|Nice picture, huh?|
Recently, I was out to dinner with a few folks, all but one of whom I had never met before. One of them apparently ordered a bottle of wine and it somehow wound up being presented to me by the server for approval. If you have ever had this happen to you in a restaurant, you know the panic that sets in: Oh lord, what do I do now? How do I do this without revealing myself as the box-wine drinking boor I really am? What would James Bond do? He's smooth, he knows wine...he can shoot people with impunity.... Nah...the server looks friendly and probably has a family, so no whacking her to cover my oenological ineptitude. I know! I'll fake a heart attack! Wait...what are the symptoms again? CRAP! I can't even do THAT right!
Relax and remember two things:
1) The people you are with probably have very little idea what is supposed to happen in that situation, either. With a little bit of grace and some sleight of hand, you will impress the ever-loving bejeebers out of them.
2) Unless you are at the snottiest of snotty restaurants - the kind where the menus are in a foreign language (probably Aramaic) and have no pictures - the server probably doesn't know, either. (NB: If a member of the restaurant staff you have never seen up to that point brings the bottle to the table and calls himself the sommelier or wine steward, you are screwed. There is no impressing those people. The symptoms of a heart attack are shooting pain in the arm up to the jaw and a tight, restricted feeling in the chest. Go for it.)
So here then is a step-by-step guide for handling this situation:
The Presentation of the Bottle
Purpose/Procedure: The server will bring the bottle of wine to you while holding it in a jaunty manner. Be sure to compliment him/her on their bottle presentation: "My, what a jaunty and professional way to hold a bottle!" They do this so that you can verify that the bottle they are holding is what you ordered. Some restaurants have multiple vintages (years) of the same wine, so mistakes happen. If you are a true wine snob, the vintage can make a huge difference. (For more info, see my Wine Snob's Ultimate Guide to Vintages and Stuff. Good luck finding it, as I haven't written it yet.) Also, a winemaker may have multiple varietals (flavors, for lack of a snottier term) per year. You are checking the bottle to make sure that it is the 2004 Chateau Le Gauche Vache cabernet sauvignon you ordered and NOT the merlot or the 2005 cabernet...or possibly a bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill (stick with even-year vintages on that particular wine, btw.)
What to Say/Do: Keep it simple. Check the label for the name, the varietal, and the vintage. If you cannot find any of that info, just politely ask the server where it is on the label. If it is what you ordered, just say something like "That's the one. Thank you." If it is not the right one, politely inform the server of what is wrong with it. ALWAYS be polite and friendly with your server! ALWAYS. His time is very valuable, and this is a lengthy process. Plus, you'd be surprised how many free glasses of wine you can get out of "Please" and "Thank you".
What NOT to Say/Do: Do not grab the bottle out of his hands. If you put a finger on that bottle and it drops, you will be paying upwards of $50 for something that will wind up in a mop bucket. Do not get fancy or snotty. Wine servers HATE that. They know you're full of crap when you start saying things like "I usually prefer the '06 because of its subtle cherry notes blahblahblah..." Do not grab the server's ass, no matter how hot he/she is. That just leads to hurt feelings, lawsuits, and dropped bottles. Moving on....
The Uncorking/Presentation of the Cork
Purpose/Procedure: After the wine has been verified as what you ordered, the server will then uncork the bottle. (I feel it necessary to point out that a lot of wines - even high-dollar ones - are switching to screwcaps - more properly known as Stelvin closures or Stelvin caps. Research has shown that it is actually better for white wines and has probably little impact on red wines to use caps. New Zealand, which makes the best sauvignon blanc on the planet, has banned the use of corks by law.) The server does this to - DUH - open the wine. He will then present you with the cork. It is yours to keep. I suggest saving all of your corks and making a lovely, very expensive trivet out of them.
What to Do/Say: Watch respectfully and quietly as he removes the usual foil seal and/or wax over the cork and then the cork itself. In the case of champagne or sparkling wine, there will usually be a foil seal, a "cage", and the cork. After the wine has been opened, the server will hand you the cork. In the old days, unscrupulous restaurant owners would swap labels (among other nefarious acts) to pass off cheap wine as expensive stuff. You are being given the cork to verify that the maker's mark on the cork matches the label on the bottle. After you have done that, look at and touch the end of the cork to make sure it is wet and stained (ewwww). Wine should be stored on its side to keep the cork wet and the bottle opening airtight. If the cork is dry, it has been stored improperly. You don't really need to say anything, but a "Thank you" when the server hands you the cork is always a good thing. (Seriously, people...you can be snobby AND nice at the same time.)
What NOT to Say/Do: Contrary to everything you think is true, proper, and holy regarding wine, DO NOT SNIFF THE CORK. What's wrong with you? Sniffing stuff people hand you in public...ugh.... Also, do not lovingly fondle the cork, no matter how good the wine is. That's just rude. When the server pulls the cork out of the bottle, do not put your finger in your mouth and make the cork-popping noise. Save that stuff for Chuck E. Cheese (or, if you are in France, Charles Edouard du Frommage). Do not sing, hum, or whistle "Pop Goes the Weasel", even though that would be funny as hell if you timed it just right with the cork pop. Do not throw the cork at people.
Purpose/Procedure: If everything has been OK so far, the server will pour a small sip of wine into your glass. This is your final test for the wine. You will be making sure that the wine tastes OK, there's no gunk floating in it, and that it is to your liking. This will be your chance to be step up your snobby game.
What to Do/Say: This is the most crucial step, so pay attention! It boils down to: Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Swallow.
Swirl After the server has poured, swirl the wine gently in your glass. There are various techniques for this (the Samba, the Hula Hoop, the Chicago Pas de Deux, the Shimmy, the Watusi, and - my personal favorite - the Wibble-Wobble), but keep it simple for now. You move it in the glass to get air into it (also known as letting it breathe - a move to improve its taste), to see how it coats the glass (aka "checking its legs" - I kid you not), and to check for debris. A few tips: Extremely high-end wines are unfiltered and may have sediment (fines) in them. This is OK. Wine should not have clumps, foreign matter, body parts, or bits of cork in it, though Sparkling wines and champagnes should have NO debris in them at all, not even sediment.
Sniff After swirling the wine, lift your glass to your nose, and sniff deeply. If you smell skunk, vinegar, wet dog, or anything else really unsavory, the wine has probably "turned" (gone bad). Depending on the type of wine, you may smell odd stuff like licorice, tobacco, fruit, "earth" (a smell very similar to clean and freshly turned gardening soil), flower smells, wood, herbs, etc. Odd does not mean bad. It's only bad if it makes you gag or brings back unpleasant olfactory memories of a daycare center.
Sip Take a sip of the wine. Nothing fancy, just sip it as if you are sipping hot coffee. Avoiding fancy tricks yet again, move the wine around in your mouth so it coats as much of the inside of your mouth as possible. Different wines affect different taste areas in your mouth, so you want to get a feel for its overall "taste profile".
Swallow Swallow the wine. Duh. After you have swallowed the wine, though, allow yourself one exhaled breath (mouth closed). Believe it or not, good wine will have three different "flavors": the inhaled aroma (or bouquet), the taste, and the exhaled aroma (the finish).
As you are doing this, make simple comments about the pleasing color of the wine, the pleasant bouquet, the nice taste, etc. Also, don't forget to thank the server when he pours. Thank him again after he pours the now-approved wine into glasses for all of the guests.
What NOT to Say/Do: Do not slosh your wine. Keep the swirl simple. Do NOT get overly snotty and elaborate in any of your comments. Avoid words such as precocious, evocative, aromatic, etc., and don't compare the aroma/taste to things you have never tried. I hate reading wine descriptions that compare the flavor to lychee, cassis, or anything else a lot of people have never tried. Do not slurp loudly or consume the whole amount the server poured for you. Slurping is gross. Forget all the fancy tricks for tasting wine. Do not slosh it about in your mouth like Listerine. Do not "chew" it. Sampling wine follows the same rule as that for food: Once it hits your mouth, no one else should see it or hear it. Sample the wine exactly as you would drink it. You don't "chew" what you drink, so don't chew your tasting sample. If someone gave you a sample of cheese, would you take the cheese and rub it over all of your teeth? Hopefully not. And most importantly of all: DO NOT SPIT. If you are sampling more than four wines at a tasting event, then you will be provided with special spit buckets to help you avoid alcohol poisoning. At a restaurant, though, spitting is NEVER allowed.
One last note: If you find the wine is not what you want (but the quality is fine), politely tell the server that and ask if you can get a different bottle. Restaurants will frequently take such mostly-full bottles and sell them at a much higher mark-up by the glass as the "special wine of the day". Or...they'll give free glasses of that wine to customers who have always said "Please" and "Thank you" to their servers. Enjoy!
ps- I don't think anyone I was with noticed or was impressed with my god-like wine knowledge. The server noticed, though, and I got a free glass of malbec out of it. That one goes in the Win column.