Restaurant wine programs are better than ever before.
Once upon a time, high-end restaurants felt obligated to employ snooty sommeliers, most of whom pushed expensive, predictable wines that were easily found at your local liquor store.
Today, though, high-end restaurants are staffed with hip sommeliers who are better described as wine educators, eager to discuss the interaction of wine with food and share their recent discoveries.
Most traditions associated with wine service remain, however.
When dining virtually anywhere, your server will formally present you with the bottle you’ve ordered, making sure the label is facing upwards. After opening the wine, she’ll present you with the cork. Finally, she’ll pour you a small taste of the wine and wait for your approval.
Knowing what to do — and when it’s appropriate to reject a wine — can be nerve-wracking. But it needn’t be. Here’s all you need to know.
Checking the label is easy. It’s presented simply to confirm that the server has pulled the bottle you ordered — so check the producer, variety, and vintage. Mistakes can and do happen, especially when restaurants are busy.
Inspecting the cork is almost as simple.
For starters, there’s no need to smell it. Instead, check to see if it’s streaked or drenched with wine. If it is, the wine might be heat-damaged, as heat causes wine to expand and push against the cork. But you’ll need to smell the wine to make sure, as it could also mean that the bottle was overfilled. Also check to see if the cork is crumbly. If the wine is relatively young, this could be a sign of improper storage — and the wine could be oxidized. Again, you’ll need to smell the wine to make sure.
Note that if a cork is covered in little white crystals that look like sugar, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s simply tartaric acid, a natural byproduct of wine, and those crystals are tasteless, odorless, and harmless.
Analyzing the wine comes next. So give the wine a swirl to help release its aromas and stick your nose in the glass. Most flaws can be detected by your nose alone, but don’t hesitate to also taste the wine.
If the wine is affected by TCA, or cork taint, the fruit will be masked by aromas reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp basement. A 2005 study by Wine Spectator found that this flaw impacts about one in 15 bottles.
If the wine has been exposed to high temperatures or is oxidized from poor storage, it will likely seem flat, with muted aromas and minimal flavor. Sometimes, oxidized wine can give off aromas of caramel, candied almonds, and dried fruits.
If you think your wine might be flawed, give your glass to the server and solicit her opinion. If she’s familiar with the wine, she’ll be able to let you know if something is off. And if she’s not familiar with it, she’ll probably trust your judgment or have someone with more expertise come to the table.
If the wine is in good condition, tell your server. She’ll then pour it for everyone at the table.
Keep in mind that the taste isn’t poured to find out if you like the wine. If it’s simply not to your liking, there’s a good chance the restaurant won’t take it back. That said, restaurants value customer service. So don’t hesitate to explain to your server why you dislike the wine. The restaurant might replace the bottle.
Of course, the best way to avoid ordering a wine you won’t like is to chat with the sommelier or server beforehand, to get a sense of what you should expect. Alternatively, you could find a wine that’s available by the glass and ask your server for a small sample.
Ordering wine at a restaurant is fun — it’s an opportunity to try unique wines and elevate your meal. So don’t let the pomp and circumstance of wine service intimidate you.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.