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Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Fine Cooking Issue 32
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Even for a seasoned restaurant goer, one of the most potentially awkward aspects of wine is ordering from a list in a restaurant. But even though you’re dealing with a long list of unfamiliar wines and a waiter standing there waiting to take your order, you shouldn’t have to feel intimidated. With a little knowledge of protocol and how wine lists are structured, you’ll confidently enjoy even the most formal wine service.

Set a price limit to narrow the field

Wine lists vary in size from one-pagers to thick tomes. They can be organized by color, region, grape varietal, price range, or even character, such as fruity or herbal. Before you get down to ordering, give the list a quick onceover to see how it’s set up. A list arranged by varietal or character, like the list at right, is particularly easy to follow, especially when deciding on a good match for the food you’re ordering.

Have a figure in mind, but be aware that the server’s job is to sell. Your request for a good $25 Chardonnay might be met with suggestions for slightly higher priced wines. Stand firm, but be open to spending a few dollars more if your server suggests something that sounds like a good value. The best buys on a wine list tend to fall between $18 and $35, and many restaurants have their staff members taste wines every day so they can recommend them with confidence.

Be aware that most restaurants mark up a bottle of wine 2-1/2 times the wholesale cost; in other words, a bottle that costs $10 wholesale would cost about $15 in a wine store and should appear on a restaurant wine list for about $25. To tell if a wine list is reasonably priced, use that formula as a starting point but not as a hard and fast rule. Wines such as vintage Champagnes or classified Bordeaux tend to have such a high wholesale cost that it’s impractical for the restaurant to mark them up 250%.

That mark-up may seem extreme, but running a good restaurant involves lots of overhead costs, and it’s practically impossible to survive without marking up wines and spirits at some sort of profit. Unfortunately, some restaurants are guilty of marking up wines 300% and higher. If you think that a restaurant’s list is too expensive, politely mention it to the management and never go back. (Chances are you’ll tell all your friends how expensive the wine list was, and that’s some of the worst publicity for any restaurant).

Decide on the food you’re going to order, and discuss your choices with the wine waiter. If you and your companions are eating varied foods, you usually have a couple of options: compromise on a more “all-purpose” wine, such as a lighter red; order a couple of different half bottles, or choose from the by-theglass selection. If a few diners want a glass of the same wine, it’s usually cheaper to order a full bottle, which contains about five glasses (depending on the size of the glass).

Mention specific wines that you enjoy; for example, “I like Pinot Gris from King Estate in Oregon—do you carry it, or can you recommend something similar?” If the server can’t help you, ask for someone who can. The wine buyer or sommelier will know the list inside out. Aside from being able to choose the right wine, she or he can also point out the best values on the list.

Formal or casual, there’s a basic protocol

Although styles of wine service vary from formal to casual, there are a few basics that should always take place when a bottle is opened at the table.

The server should repeat your order twice, once when the order is taken and again when the bottle is brought to the table. This ensures that you’re getting the right bottle.

The server should present the bottle to you, unopened, so you can see the label clearly. Never accept an opened bottle—you may not be getting the wine you ordered. Be sure to inspect the vintage on the label. Some restaurants stock several different vintages of a certain wine, and the prices may vary widely

The server should present the cork to you, laying it on a coaster or underliner plate right after the wine is opened. (Proper wine service dictates that the cork shouldn’t touch the table.) Smell the cork. If there’s a wet, moldy cardboard smell, the wine is probably “corked”; tasting will confirm this (you’ll also get a wet, moldy-basement flavor). Corkiness happens when the chlorine from the processing of raw corks isn’t completely removed and comes into contact with any number of molds. The result is trichloranisole, or TCA, a substance that can ruin a bottle of wine.

Proper wine service states that the person who ordered the wine is the taster. If the diner who ordered doesn’t want to taste, it’s perfectly fine to ask the server to pour the taste for others at the table. So now the server pours a little wine in the glass. Here’s where you might not be sure how to respond. Swirl, sniff, and take a sip. If the wine is fine, a nod and a thank you suffice nicely; no need for any more comment on the wine.

If you think something is wrong with the wine after tasting it, mention it to your server. Have the server try it (if allowed), and even get a second opinion from the manager or wine buyer if you think it’s necessary. Proper wine service demands that if you’re not happy with the wine, it should be taken away immediately without question. Any good restaurant should then offer you another bottle of the same wine or show you the list so you can choose another bottle. Moreover, you should never be questioned, charged for a bottle you turned down, or made to feel uncomfortable about rejecting a bottle. It’s a question of business sense: it costs a restaurateur four times as much to get a new diner into the restaurant as it does to get someone to return, so it’s sensible to do anything within reason to make an unhappy diner happy. That said, it’s in very poor taste to reject bottles just for the sake of impressing someone.

Some restaurants let you bring your own wine. In that case, expect to pay a corkage fee, which can range from $5 to $20, depending on the restaurant. As a good-will gesture, it never hurts to let the server or sommelier taste your wine if it’s a special bottle. As for tipping, I always tip on the amount I would have spent on a bottle, or the cost of an average bottle on the restaurant’s list. The idea is that the server shouldn’t be penalized for your bringing in your own bottle.


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