If you're like me, part of being a good host is ensuring that your guests' wine glasses are never empty. But recent experiences have convinced me that topping off glasses is in actuality doing a serious disservice to our guests, ourselves, and the wines we pour. Allow me to explain. It all began at a cellar tasting I conducted with Ted Vance of The Source Imports. If you have yet to meet him Ted is among the most passionate, informed, and curious — and, forgive me, Ted — wine nerds that I know. The guy thinks a lot about wine. He observes it through experience and is always questioning received wisdom about topics such as to decant or not, to swirl our glasses or not, and yes, to top off glasses or not?
In advance of our event Ted told me that he wanted to finish the tasting with an experiment. We were pouring a 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune "La Dominode" from Domaine Pavelot. Ted instructed the group to smell, taste, and note their impressions of the wine. We then topped off each person's glass from the same bottle. What had been an open, warmly fruity nose accompanied by typical Savigny earthiness and bright fresh flavors turned into a sour smelling, disjointed wine that was, I do not exaggerate, effectively ruined. We then dumped that wine, and into each now empty glass poured again from the same bottle. Et voila, the wine was itself again.
We repeated this experiment with another wine with the same result, and since then I have conducted the same little demo with friends and customers. Each time with the same results. Now, some people think it's a load of horse manure, but even the most skeptical become convinced after a few tries. Ted didn't offer a scientific explanation, but one good guess is that the change in aroma and flavor is caused by a disruption of the oxygen that occurs when pouring into an empty glass versus one containing some amount of wine.
Regardless, check it out for yourself. For me, this has changed the way I pour wine at home. But one wonders how the waiters of the world will react when told to keep their hands off of our bottles.