The Basics: Restaurant Wine Service

11 05 2011

The 2011 Pop & Pour. A fine choice.

Anyone who has ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant knows that there’s a specific series of steps that are inevitably followed by the wait staff before you’re left alone with your vino of choice.  Depending on your point of view, this process is either a charming ritual that enhances the dining experience or one of the ways to justify a 150%+ markup on a $30 bottle of wine.  If you’ve never heard the rationale behind each part of the restaurant wine service regime, this procedure might cause you unnecessary stress during what should be a relaxing night out, so here are the main things that happen after you place your wine order and how you should react to them:

  1. The Bottle Reveal:  If you’re the one who ordered the wine for the table, the waiter will bring the bottle forward to you and hold it in front of you, label facing forward.  This is just so that you can verify that the bottle about to be cracked before your eyes is in fact the one you ordered.  Double check the label (including the vintage), and if it looks right, confirm that it’s OK, which is your waiter’s cue to pull out his corkscrew and get to work on opening the bottle.
  2. The Cork Pull:  With (hopefully) little effort, your waiter will cut off the foil cap on top of the bottle, then pull out the cork and hand it to you.  All I want to do every time this happens to me is smell the cork, but don’t do it!  Some people consider this a serious faux pas; those of us who are less uptight aren’t as fussed about it, but the underlying fact is that you don’t learn anything about the wine by sniffing the cork.  All you’re supposed to do with the cork is examine it visually to make sure that it’s still in good shape and that the wine hasn’t permeated all the way through it from one end of it to the other; if it has, there’s a decent chance that this has allowed oxygen to get in to attack the wine.  Give the cork a quick once-over, then set it aside if it looks fine.
  3. The Test Pour:  The waiter will then pour a very small amount of the wine into your glass.  This is so that you can confirm the wine isn’t corked or otherwise faulty.  Unlike in most wine tasting situations, in this one I’ve been told that you shouldn’t swirl around the wine before you sniff and sip it.  When you sniff your test pour of wine, you’re looking for off-putting aromas suggestive of a defect in the wine — for example, corked wine tends to smell mouldy or like wet cardboard or newspaper.  Swirling the wine before you smell it releases some of the fruitier aromas of a defective wine, thus masking the faults you’re looking for.  If you don’t smell anything questionable in the wine, you aren’t likely to taste anything wrong either, so sipping the test pour is more of a formality than anything, but there’s nothing wrong in doing it anyway.  If you smell something in your glass that you think MIGHT not belong but you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask your waiter about it.  A second opinion never hurts.  If you think the wine is off, send it back, but if you don’t think it’s faulty but you just don’t really like how it smells or tastes, you’re probably stuck with it.
  4. The Just Reward:  If your wine passes its test pour examination, the waiter will finally pour out glasses for the whole table.  Remember, most restaurants are guilty of serving their red wines at or near room temperature, so if you have a sip and the wine seems unduly warm, don’t hesitate to ask for an ice bucket, even for a red.  You’re paying more than twice retail for the bottle, so you might as well enjoy it at a decent temperature.  If your waiter scoffs at you or tries to talk you out of this, rest assured that on this point you are in the right.  Enjoy your wine!
ADDENDUM:  Since posting this article, I have talked to a friend in the wine industry about whether or not to sniff the cork when your server gives it to you at a restaurant.  He said that he was a long-standing believer of my statement above that cork-sniffing tells you nothing about the wine, but he’s had a few experiences in the past year where a wine has seemed off when he’s sniffed the test pour and where subsequently sniffing the cork has confirmed the diagnosis of a fault in the bottle.  In these situations, the fault was much more evident on the cork than in the wine itself.  What I wrote above was what I understood to be the general rule based on the wine books I’ve read, but hard and fast rules in the world of wine are few and far between, so if you’re not sure if your test pour at a restaurant is off somehow, you may indeed want to give your cork a whiff to see if it gives off any blatantly funky odors.  



5 responses

11 05 2011

Finally! Someone who agrees with me that reds are best enjoyed slightly chilled (ie cooler than room temperature). Enjoying the blog – keep up the good work!


12 05 2011

Oh, I more than agree — I did a whole rant about it!

Thanks for reading!


12 05 2011

Just wanted to alert you to today’s Groupon – it seems right up your alley. 🙂

Red wine at room temperature just isn’t right; doesn’t taste right and sometimes makes the tannins worse, I find.


12 05 2011

Agreed — warm red wine to me makes the alcohol spike and the wine taste mushy. Oh, and I checked out the Groupon…thanks for the heads up!!


8 02 2014

Hello, just wanted to tell you, I liked this post. It was
funny. Keep on posting!


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