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