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Restaurant Tips

Ordering From A List

Like so many things in a restaurant, a winelist is an index of the care its owner is willing to take to ensure you a positive experience. Lists with misspellings, absences of vintages, breadcrumbs in the folds, do not instill confidence in the less verifiable aspects of good wine service, like temperature-controlled storage.

Presentation Of The Bottle

The reason a bottle is presented upon its arrival at the table is to confirm that the wine, the vintage and the producer are correct. It is incumbent upon the purchaser of the bottle to see that these identifiers are correct. A good waiter/waitress will usually point to the revelant information on the label to assist. Unfortunately, it too often happens that the purchaser ignores the presentation only to discover that the wrong wine has been accepted. It is then convenient to blame the restaurant. Remember that it is ultimately the customer's job to verify.

The Cork

Much has been made of the presentation of the cork at the tableside. It has been used by pompous waiters, who pretend to discern secret information about a wine's quality in a whiff. This pretension has successfully intimidated diners for decades. And whereas an examination of a cork can be revealing, only the most trained of noses will reap information from this most arcane tradition.

The first opportunity to gain information from a cork is from inspection when IN BOTTLE. If a cork is jutting out beyond the lip of the bottle, there is a good chance that the bottle has undergone some serious temperature fluctuations. It is known that heat expands molecules and a heated up wine will put outgoing pressure on the inserted cork. Do not accept a bottle if you see its cork has the condition described above.

Upon presentation of a cork, it is useful to examine it by feel. A cork should be moist. Its' contact with the wine inside serves to expand and make for a tighter "seal". A cork that is all dried out will shrivel imperceptibly, and in so doing, accelerate the influx of oxygen and the evolution of the wine. Be wary of desiccated cork, but the proof will be in the tasting of the wine.

The Tasting

Sampling a wine prior to accepting the purchase is an important moment in restaurant dining. It must be admitting that this can be a difficult and sometimes awkward procedure for those inexperienced in tasting. What is crucial to remember is this: if you are at all uncertain about the acceptability of the wine, CONDITION YOUR ACCEPTANCE OF THE BOTTLE UPON A SECOND TASTE FIVE MINUTES LATER. Do not forget that a good wine is like flower which unfurls upon exposure to heat. In the case of wine, it is exposure to air which "opens" it up. Once "open", a wine's flaws are all the more apparent. Conversely, any "mustiness" which might, at first sniff, be perceived as a flaw, will usually "blow off" with a five minute reprieve.

Do not however, expect a restaurant to accept the return of a bottle, half of which has been consumed during the five minute "breathing"! If you are to confer with the table on the acceptability of the bottle, instruct the waiter to give small 1 oz. pours to the tasters.

If a wine is actually flawed, the passing of several minutes will only make the flaw more apparent. At this time, ask that a sommelier or manager taste the wine with you. Do your best to describe the particular facet of the wine you do not like. A "corked" wine is one in which certain bacteria have moved from the cork into wine and imparted a "corky" smell, a kind of moldiness which makes the wine unpleasant to drink. There are other faults in wine, which merit a wine's being returned. They include oxidation, poor winemaking, i.e. overly tannic or thin, acidic wine and other flaws which make a wine impossible to drink. A good restaurant will always take back a rejected bottle of wine. If, however, there is a difference of opinion as to the wine's soundness as it is returned, it is best if the customer select a different bottle than the one rejected for the second wine.

Sparkling Wine

BEWARE THE WAITER WHO LEAVES UNPROTECTED THE CORK IN A BOTTLE OF SPARKLING WINE !!! A bottle of sparkling wine is not to be handled carelessly. It is said that in England alone, a half dozen people each year are killed or maimed by "exploding" champagne corks. These corks hold back as much as 6 psi of pressure, equivalent to that in a tire of a double decker bus. Demonstrate the quintessence of good manners by looking after your guest's safety : keep an eye on your server whenever sparkling wine has been ordered.

The Glass

Wine glasses must be clean. Before you pour a good wine into a soapy or skanky glass, smell it. Dishwashers are only human and in even the best of restaurants an unacceptable glass can make it to a table, ( most often on a second seating, when waitstaff has used up all the manually polished, backup stemware).

A wine glass should be filled such that the diner can "swirl" the wine about without spilling. The "swirling", in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, creates a greater surface area of wine to air, thereby releasing more of the chemical components - esters, aldehydes etc. - which comprise the "noise" or bouquet of a wine.


A mark of a fine restaurant is the ability to serve you wine at the correct temperature. In the United States, white wine has traditionally been served too cold and red wine too warm. It is generally accepted that coldness masks flavor such that many of the pleasurable features of a white wine are never discovered in a bottle that lives in an ice bucket. It is a tragedy for good wine to be underemployed as merely a cold beverage, when it has so much to offer. If I have been served a white at an appropriate temperature, I will ask my server to stand the bottle in a coater on my table as would be a bottle of red. I will always have the choice to chill it again should I choose, but more often than not the bottle is consumed before losing its property as a refreshment. I have also given the wine a chance to tell me its story as it develops with both temperature change and exposure to oxygen.

Red wine presents just the opposite problem: it is often served so warm that it cannot even be considered a refreshment. Part of the problem stems from the misunderstood concept of "room temperature". The French term, "Chambré means "brought up to room temperature". At that time, a bottle of red would be brought from a 55 degree (Fahrenheit) cellar to an upstairs room at approximately 61-65 degrees. This is the range in which red wines are best enjoyed. It is evident then that a restaurant store its red wine so as to serve it at a refreshing temperature.


The procedure of decanting serves a number of purposes, foremost of which is the exposure of wine to air. I have seen both red and wine whites decanted for the purpose of aeration so as to bring the wine to a more advanced state of development for greater enjoyment. For this reason alone, it is advised to decant hearty young red wines before serving, (and to get a nice decanter on your table!).

A second reason to decant is to separate a wine from its sediment, thereby affording a fine wine its clarity and brilliance. A successful decanting for this purpose depends upon a number of preconditions. First, the bottle must have been stored correctly, preferably label face up, undisturbed, so that the sediment will have accumulated in the bottom, or punt, of the bottle. Sediment results, in fact, from the combining of molecules and the formation of heavier particulates, which then gravitate to the bottom of the bottle. Second, this bottle must be brought in this condition to the dining table, often in a wine basket. Then, with a minimum of jostling, the bottle must be presented and opened. A small candle is then lit over which the decanting procedure takes place. With the bottle in one hand and a clean decanter in the other, the wine is poured without interruption into the decanter. The candle is positioned below the neck of the bottle so that the approach of the sediment as the bottle is emptied can be detected. When the sediment has come up into the neck of the bottle, one brings the bottle to an upright position and ceases the flow of wine into decanter.

A final reason to decant is to bring an overly cool wine to an ambient temperatures more quickly, again through a greater interface with oxygen.

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