Years ago as a university student in Tokyo it was my good fortune to have a job with a famous design firm that had me in every week to critique their designs, write the English-language text for their creative work and occasionally translate and interpret for colleagues visiting from abroad.
Rubbing elbows with the doyens of Japan’s design world was exciting, and I enjoyed my outings with the business manager, Mr. Hatano, a connoisseur of not only cuisine but also wine, whiskey and sake. He was especially fond of wine and for five years was my mentor for wine and washoku (Japanese food), taking me pub- and club-crawling to his favorite haunts all over the Ginza.
How fascinated I was when he ordered various gourmet delicacies and imported wines, which he understood very well, decades before Japan had any appreciable wine sophistication.
When being served wine in a restaurant by a waiter or a sommelier, it might help if the server were to know you as well as some of them knew Mr. Hatano (who has since retired to that big vineyard in the sky). Ideally, communication should be facile and unaffected, but I’ve noticed that that is not always the case. Servers (sommeliers, waiters, wine captains) can be inarticulate or superficial. People unsure of their wine sense often freeze or fumble.
You don’t have to.
When you’re passed the cork, simply sniff it. If it smells even faintly of yeast or something similarly alien, just say so. For now, bear in mind the inherent absurdity of much cork-sniffing. First the waiter or sommelier should sniff the cork and, if it smells “off,” should say so and summarily whisk the wine away.
Ideally, a customer in a restaurant should not be simply handed the cork but, rather, shown the exposed neck of the bottle, cork in, so as to see if the rim of the bottle shows any seepage, the cork has too much air space beneath it or has risen above the rim of the neck. Wine expands inside the bottle when exposed to very high temperatures in transit or in storage, and as the wine expands it exerts pressure on the cork so that wine can seep between it and the rim. This is clearly visible. As for air space, if you see appreciably more than an inch of air space between the wine and the bottom of the cork, be wary; wine may have evaporated or seeped out (i.e., oxidation). If the cork is not level with the rim, chances are that during storage or transit it was exposed to freezing or very high temperatures.
In any event, the enjoyment of wine should be done in a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere, be it a restaurant, a wine bar or whatever. Some may hate me for saying this, but the atmosphere in some wine bars is often counterproductive to wine enjoyment, and certainly to objective wine evaluation. After a few glasses of wine accompanied by a mind-blowing racket and suffocating smoke, many customers wouldn’t be able to tell wine from window cleaner.
I can’t imagine enjoying wine in such places as nomiya (Japanese drinkeries) and so-called “casual houses,” for example, where one must struggle to be heard while being almost asphyxiated by a blue veil of cigarette smoke.
And I hate being served wine in a glass small enough to be used for eyewash, with a mandatory bite-size morsel or transparent slice of something I didn’t order that costs even more than the wine — the o-toshi practice of having to accept a snack with one’s drink. O-toshi may be justified for sake, a traditional drink, but it’s utter nonsense with wine. If one wishes, one should be able to enjoy a glass of wine and nothing else, even in Japan.