Wine Notes – Etiquette
Have you ever asked for a straw with your glass of wine? That’s exactly what I want to do when I’m served wine in a small glass filled to the brim. I have learned not to order wine at these restaurants since I will undoubtedly be disappointed and potentially insulting to the waitstaff. Don’t blame the server. This behavior is really a reflection on the restaurant owner’s attitude toward serving good wine. Wine etiquette is not only important, but it also affects the taste of the wine and the experience of enjoying one of the world’s oldest beverages.
In order to avoid a disappointing experience at a restaurant you’re trying for the first time, begin by asking to see the establishment’s wine list if it wasn’t already brought to your table. If the server simply says they have cabernet, merlot, zinfandel and chardonnay you are in the wrong place. The wine list should have at least four or five selections in each of these categories. If I am planning a special dinner, I’ll sometimes view the wine list on the restaurant’s website and choose in advance. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance from the sommelier or the wine steward. They are familiar with the selection at their restaurant. A good sommelier will ask what you are having for dinner and the style of wines you generally prefer, and then will offer selections in a range of prices. At dinner with a business client one time, I opened the wine menu and asked her what kind of wine she enjoyed. When she said Champagne, I had no idea what to order and summoned the sommelier, who told me about his trip to several wineries and recommended three options to choose from. I was a big hit that day.
Once you have chosen a bottle, the server should present it to you before it is opened so you can see that the selection and vintage are correct. The server will then remove the foil. Then, he or she will extract the cork and hand it to you. This is the time for you, as the host, to determine if the wine is spoiled or flawed. You are not determining the quality of the wine or if it suits your palate. Touch the portion of the cork that came in contact with the wine and examine it, looking for mold. Very young wines will have little or no soaking into the cork. Red or white but wines that have been bottled for five to 10 years before opening are bound to have wine soaked into the cork about 1/8 inch. If the wine is half way up the cork, these wines have either gone bad or are on their way to bad. The cork should be clean, wet and possibly a bit soaked in.
Next, sniff the cork and determine if it is contaminated with trichloroanisole (TCA), one of the main causes of cork taint. It is sometimes found in natural cork and will spoil maybe one to five bottles of wine per 100. You will recognize it by its distinctive smell, reminiscent of a dirty, damp basement or wet newspapers.
Next, take the very small pour the server will present to you and swirl the wine vigorously in the glass. Then place your nose deeply into the glass and take a good whiff. Once you have determined that there are no off odors, move on to tasting. “Corked wine” is the most common problem, but wine can also turn to vinegar or have other imperfections. If you think the wine is bad, let the server know you suspect something is wrong. I hate to do this, but it is perfectly appropriate, and most restaurants won’t blink unless you’re complaining about a $500 bottle. If the wine isn’t flawed, it is time for the server to pour some into the glasses of others in your party, pouring yours last.
A small amount of wine should be poured into a large glass. Good wine glasses hold 25 to 32 ounces. Four to 5 ounces of wine in that glass is an appropriate amount. I will sometimes let the server know that I prefer to pour the wine, thus stopping them from overpouring. Your goal should be to savor your wine and enjoy it with your meal. If you are looking to bulk up on alcohol, a martini or some scotch might be a good choice while you let your wine breathe.
Avoid touching the bowl of the glass by holding the stem. This prevents your fingerprints from smudging the glass and stops your hands from affecting the temperature of the wine, which should be served at cellar temperature, or about 55 degrees. You should try to drink from the same spot on the glass each time, reducing the lip marks that make for unsightly distractions.
When pouring the remaining wine from the bottle, remember to serve your guests first. Don’t be that guy who gulps the remaining wine in his glass just before the next round of pouring.
Basic wine etiquette matters. If the restaurant you chose doesn’t see it that way, order a Bud Light. Salute!