We've all had it happen: the moldy cork, the bug in the glass, the wrong wine. There are some things that are clear reasons to send back your glass or bottle. But what about the less obvious problems? These 5 tips tell you what is--and isn't--ok in restaurant wine service.
1. Size (and shape) matter. At family-style restaurants (especially Italian), you might be served wine in small, stemless tumblers. This is part of the cultural experience and is perfectly acceptable (and a fun way to drink wine!)--but ONLY if you're drinking inexpensive table wine. If you're springing for the good stuff, it should be served in a glass that will bring out its full flavors.
Another thing you want to watch out for is restaurants that serve wine in those ridiculously small 6-oz glasses. To get a proper pour, they have to fill the glass nearly to the brim! This leaves no room for the swirling and sniffing that are part of proper wine enjoyment. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about this one except politely mention to the management the benefit of a regulation-sized 12-oz tasting glass.
2. If you ordered a bottle for the table, the waiter should have you taste the wine, regardless of your sex, age, or whether you're paying or not. Here's what to do: When the wine is presented to you, make sure the bottle is the one you ordered. The waiter will open the wine and place the cork on the table next to you. DON'T smell the cork! You can't tell anything by smelling it, and it makes you look like an amateur. All you need here is a visual inspection. Make sure the cork is wet on the wine side and dry on the other side. This is pretty much the extent of what you can tell from the cork: even if it is moldy, as long as the wine side is mold-free, the wine is probably fine. There's one exception to this rule: very expensive wines sometimes have a label printed on the cork. Make sure the info on the label matches that on the bottle, especially the vintage.
After you've inspected the cork, place it on the table next to you. The waiter should dispose of it. Next, taste the wine. If you want to do this step like the pros, read this post for a how-to. If all you want to do is make it through the tasting with your dignity intact, just sniff and then sip the wine to make sure it isn't rancid. What you're looking for is a smell like a moldy basement--this indicates that the wine is corked.
3. If you've ordered a bottle, you should expect the waiter to fill the wine glasses as they empty.
4. You should NOT expect the waiter to bring an ice bucket for your bottle of white wine, unless, of course, you ask for one. White wines should be served at between 45 and 50 degrees F, depending on the varietal--much warmer than a near-freezing bucket of ice water. If your wine is served too cold, the flavors will be masked and it will taste overly acidic. However, if you order Champagne or another sparkling wine, the waiter should automatically bring you an ice bucket, as these wines need to be kept very cold for best taste.
5. You should never feel pressured by your waiter to spend more money. If he or she is filling your wine glass to the brim, it's probably to get you to buy another bottle. If you ask for a wine suggestion, he or she should offer more than one, at different price points. If you order a bottle of wine that the restaurant has run out of, your waiter should suggest another in the same price range. Establishments that are focused on getting you to spend more money are generally not trying hard enough to ensure your wine, food, and service is tip-top. If you feel pressured to spend more than you wanted to, or judged for being budget-conscious, don't go back to the restaurant.
6. Always remember that you are the one paying for your wine, and you should expect service that reflects this. But be forgiving: restaurants are hectic places. If your favorite bottle of wine isn't available, don't stress--it's a chance to try something new. If your waiter isn't at your elbow when you drain your glass, fill it yourself--he was probably dealing with a picky customer. As long as the service is generally good, don't let a small error ruin your night out.
Want to know what to do when you're the one opening and serving the bottle of wine? Or learn more about wine glasses? Our Wine Storage Education Center has all the info you need.