Proper European-Style Wine Service

June 30, 2011

Last night, I had the pleasure of dining with friends and family at a relatively-upscale restaurant. I enjoyed roasted duck with pommes frites, and had some very nice Cabernet Sauvignon along with it. It got me thinking about some basic misconceptions about restaurant wine service that seem to permeate the dining scene.

If you travel to Europe, and especially France, you will be expected to know about proper wine service at upscale restaurants. Of course, there are very good mid-range restaurants all over Europe with carafes of table wine, and I especially loves places like that in Tuscany. But in terms of a formal wine service, here are some tips that may help you to know what to do in the right setting.

First, it is good to know the characteristics of different varietals of grapes and wine so that you can choose the appropriate pairing. One does not have be an expert at all, but it appears a bit gauche to choose a wine that does not fit the meal at all. If you are uncomfortable with this, ask the waiter or the sommelier to recommend a wine. They will be happy to do so, and the sommelier especially will give you good advice.

Next, the waiter will come to the table with the bottle and show you the label. A common misconception is that he does this for the diner to see if the label looks good. It is actually simply to confirm that he has brought the wine that you ordered, to make sure that he has not mistakenly brought the wrong bottle. Once you see that it is the correct bottle, it is appropriate to simply nod to the waiter.

The waiter will then process to uncork the bottle. While he does this, he should step back from the table. Rather than watch him uncork it, it is more appropriate to continue your conversation with those who are dining with you. Watching the waiter is not seen as polite.

Once he opens the bottle successfully, he will offer the cork to the person (usually a man, and usually the host, i.e. the one paying for the dinner, i.e. the one at the head of the table) who ordered the wine. A misconception is that the host is expected to sniff the cork, but this is simply not correct. Even if you sniff the cork, it will tell you nothing about the wine, as you will be smelling wine with cork. The purpose of this, is for you to ascertain that the cork has held up correctly. If the cork has crumbled, has dry rot or wet rot, or especially has a vein of wine running up all the way to the top of the cork, then it is a bad cork. There is a certain fungus that infects corks that will cause this, and the problem is that it has allowed the wine to come in contact with oxygen directly. Such a wine will probably be overly-oxidized and will taste bitter or like vinegar. If the cork is bad, it is appropriate to show it to the waiter and politely request another bottle of the same wine. Restaurants understand this, and you will not be charged for the bad bottle.

If the cork is good, then the waiter will pour a small amount of the wine into the glass of the host. The host should then proceed to swirl the wine, sniff the bouquet, then take a small taste. People believe that this is to see i the host likes the wine, or if it is a good wine. Not so. The purpose of this small taste is only for the host to make sure that the wine is not oxidized, that it has been properly stored. If the wine is a good bottle in terms of oxidation, then even if the host does not like the wine, it is highly-inappropriate to express that dissatisfaction and to return the bottle. The only reason that a bottle may be returned at this point, is if it has been oxidized. If the wine itself has been stored properly, but the diners simply do not like it, then it is appropriate to politely mention that to the waiter or the sommelier later in the meal. You will still be charged for the bottle. In fact, the only time that it is appropriate to ask to return a bottle of wine, is if the cork is bad and the wine has been oxidized.

Once the host approves of the state of the wine, the waiter should then pour everyone an equal amount in their glasses, beginning with the ladies, and then the elder men. If the group of diners is small, and a properly-full glass may be poured for everyone with wine still remaining in the bottle, then that is what will be done. A proper pour is when the level of the wine reaches the widest point of the bowl of the glass.

If, however, there are so many diners that to pour the first ones a full glass would not leave enough to pour everyone a full glass, then a well-trained waiter will pour everyone an equal amount of wine, no matter how much wine this is. The bottle should be empty by the time he finishes the last pour.

If the host sees that he has no ordered enough wine, then it is appropriate to ask the waiter to bring another bottle that he will then open and allow to breathe. It is the host’s responsibility to ensure that every diner has as much wine as he or she desires with the meal, even if that means ordering multiple bottles.

When a diner’s glass is emptied, then that diner should never pour himself or herself another glass. It is most appropriate if only the waiter refills glasses, but it is not inappropriate for the host himself to do so. In fact, it adds a bit of warmth to the meal.

I hope that my attempt at a brief guide to wine service will be helpful. And one should not been too concerned — very few people actually know all of this. Restaurants are used to people sniffing the corks, etc. And while a proper French establishment might roll their eyes at this, they will never tell you anything about it.  Knowing proper wine service simply makes a meal more enjoyable, and affords a bit of grace to the host in the eyes of the culture.

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