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Home | Restaurants and Wine | The Wine Rite of Passage -- aka the . . .

The Wine Rite of Passage -- aka the waiter brings you the wine

Now that you've navigated the wine list, selected a wine that matches your wine profile and budget, the real pressure begins.  Actually, it is pretty simple and straight forward. In this article I'll walk you through each of the steps in “accepting” a wine so you may understand the process and purpose of each step.

Step One – Check out the bottle.

OK, this sounds easy enough, the waiter brings you a bottle of wine and “presents” it to you – at least this is how it is supposed to work. 

There's always room for challenges – the place is so dimly lit the guy could be holding a grenade, you only get 5 seconds and have to practice speed reading, or my favorite - the waiter will simply place the bottle

on the table and begin to open it.  Don't let them get away with any of these!  The reason the bottle is shown to you is quite simple – does it match what you ordered – no different than having the ravioli put in front of you when you ordered a filet. Of course if you are the type of person that wouldn't mention that mix up then just nod your head to the waiter and save everyone a lot of time. 

Look at the label and check first the vineyard, second the variety, and lastly the year if you specified one.  I have seen mistakes made in all of these areas.  Sometimes they just plain get it wrong or bring you a Rodney Strong Cabernet when you asked for the Rodney Strong Chardonnay.  Checking the vintage is very important as well IF you made your selection based on a specific year.  Many times on wine lists you will see the 2007 vintage listed and what shows up tableside is the 2008.  With any of these gaffes do not hesitate to ask.  Often the waiter isn't aware of or knowledgeable about the differences. You should not be bashful about getting what you asked for, and if they don't have the specific wine you requested, don't just agree to any proposed substitute (unless you are truly in agreement) but rather ask to see the wine list again.

Step Two – Pulling the cork

This step can be straight forward or filled with amusement.  Depending on the practices observed by the restaurant, the corkscrew provided and the experience of the waiter, this event can take seconds or result in the waiter running back to the kitchen for reinforcements.  Once the cork is removed it should be placed on the table in front of you.  You pick up the

cork and smell it right?  WRONG.  The purpose of examining the cork is to look for one of two things – overly dry brittle corks or (in red wine) red stain that extends the length of the cork.  If the cork is dry and brittle it may be an indication that the seal has been compromised, and if you can see red stain the entire length of the cork, from bottle top to the end in the wine, this is almost certainly in indication that air has reached the wine and there is a chance of spoilage.  Again neither of these situations is cause to reject the bottle, but if it were me, I would be a lot more careful smelling and tasting the wine!

Step 3 – Tasting the wine

This is where the fun begins and you demonstrate your knowledge of wine (obtained of course here at or if you are in the company of oenophiles as I frequently am, they just tell you to hurry up and taste the damn wine so they can have some too.  In general, wine etiquette is that the person who ordered the wine tastes the wine (one notable exception here is that in the finest dining establishments with a professional sommelier it is frequently the sommelier who will taste the wine).  It is the prerogative of the person ordering to defer to anyone else at the table, but the waiter should not offer the wine to anyone else first.  The waiter pours a small quantity of wine into your glass.  At this point you replicate the tasting process outlined in Wine Tasting 101.  It is important here to remember that while you are tasting the wine you are not at a wine tasting party.  Run through the steps quickly, and remember that your waiter has other tables.  This is not the time to do your Robert Parker imitation nor to engage in commentary with others at your table.  Your sole mission at this point is to insure that the wine is not spoiled, or damaged in some way. 

Wine that has not been properly sealed or transported can develop a number of problems.  If the cork seal is broken, air will contact the wine and oxidation occurs – resulting in a stale vinegary taste – not pleasant.  If the wine has a wet musty, wet cardboard, mildew smell that it may be “corked” – having an undesirable smell caused by a chemical used in sanitizing corks – trichloroanisole or TCA.  Wine damaged in transport by excessive heat is referred to as “cooked” which simply means that the wine (usually red) has been over heated, expanded and allowed again, to interact with the air.
If you suspect any of these conditions, politely tell your server that the wine is “spoiled”.  In my experience I have never had anyone challenge my view, and more often than not the situation results in profuse apologies.  Remember, you can count on a trouble free bottle 95-99% of the time and simply give your server a nod, or if you choose to be more ebullient and pretentious, “that's a beautiful expression of the Viticultural community of [insert wine region here]”

Now, a final point.  You select the wine, it is not spoiled or corked or cooked, but it's just not doing it for you.  Your options are to a) serve it to you guests and hope they like it better, b) Pretend it really is bad and pull the wool over the waiter's eyes, c) claim the wine is a poor choice to have on the wine list and demand another bottle, or d) suck it up and drink it anyway.  Well do what you'd like, but I think most would say the right choices are limited to a and d.

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