Wine Disasters

A Sommelier Shares Her Most Harrowing Wine Stories

What happens when a simple bottle of wine becomes an explosive device

Paula Redes Sidore By June 21, 2021June 25th, 2021
Illustration by Peter Oumanski.

Sommelier exams were two months away. Our class, held in classic Berlin fashion in an old, unheated factory in Mitte, was relatively large and I was one of the few students with no real floor experience. I was also a woman. And a foreigner. So it was a real honor when a favorite instructor singled me out to assist him at a Wine 101 class at one of Berlin’s most well-respected wine stores. My job was to greet the guests, refill the bread bowls, and pour the wines.

We ran through the lecture notes the day before, the bottles chilling in a discreet fridge tucked in a recessed niche at the front of the classroom. Above it, were narrow open shelves stocked with multiple rows of delicately-stemmed, highly-polished Zalto glasses. I knew the pricey glassware beloved by sommeliers retailed for $55 and up. One shelf per one glass style: sparkling, white, red, and big boy Burgundy.

As we talked, I admitted to being shaky when opening bottles of sparkling wine. My instructor agreed to open the bottles himself before the class, “just this once.”  

The class began at 7 p.m. sharp the next night. A few minutes in, he made a joke about the “dry” lecture, raising an eyebrow in my direction. I didn’t react.

“Please pour the Sekt for our guests,” he said. Clearly, he’d forgotten our conversation.

Shuffling slowly toward the humming refrigerator, I went over the correct way to open a bottle of sparkling in my mind: Remove the foil. Use a fresh cloth napkin. Rotate the cork in one direction and the bottle in another. Tilt slightly. Open. (Never louder than a mouse fart.) Finally: Don’t. Let. Go.

I grasped the bottle. I removed the foil. I covered the cage with a fresh cloth. I aimed it away from the class.

I let go.

The cork, propelled by pressure twice that of the average car tire, flew straight and true — into the shelves of the Zalto glassware.

I turned away, unable to watch. Now, instead of an image of the damage, I have a time-lapse soundtrack of the musical shatter of those elegant, expensive glasses. The force of the cork broke the first two, and the others — five? seven? — toppled into one another, like glass dominoes.

Someone laughed. Another gasped. The instructor stared, open-mouthed. Later, I swept the polished shards, dumping hundreds of euros from the shelf into the trash can as that mental soundtrack played on repeat. It was my last task, as I was never asked back.

But in that moment, there was nothing left to do — but pour the wine. 

So I did.

The cork, propelled by pressure twice that of the average car tire, flew straight and true — into the shelves of the Zalto glassware.

A big night in Berlin

Nearly six months later, sommelier certificate in hand, I landed a job at one of Berlin’s most historic wine stores. To the casual observer, it looked like a private family home, with a tidy garden and a cobblestone path leading to the front door. Inside, were rows of neatly stacked wooden crates containing fine wines collected over the store’s 60-year history. 

Every December, the store transformed itself for a highlight of the Berlin wine calendar: the Champagne tasting. Tickets sold out by October. And on that night, Berlin’s wealthiest citizens paraded up the stairs to the library, whose storied historic doors stood open. A labyrinth of white table-clothed stations — at which stood Champagnes from Cristal to Vilmart in chilled buckets — awaited. Bedecked in sequins, satin, and dress shoes, the patrons crowded the room to capacity, milling around the tables arranged according to Champagne house or style; volunteers stood ready to pour.  

My job, as the sole sommelier on staff, was to oversee the station with the reserve bottlings, the single site wines, and all the other expensive bottles that warranted explanation or special attention. I stood on one side of a large antique silver Champagne cooler, my boss on the other. This cooler was brought out once a year, like Grandma’s china. 

A familiar face arrived. Every fortnight throughout the year, this quiet, refined man would appear in the store in his starched shirt and polished shoes to purchase a case of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and pay with a single, crisp 500 euro ($608) bill. 

The store owner immediately asked me to take over the general pouring, so that he could chat up the VIP. I nodded. The first glass I filled emptied the bottle, so I reached into the silver cooler for a new one. I had long since overcome my fear of sparkling wine. I had practiced, over and over, on cheap, grocery store bottles. I worked until I could open each one in a single, practiced rotation.

I grabbed a starched white cloth, and then a new, unopened Champagne. I turned the cork one way and rotated the heavy bottle with the other. At home, the bottles had been chilled in the fridge. Not in ice. Slick with water, the Champagne slipped from the cloth.

It hit the gleaming, prewar parquet floor with a bang that silenced the room. Then, it began to spin. Gravity combined with the six bars of pressure in the bottle, created a wild, frothing Champagne cyclone. Frozen, I watched the bottle empty its innards onto every shoe, sock, dress hem, and pants leg in a perfect radius. Only when it was empty did the bottle finally stop.

“Perhaps you’d like to get something to clean that up?” my boss asked in a whisper of quiet, seething punctuation. 

Luckily, I was still holding that cloth.

It’s not just sparkling

The store specialized in French wine: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire — you name it, we had it. It also had an established clientele who expected to be offered a nip of the new vintage, a sip of the next trend. 

This was no problem, because the store had a good preservation system. An important component was the sizable gas tank mounted on the wall, that injected a blanket of inert gas into the wine bottle. This would sit above the surface of the wine, and keep the oxygen out. When used correctly, the wines lasted for weeks. 

It was my job to gas the open bottles at the end of each night, a relatively simple process: crank the wheel to turn on the gas, put the open nozzle into the neck of the wine, release the gas until the sound changes. Put a cork in the bottle. Repeat. 

One night after my boss had gone to lock the upstairs, I was listening to Nina Simone as I prepped the nightly closing routine. Lost in her croonings, I let the gas nozzle hit the liquid.

With a fffwwwsss, the Bordeaux erupted across my white shirt, the yellow, swirled custom murals on the store walls, and the entire ceiling. 

Startled, I dropped the bottle — painting the floor with red wine. My boss walked into the carnage to find me on a ladder trying to wipe down the ceiling while my shirt dripped puddles on the tiled floor. He told me to go home while he looked up the number for the painters. 

It took more than a week before the painters arrived. A week of me explaining the disaster to every patron who came through the door.

But by then, I had passed my Sommelier qualification. I was an acknowledged expert. Those splatters? A fine Pomerol that I could recommend, where one could practically smell the summer violets. 

And some people even agreed to try it. It’s true — stories do sell wine. And wine people will forgive you anything, if the wine is good.

 

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