The Ritualistic Art of Wine in a Restaurant and other Quibbles

Its one thing to learn about wine, buy it and drink it. Ah, but then comes the restaurant. There's all those rules! Who do you talk to? How do you do it? What do you do when they stick the cork down in front of you. (And what happens when you're sure you want to drink a [geh-vertz-tra-MEEner], but can't pronounce it let alone, spell it?)

The evening's fun starts with the wine list. If you're lucky they've brought it to you. If you're very lucky, they've brought all of them to you. [I can recall eating in one of the "best" restaurants in a capitol city of one of the United States. The waiter never mentioned that they had a "special" wine list with the "better" wines on it. He had only brought the short, less-expensive list of decent but not as fine wine. One wonders if they didn't intend to sell the good stuff? Maybe it was how I looked.]

An informative wine list will tell you the type of wine, the producer of the wine, where it was grown (though with some wines, that is inherent in the name), and the vintage (year) that it was grown. Since there can be considerable variation in vintages (or the wine may be just too young), this is an important piece of information. If the wine list doesn't say, ask! If they won't tell you, have them bring the bottle and reject it if it doesn't suit your wants. Do not be seduced by the process. If they bring a much younger wine than is listed, odds are it isn't worth the price on the menu. Ask for a price reduction. If they won't, tell them to forget it. The best ammunition is to not buy any wine at all--most restaurants use it as a profit center.

[OK, so I'll admit it. When we first started drinking wine in restaurants, we brought along a little pocketbook guide that told us what were good wines. We'd sneak a look at the guide, then confidently and boldly order--hoping that we got the pronunciation right.]

Now lets say you don't know about the wines on the list (and haven't sneaked in your handy guide). Once again, ask. In a good restaurant, the waiters will have a good working knowledge of the "wine list." And in some restaurants (more in Europe than in the United States), there will be an individual (thewine steward orSommelier) who's only job is to work with the wine. Often this person can be invaluable in choosing a wine for you that perfectly matches the food. A word of warning: Sometimes their job is to point out the most costly wine they think they can get you to pay for. I'm not saying this is the norm, but caveat emptor always applies.

Personally, we decide on what we are having for dinner before we order the wine. This seems to perturb most waiters and wine stewards who always seem in a rush to have us order. While they might be trying to do the right thing by getting the bottle opened as soon as possible, we're usually more interested in the food to start. The waiter can wait.

If you have come to drink wine first and food second, then by all means, order the wine and then match the food to it. Frankly, however, we eat at restaurants for food. Wine is cheaper at home, especially once you have started collecting it.

When your wine comes, look at it. Make sure it's the bottle (and vintage) you ordered. Busy staff can and do make mistakes. The server will remove the capsule (the wrapper on the top of the wine, which traditionally was made of lead foil but is giving way to supposedly less toxic materials like aluminum or even plastic--or least toxic--nothing at all). The top of the cork should be wiped off (it can be moldy or have other contaminants), then removed.

The cork is usually then given to the person who ordered the wine. Why? What do you do? This is where some people start to squirm. Don't worry, there is a reason for this. And it even makes sense. Once you know the reason, you know what to do.

So what's the reason? Alright, actually I've heard two equally plausible stories. Both sound correct, or at least useful. The first is that if you take the cork and sniff it you may note some off-smells. This can be your first indication that the wine has problems. If it is corked or has turned to vinegar, you'll not likely want to keep the wine. (There are other, sometimes more subtle things that can go wrong.) The second is the idea that someone between the winery and the consumer may figure that unknowing wine neophytes couldn't tell or wouldn't complain about a wine no matter what. So they switch the wine by opening the bottle, replacing the good stuff with something cheaper and then re-cork it (I guess with a different cork). So the cork is shown to you so that you can see that it has the marking of the winery that produces the wine you ordered.

Certainly you can check the cork to see if it is moldy (though usually you can spot this from a block away, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the wine is bad). You can see if it is moist. If it isn't it might mean the wine wasn't stored properly (but doesn't mean the wine isn't bad, so I don't know how this may help at this point). One wag recommends that as the cork is placed before you, you pull a cork out of your pocket and hand it to the server. The point being, I guess, that there is little usefulness in the cork ritual. Most people are going to sip it anyway. Some revel in the standoff of leaving the cork completely ignored and deciding if the server thinks you either imbecile or expert. Another wag relates the story of dining with a friend in an elegant restaurant. When the friend was presented with the cork, he ate it. A lot of people have written me to say they think the whole cork ritual is useless.

The person who ordered will then be poured a small amount of the wine for tasting before drinking. If you smelled the cork, you may have a good idea if there is something wrong. Give it a small sip. If the wine is bad, there is no reason for you to drink it. Send it back. Most restaurants will accept back a bad wine gracefully. But . . . , one should not be hyper-critical. Many people will tell you that only 1 in a 1000 bottles is bad, others place it at 1 in 50. Some go so far as to say 1 in 12. Our personal experience is that it has been a fairly rare occurrence. Do not send back a wine that "is good" but you don't like. You ordered it. The same applies to particularly older wines that you know darn well might not have survived. Though you can distinguish this last by recognizing the difference between a bottle that has gone "over the hill" and one which is corked, oxidized or otherwise bad. You shouldn't have to pay a restaurant for something that is bad for reasons beyond your control.

You probably have seen people "swirl" wine around in their glass. Is that another part of arcane ritual? Sure, but it also has a very good reason. Swirling releases the smells of the wine, which are very important to enjoying the full experience of drinking it. You can swirl the wine around, stick your nose in it, even suck it through your teeth. All these things "bring out" the wine. I like to swirl, then sniff, then sip. Sometimes I manage not to swirl it onto the tablecloth, too. (See the section on glasses.)

An interesting point was sent to me by a correspondent which I think is worthy of reproduction (almost) in full: "Incidentally, you don't usually need to taste a wine to tell it is off. The nose is enough. Just give the glass to the server and ask him what he thinks if you're not sure. Most aren't confident enough to assert that the wine is OK to your face." And whether they are knowledgeable enough or not, "turning the initial tasting from confrontation to discussion will probably improve your chances of getting good wine."

Check out the discussion on what temperature a wine should be when served. There's nothing that should keep you from insisting that a restaurant do the same for you what you would do at home. That's what ice buckets are for. I've been in plenty of "fancy" restaurants that have brought out a fine red wine at 70 degrees or so, Fahrenheit. Yuck.

I have learned not to have any compunctions about making it quite clear how I want to drink wine in a restaurant. It is a fact, of course, that I'm paying for it. One particularly expensive San Francisco establishment that supposedly prides itself on its wine list sent out a red wine that was clearly too warm. As I mentioned above, there are way to deal with this, if you want to. When the waiter was informed that we wanted the wine cooled, he looked at us like we were the idiots we apparently were, told us that he certainly wouldn't want the wine to "close up" and was generally nasty. When I asked him just what temperature the wine had been stored at, he came up with 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Now this is about 5 degrees too cold (on average) of what the "perfect" cellar temperature would be (and I would expect perfection from this place.) Since it was clearly not that cold and was, in fact, too warm, we decided that we besides believing in the strength of our convictions, we would never again visit this establishment. We insisted on what we wanted and made sure his tip represented our displeasure.

Another poor restaurant practice is the one of overfilling theglass. I haven't yet figured out if the majority of these errors are due to unskilled servers or from training designed to move a greater volume of wine through the cash register. Perhaps they don't want me to pour the wine since I'll probably stain the tablecloth with drops my red wine (and I do). Maitre d's and servers scurry to my table in horror when I pick up the bottle. I have found, however, that there are very few restaurants that know how to keep a perfect fill level in a glass and that I am willing to risk their wrath and insist that I pour my own. Just by way of contrast to the prior restaurant horror story, I can say that there are some places that do know what they are doing. A very good restaurant, associated with a winery, in California's Napa Valley not only kept the fill level at just exactly the right level throughout my meal, they did it without my even noticing. A rare treat, in my experience.