the wine inside of it by drinking from all sides and swirling furiously, finish that glass and hope the next one will show better. Not that I am any good at suffering in silence. I have offended my in laws on plenty of occasions myself.

  35. January 10, 2012

    Viktor, thanks for the comment, and for the very kind words; much appreciated. That’s a great story; as you say, it wasn’t the cheapest solution, but a very effective one! Stemware is a very good gift, especially if you can make sure that the recipient treats the glasses well.

    Frank, I think Chuck had a great suggestion, and yes, my mother-in-law is a very good cook. Love that quote, too.

    Matt, I agree–there is no one-size-fits-all solution here; how you handle it is dictated by circumstance. But stemware is a tricky issue, I think–it is part of someone’s home, and to call attention to flaws requires a great deal of tact. There is a lot to be said for suffering in silence.

  36. January 10, 2012

    Chuck, thanks for stopping by. That’s a great suggestion, and a perfect way of finessing the issue. We would have been much better off dumping some of the Tempier in order to salvage pleasure from the rest of that bottle and the 98 Beaucastel that followed. And if it had turned into a “teachable moment”, all the better. I will keep that in mind for the next time (and there surely will be a next time!).

    Joe, you make a great point, and that’s exactly why I mentioned the dinner with the Tempier and the Beaucastel–I probably should have said something, or thought of a solution like the one Chuck suggests. As for bringing glasses–a good idea (and I especially like the part about putting a 12-pack of Riedels in the trunk), but here’s the thing: after that incident at my mother-in-law’s, my wife is very reluctant to let me take glasses anywhere!

    Lee, I think if a situation like that is handled with tact, it can achieve the result you want and also impart some knowledge to the host. But I must admit that I would be wary of giving glasses a pre-dinner sniff in most of the social situations I encounter–I can’t think of too many friends of ours who would be keen to have me assess their stemware. Perhaps I’m hanging out with the wrong people!

  37. K Yeung permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Since none of my friends has butler’s service at home, everyone helps out in the kitchen prior to dinner proper. I usually seize the opportunity to provide wine service, ie, pulling the corks. Unless there’s convincing evidence the glasses have been washed and air-dried just hours ago, that would be the unique best timing to wash the glasses, unprompted. No questions, no criticisms, just head straight to the sink. After all, you don’t create a scene about how muddy the spuds are before washing them. Just do it.

    If the circumstance don’t permit me to do that, eg, I get held up and arrive late, then I’d just suffer in silence. Just because I am a wine guy doesn’t give me licence to criticise my host’s glasses. Just because you’re a TV guy doesn’t mean you announce to the neighbourhood your host has a sub-HD, made-in-China TV set that’s less than 60″. Fair?

  38. Sebastien permalink
    January 10, 2012

    One past Christmas I spent with my parents, knowing that they didn’t have a full set of wine glasses for the large dinner party on they hosted on the 23rd, I brought them a set of Riedels, along with some bottles. All went well, and everybody enjoyed the meal and selection of wines. The following evening, for a much more intimate gathering, my mother set the table with a set of Venitian crystal wine goblets. Truly beautiful vessels that they picked up on a trip to Venice celebrating their anniversary. Lousy however for capturing any aromas, as the lips flare out. Midway thought the meal, after opening a Gigondas, I fetched a Riedel for myself so that I could properly enjoy the wine. Though my parents never said anything, my wife later gave me hell. Her point was that the table was set to look beautiful and celebrate the occasion. My point was that the wine (and those Riedels) was going to waste. Guess who won that argument. Lessons learned? There are more important things than the wine or being right; As a guest, never fail to appreciate the occasion and the company. Everything else is secondary. Only when the wine itself is the occasion should you be allowed to insist on exacting standards for glassware.

  39. Matt K permalink
    January 10, 2012

    For social gatherings where wine wasn’t the primary reason of the get-together, once the wine had been poured, I’d suffer in silence. If I could catch the host before everyone has a glass, then I would discreetly mention it, but that would be it (or offer to quickly wipe down the glasses in case they’d been sitting for a while or something vague to help out with the gathering).

    For providing stemware for friends, I think it all depends on your friends. If your friends are laid back, and you do have better glasses, I don’t think there would be any offense (unless you brought one just for yourself…). I wouldn’t tell them exactly why I was bringing them, just that “these glasses were designed for that kind of wine and I love using them” sort of approach. If your friends are the competitive my-stuff-is-better type, I think you’re out of luck. If it was a friend’s house I was at a lot, I would give them some as a gift as Viktor did – tasteful and functional for all involved.

    Personally, I have friends in both categories – some that I would bring glasses over to, and others I would suffer in silence and open a good bottle when I got home.

  40. Frank permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Again, Nero Wolfe: “The guest is a jewel resting on the cushion of hospitality.”

    As a guest you have obligations, too. Drink beer if that’s what your host is drinking. Be glad your MIL is a good cook.

    Otherwise use Chuck’s gracious and creative approach.

  41. January 10, 2012

    Great read, spot on even though i havent been in the situation too many times.
    The only thing i can bring to the table is a story that occured last year here in Sweden.

    Me and my girlfriend was at a friends house, making a long story short: The glasses had some dried up detergent from their washer still in them. Next time we visited them we brought a 6-pack of Riedel’s and a bottle of wine (nothing too fancy but still exciting enough to wanna taste in proper glasses under decent circumstances) as the man we visited had his birthday last week. We pointed out that the Riedels cant be washed in their washer.
    We’ve been there enjoying dinner and/or wine 3 times since that occassion, everytime happy with the standard of their glasses since they arent dishwashed.

    If you want to bring a gift you can always come up with something to celebrate (birthday, childs nameday, first Thursday of september is probably something holy in some religion etc) with a gift.
    Perhaps not the cheapest way but for me/us it worked since we could avoid bringing up the subject and the problem also got solved.

    Cheers and thanks for many great posts Mike!

  42. Lee Newby permalink
    January 10, 2012

    I have nosed then quietly picked up the “good company wine stems” from a set table well before dinner saying we need the other size (if questioned), I then washed, dried them and replaced them on the table, showing the hostess a before and after glass to smell, she was grateful and the rest of the guests were none the wiser. She then understood something sitting for many months in a wooden china cabinet in the sun takes on an odd musty aroma.

    I have also pointed out to people not to use a strong dish soap on their wine glasses and its best to use a tiny bit, wash by hand and rinse very well then let them air dry, the day they will be used. Some can be put through a wash cycle in a dishwasher without any soap or other dishes the day they will be used, but many wine stems are not really dishwasher safe.

  43. January 10, 2012

    What would be the greater offense: to discreetly tell a host their glassware stinks or to offend the gracious host’s palate by serving them wine they won’t fully enjoy? I would say the latter would be more offensive (though in a less tangible way) if the wine brought was in any way special or meant for more thought than a funnel or coffee mugs would warrant. In a dinner party format I think it would be worth making a subtle mention to the host.

    While auctioning your sommelier services, it probably would have been more appropriate to bring your own glassware to make sure the wine is properly enjoyed. But in a less formal event that might be a little less… couth.

    I will sometimes go to parties, dinner or otherwise, with a 12 pack of the less expensive all purposes Riedel glassware in my trunk because I know some of my friends don’t have more than 2 or 3 (usually mediocre) wine glasses. That way I can informally offer, on the sly, to supply the glassware. If they need them then I have them, if not, no harm done.

  44. Chuck Hayward permalink
    January 10, 2012

    I say clean them up but use the occasion as a practical, low pressure way to educate them on how dirty glasses can affect wine. Rather than saying the glasses are dirty, I usually say that the wine may be the problem, dump the wine out and clean the glass while telling the table that I want to give the second glass a fresh start to see if the wine will improve. If it proves to be the case, present the fresh and original glass to the table and have them see the difference. You can then offer up that maybe it was the glass without any direct reference to it “being dirty”. You may waste a bit of wine cleaning the rest of the glasses but you will not be missing the opportunity to show the table the importance of fresh glasses. I have done this a thousand times where two wines are different for some reason and the table always seems to appreciate the opportunity to learn how and why they are so.

  45. January 10, 2012

    Mike, thanks for the comment. Guilty as charged: I was unquestionably rude in three of those situations I described! However, it is interesting that you say it would be okay to take the host aside and quietly say something. That would probably go over better than announcing a problem out loud, but wouldn’t that still run the risk of causing offense?

  46. January 10, 2012

    As often is the case, I think different situations call for different actions. It’s hard to give one all encompassing answer for every situation. I will say though, that if at a party or other social event, it would probably be best to pull the host aside and tell them privately as opposed to announcing “THESE GLASSES STINK!” to the whole party.

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