You are out at a restaurant and in charge of ordering the wine. You feast your eyes on the extensive wine menu and carefully select a bottle that you find to be a crowd-pleaser for your accompanying guests. You order your chosen selection and await while your server marks your table with the corresponding glassware. There is then a grand spectacle of sorts as he/she approaches you with the bottle over white linen in a very professional fashion, confirming that this is the correct bottle you ordered. You nod, and they proceed to open the bottle and go through a swift, but slightly awkward series of steps…
You can’t help but wonder, what is this all for? Why is this cork being placed in front of me? Why do I have to taste the wine first — is it to see if I like it? Can I send the wine back if I do not like it? Why doesn’t the server just go ahead and pour the wine, instead of subjecting me to this awkward series of obligatory optics? Here is what the sequence of service steps is about and the proper etiquette to navigate through them, so you don’t feel put on display next time you order wine at a restaurant.
The Display. The reason for the server to display the bottle so cordially in front of you is for you to confirm the vintage is correct. There can be great difference in price and quality with varying vintages of the same wine, and the restaurant staff want you to know that the correct year you ordered is the one they will be opening for you, before they go through the trouble of opening it, which would render the bottle unsellable. Look to make sure the vintage and wine is correct, but also look to see that the bottle is clean, and free of any major marking or flaws. You don’t want to accept a bottle with a peeling or damp label, as this suggests improper storage of the wine — a telltale sign that the bottle would not be the quality you seek.
The Cork. It’s appropriate to carry on your conversations as you would if no one were opening the wine for you, but proper etiquette is that you pay attention when the server pours the taste for you. Just before they do this, they should place the cork in front of you. You do not need to do anything here, as it’s purely tradition, and to ensure the wine is not counterfeit or the cork isn’t faulty. Things to avoid here are mold, or a clearly different producer listed on the cork than on the label (a sign of wine fraud), but these things rarely happen. You do not need to pick the cork up and smell it; that is what the taste of wine is for.
The Sniff Test. When the server pours you a taste, it is proper etiquette, and encouraged that you smell the wine, aerate by swirling the wine, and smell again. Go ahead and taste it to confirm these two things: that the wine is your prefered serving temperature, and that the wine is free of any flaws. Flaws that will stand out on the nose are TCA or trichloroanisole aka “corked wine” smell. This smell you would know if you have ever smelled wet newspaper or mold, and the source of this odor may be one or more of several particular chemical compounds formed by a reaction between naturally occurring molds and chemicals used in the treatment of wood products. We do not always know the original source of the smell, but we do know that the whole bottle of wine is affected and should not be consumed. Other wine flaws you may not know to detect are things like secondary fermentation, where the wine has fermented further in the bottle, and as a result will have undesirable bubbles. Lastly, oxidized wine: if you have ever had a bottle of wine left open on your kitchen counter, then tried to revisit it a week later, you will know this smell. It is the same process that happens when you leave a sliced apple out for too long and it turns brown. Oxidized wine occurs when the bottle closure is faulty, and wine is exposed to oxygen, rendering it foul-smelling and undrinkable.
The Taste Test. After you smell it, you can taste it to make sure the temperature is appropriate. It’s not uncommon for a white wine to be too hot or too cold to one’s liking, but these are simply remedies, and should not warrant the need to send the bottle back. Simply state to the server that you prefer the bottle cooler, and they should procure an ice bucket for you tableside. Check the wine’s temperature in about 5–10 minutes and then revisit pouring into your guests’ glasses.
The Approval. Once you have ascertained that the wine is proper vintage, temperature, and without wine flaws, you can nod to your server, which will prompt them to pour the wine for your guests, and fill your glass last. You shouldn’t need to pour the wine yourself throughout the evening, as it is the server’s duty to ensure your glasses are full and everyone is satisfied. If you do prefer to pour your own wine throughout the night, it’s not a bad idea to mention that preference in the beginning.
When to send wine back: Most people think that the service steps of wine opening and tasting are so that the guest can send the wine back if they do not like it. This is not the case. By the time the bottle is opened, you own that wine! You should not try to send the bottle back just because you don’t like it — there has to be a flaw, or the wine has to be misrepresented on the menu. When you order a bottle, not a glass, you are responsible for the risk of not liking it, not the restaurant. Do not order a bottle of wine you don’t know you will like, and if you do, suck it up or give more away to your guests.
Some other things you should avoid doing, even if you have seen other people do it:
- Do not place the bottle upside down in the ice bucket to signify to the server that it is empty. RUDE! Instead, you can take the empty bottle out of the ice and place it on the table, or just leave it in the bucket upright.
- Do not pour your own wine before pouring for each guest. If you ordered the wine, you get served last, as you are considered the host.
- Do not aerate your wine by swirling it in the air if you are not capable of this maneuver. Instead, aerate the wine by swirling with the base of the glass on the table. It does the same thing, and you have greater control.
- Do not get your greasy hands all over the bulb of the glass if you are eating food that is messy. If your hands are clean, and you like to hold your glass by the bulb, then go for it, but you might be curious to know that this is improper wine handling.
Wine people are people too! We didn’t always know how much we know, we had to cast fear aside to ask questions in our pursuit of knowledge.
If you don’t understand or don’t feel comfortable ordering wine in a restaurant, it’s not a bad idea to let someone else take the reigns who is. The best way to learn wine etiquette is by observing those you admire and asking questions.