Wine artifacts and customs from the past
By Josh Perilo
“Her name was Mara Palmer,” instructed Artemus in his genteel Southern drawl, “and she was a Bulgarian Aristocrat.”
“And this thing she had,” I said, “it was like an antenna?”
“It was a swizzle stick. A Champagne swizzle stick. It was made by Dunhill.”
Artemus described again, in detail, the odd contraption that this fascinating Mara (who sounded like a character from a Raymond Chandler novel) would use whenever she drank sparkling wine. A small, silver cylinder encased a set of prongs. When extended, the prongs would be inserted into the glass of Champagne and twirled quickly.
“Wouldn’t that get rid of the bubbles?” I asked.
“Why, of course!” Artemus guffawed. “One doesn’t want the violent effervescence of one’s drink to spoil one’s makeup.”
As soon as I got home, I immediately started researching this magical anti-fizz stick. After calls to several boutiques and an email to the main headquarters, no one at Dunhill that I spoke to had heard of it. The only place I could find any trace of it was on the website www.etsy.com, a haven for the homemade, hard-to-find and collectible.
An instrument so popular that it was once used by aristocrats and members of royal courts was now so antiquated that its very existence had been relegated to anecdote.
This got me thinking about other antiquated (or near-antiquated) wine artifacts and customs. I started wondering why these items were going the way of the Dodo. Certainly, some were due to a certain “natural selection,” but others, it seemed, still had a very real purpose but weren’t exactly in vogue anymore.
For instance, the wide-mouthed Champagne coupe that was ubiquitous with the early 20th century (especially movies from the 1940s) has thankfully crept into the background and made way for the more elegant and purposeful Champagne flute. Having been invented in the 15th century, the coupe had certainly overstayed its welcome, and while it may remind one of an era gone by, it does nothing to preserve the sparkle of a sparkling wine.
On the other hand, an almost extinct item like the tastevin actually serves a very real purpose, yet is looked upon by American diners and drinkers as pretentious. The tastevin is a small, metal dish worn on a chain around the sommelier or wine director’s neck and is used to taste the wine before pouring it for the customer. This is to ensure that the bottle being opened tableside has no imperfections.
While there are still a few American restaurants that employ the tastevin (Le Bernardin, most notably), there has been a very strange backlash in the states to the idea of someone tasting the customer’s wine before serving it. Even a recent New York Times article has been written addressing that issue. Because so many customers are becoming more and more wine-savvy, the idea that someone else needs to tell you whether or not the bottle you bought is any good is being taken as an insult.
Aside from the fact that many customers feel uncomfortable sending a bottle back, the fact of the matter is that, even if the customer is an absolute expert on wine, the sommelier and the people working for him or her know the wines on their list better than the customer. It’s their job. They’ve tasted those wines many, many times and will know immediately if there is something even slightly off. If employed correctly, the tastevin will always provide the customer with a higher-quality wine-drinking experience.
There have always have been and always will be rituals, instruments and wine accoutrement that have become outdated for one reason or another. Because wine is looked upon, by many, as something more than merely a beverage, there is an almost OCD, rigid reaction to any change in tradition. The ritual of opening a bottle is as gratifying to many as pouring and drinking the wine. If you had told an oenophile 40 years ago that a bottle of vino with a screw-top cap could sell for $50, you’d have been laughed out of the room.
Now, this is simply the norm. Welcome to the new wine age.
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