Wine Ordering Etiquette
The scene: a dimly lit restaurant. In the corner sit three young people, each persuing a copy of the wine list. The waitress saunters over and one of them orders the 1977 Beaujolais-Villages ($10.50). The waitress disappears, then returns with the bottle. She shows it to the three. They nod and the cork is pulled. The first diner samples the wine, winces and says something about the fact the wine isn't very rich. The waitress calls the manager, but while she's gone for a moment, the three pour themselves a glass each. The manager arrives and asks the trouble. The wine, they say, isn’t very full it’s sort of thin and watery, they say. The manager shows them the label. It says Beaujolais. There is no “Villages” to be seen. “We’re not carrying the Beaujolais-Villages anymore, just Beaujolais,” he says. “But if you don’t like the wine, I'll be happy to replace it without charge. Just pick anything else on the list.” The three diners shake their heads. “No, that won't be necessary,” says one. But later when the bill comes, they refuse to pay for the wine (they have consumed the entire bottle, wincing frequently), and the manager demands they do pay for it. They finally relent and head for the disco. This is a true story. It happened a couple of weeks ago, and I witnessed the whole thing from across the aisle, taking notes. It is a good lesson on what not to do in a restaurant.
First, let's examine what the diners did wrong. When the waitress showed them the bottle, at least one of them should have noted the lack of the word “Villages.” There are four “grades” of Beaujolais (regular Beaujolais, Beaujolais Superieur, Beaujolais-Villages and then those named after the nine growth areas such as Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas, Morgan, etc). The one they were being offered was two levels less than they ordered and probably not worth $10.50. Thus they should have rejected the wine on the spot and made another selection. And after tasting it and finding it poor quality, they should have taken the manager’s offer of another choice. (Although etiquette says you don’t reject a wine just because you don't happen to like it.) To his credit, the manager offered a solution after the bottle was opened. (I tried the wine later and it was sound thin and lifeless, but sound.) But then to refuse to pay for it is unconscionable.
I'm not going to repeat most of the hackneyed “rules” (red with meat, white with fish, etc.) but I feel a few general tocsins are necessary. Even the experts sometimes forget these simple steps.
- After ordering the wine, try to remember exactly what it was you ordered. If you asked for a 1974 and they bring you a '75, don't take it unless you're positive the'7s would be OK. Lacking the '74, there might be another wine altogether that would suit better than the '75.
- If you have ordered a red wine of slightly older vintage and the waiter comes skipping to your table waving the bottle over his head, suggest another bottle be obtained from the cellar and make sure the first bottle remains on your table, lest he try to foist off that one on you again (This happened to a friend.)
- When the waiter uncorks the wine you have approved and pours you a sip, don't just glug it and nod. Seek out defects, that's why he poured it. Look for oxidation and maderization. (The former is a slightly burnt, slightly off-sweet aroma, the latter is a cooked flavor.) Either quality is good cause to reject the wine. Also, if it tastes like vinegar, reject. (That rarely happens these days, but it does happen.)
- If the wine served you is too cold to serve at the moment you accept the wine, tell the waiter not to pour immediately. If the wine is too warm, ask for an ice bucket and you regulate the temperature.
- If you wish to do all the pouring at the table, tell the waiter so.
- I recommend that while the waiter is pouring the first glass, you watch him carefully. If he fills any glass above half-way, stop him. Glasses are not made for simple guzzling. They are made to help swirl the wine for proper bouquet.
- When handed the cork, note if it is damp. If it is, this tells you one thing, the bottle was stored properly on its side. But the condition of the cork ALONE (even if it's as dry as the tablecloth) is no cause for sending a wine back. If the wine is spoiled, a dry cork may close your case.
- And don't accept any wine you feel to be different than that which is on the wine list. But the decision there must be made before the cork is pulled, and that’s up to you unless, of course, the bottle is brought to your table with the cork already drawn. In that case, reject the bottle at once. Corks should be pulled in front of you –Period.–By Dan Berger, Special to The Desert Sun
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia