I love to order a bottle of wine when eating out. It wasn’t always that way. The etiquette for wine service can be very intimidating when you are first exposed to it. But it is well worth learning. A nice bottle of wine can turn a mere meal into a memorable experience.
Although the rules of serving wine may seem a bit stuffy and overdramatic, there is actually good reason for the protocol. It is all to make sure that you are getting the right wine served the right way. And you are worth it.
Think of it as theatre. Good wine service is like watching a good performance. Just like Caesar salad or bananas foster prepared tableside, wine presentation is your own personal show. Hey, I love to be entertained!
You needn’t be a wine pro to properly order a bottle in a restaurant. However, there are certain steps you should be aware of, so they don’t catch you off-guard.
First step. Whoever verbally orders the bottle of wine from the server is considered to be the “host.” It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, tall or short, young or old (well, you have to be at least twenty-one). Once you have assumed that role, it is up to you to speak for the table. You are in control. Wheeee.
Second step. The server will return to your table, presenting the unopened bottle of wine to you (the host) by holding it upright with the label facing you. So what are they waiting for? They are awaiting your approval that this is the exact wine that you ordered (before they open it). Check the name, the producer, and the vintage (year) of the wine. Take your time. Believe it or not, some wine lists are not always up to date.
For example, you order wine that you love from vintage 2009. They return with the correct wine, but it is vintage 2010. If that vintage was not as good as 2009, feel free to send it back right then and there if you desire. No need to be snobby. Just say “I’d like to make another selection, please.” This won’t happen often, but here is your chance to catch any mistakes before you go any further.
This whole approval process shouldn’t be stressful at all. You are in the driver seat. In the movies, it often involves a poker face and just the subtlest of nods. Forget about it. I like to proclaim it out loud. “Looks great, let’s go!” Do whatever. Be yourself.
Third step. Once you give the OK, the server will open the bottle. The cork from the bottle is placed to your right. The entire dining room suddenly becomes quiet, and all eyes are upon you. At least, that is how it seems. Now, the cork. What do you do?
Here is a secret. You don’t have to do anything. Smelling the cork will not tell you if the wine is good or bad. However, if you’d like to look cool, there are a few things you can check out. Look to see if the winery name is on the cork. In most cases, it will be. In the old days, not-so-honest taverns might keep an empty good bottle, fill it with cheaper wine and recork it. The tradition of examining the cork was to ensure you had the right wine from the right producer.
Also, press your thumbnail into the end of the cork that has been in the bottle. It should be moist and soaked with wine, meaning that the bottle was stored properly, on its side with the wine touching the cork inside. If the cork is dried out and crumbly, the wine may have been stored standing straight up. Not a good sign because, when a cork dries out, it can shrink away from the neck of the bottle, allowing air into the wine. This increases the odds that the wine could be oxidized, meaning it will taste sherry-like.
Fourth step. The server gives you that little, tiny pour in your glass. That is all you get until you taste and ultimately approve that this wine is good enough for your guests. Talk about a power trip! Swirl, sniff, and sip. Take your moment. Does it taste good to you? Announce your findings. If it’s a go, the entire table (women first and then men) will be poured before the server returns to you to fill the remainder of your glass. The sacrifice a host must make…
If the wine smells or tastes bad to you, say so. If it reminds you of a musty basement, or wet cardboard, then the wine could be “corked” (this is a taint that comes from poorly processed corks). Send it back and try again.
Finally, thanks to all of your heroic efforts, you and your guests now have a lovely glass of wine in front of you. The anticipation for great food to enjoy alongside becomes even more exciting. Give a toast to great friends and let the good times roll.