Does the etiquette of eating and drinking at fancy restaurants give you anxiety? Well, you are certainly not alone. Many people feel uncomfortable in very formal dining environments. Which utensil to use? Which plate to put the bread on? Which glass for what? How to taste and drink the wine? I would like to try to explain and simplify the classic European wine service, as well as dispelling some myths. When you know the reasons behind each part of the ritual, it does not seem all that frightening or mystifying.
Every culture has its own dining rituals, so it is not a surprise that fine European-style restaurants will offer wine, which comes with a customary style of wine service. Every aspect of the wine service has a real purpose, so it is not that the waiter or the restaurant are trying to be difficult or overly formal. Rather, the wine service ritual (if I may call it that) is designed to ensure a quality wine experience for the diner. Enjoying wine service has very little to do with how wealthy, fancy, or snobby someone is, but everything to do with a little knowledge about wine itself. Many regret that the art of a full, proper wine service is becoming lost, even in the best restaurants, but there are still those out there who practice the art.
A very good restaurant will have a sommelier, whose job it is to choose the restaurant’s wine, ensure its proper storage and handling, and offer diners advice on pairing their food with the right wine. A good sommelier is indispensable, and most of them truly try to make good recommendations, rather than try to sell the most expensive wines. Because he or she is an expert on wine and on that restaurant’s menu, his or her suggestions are often pure gold. And a good one will ask you first what sort of wines you like. If you do not know much about wine, do not be ashamed to tell the sommelier, as most of them will be thrilled to share some wine knowledge.
Depending on the size of the operation, some restaurants will send your table server for wine service, while larger or more upscale ones will often have a dedicated wine server. In either case, the server should be well-versed in wine service. If, unfortunately, you are left with a bumbling rookie who does something that interferes with the wine enjoyment, it is not wrong to politely ask the manager if he would not mind serving the wine himself. A good wine server will act confidently and knowledgeably. Knowing what the server is doing and how he or she is interacting with you not only takes away the nervousness of an inexperienced wine drinker, but also is designed in the diner’s favor. Everything that the server does is in order to make sure you get the wine you want, that it is a good bottle, and that it is served for maximum enjoyment.
The first thing to decide is who will be ordering the wine. Traditionally in European dinners, the host is the one who invited his guests to the meal, and the one who will be paying the bill. So, he or she is the one who will select the wine. Customarily, this will be the man at the head of the table. The first thing the server will do is to present the bottle to the one who ordered it. Usually, he or she will hold the label of the bottle toward you and allow you to examine it. This is simply to ensure that the bottle you ordered is the bottle that has been brought to your table. Just look for the name of the winemaker and the name of the wine to ensure. If a mistake has been made, it is perfectly fine to say that it is not the bottle you ordered, and the mistake will be corrected promptly.
If it is the correct bottle, the server will then carefully open it by removing the cork with a corkscrew. Hopefully, the cork will be intact and sufficiently moist so that it slides out with no problem. If it crumbles or breaks, the server will attempt to salvage it. If it that is not possible, then he or she will bring a new bottle to the table. Once the cork is pulled out of the bottle, the server will hand the cork to the host. While sniffing the cork has become some sort of weird, mythical practice, it is not the primary reason that the server gave you the cork. There is nothing about the smell of wine on a cork that tells you anything special about a wine. No, the reason you were given the cork is to inspect it to make sure the wine has not been oxidized or breached.
Some corks acquire a certain fungus that creates veins in them. The wine runs up the veins during storage, allowing oxygen to seep into the bottle too quickly. This quickly turns the wine into a sort of sour vinegar that is not fit for drinking. If someone says that a wine is corked, they are referring to this. There can be other problems with wine storage too, especially with older wines. If somewhere in the many years of the bottle’s history, someone stored it improperly and damaged or ruined the cork, the souring will also occur. So what the restaurant is doing, is simply letting you look at the cork to make sure that this did not happen. If the cork has veins of red wine that reach to the top of the cork, or other such markers, then it is very possible that the wine was corked. In this case, it is perfectly fine to ask the restaurant to bring you another bottle. Of course, if you suspect that the cork is bad, and you are able to identify the smell of the TCA chemicals, then sniffing to verify is acceptable.
Assuming the cork is fine, the server will then pour a small bit of the wine into the host’s glass. This is for the host to taste. Again, there is the misunderstanding that the host is trying to determine if the wine is tasty and good. Actually, the host is supposed to be doing what he did with the cork: assuring that the wine has not oxidized in the bottle. If it tastes like sour vinegar, then it is fine to request another bottle. However, if it has not been oxidized, and the host simply does not personally care for that particular wine, then it is not alright to request another type of wine! If the wine is not oxidized, then the host nods to the server, who will then fill the host’s glass, then proceed to pour wine for the other guests, usually starting with the women, elder to younger, and then to the men in the same age order. A good server will make sure that the wine level in all of the glasses is equal.
And now comes the best part: drinking the wine! Customs vary, but often the host will offer a toast for the first sip. In European culture, while everyone is expected to take a small sip at a toast, they are also free to drink at their own pace during the meal. This is opposed to Chinese custom, for example, where at formal dinners, you should only drink during a toast. Wine at dinner is meant to be enjoyed, in any case, and assuming that the sommelier had a good suggestion, the wine should compliment the meal.
Good wine compliments more than just the food. It also increases warmth among friends. It stimulates conversation and intellect, and causes us to think about loftier, higher things. It also stimulates the taste buds, the senses of smell and sight, and heightens our enjoyment of food. It causes the brain to release dopamine, which not only promotes a sense of well-being, but also helps our minds to appreciate more the environment, the people, and everything else about the evening. And that is really what a proper wine service is about: helping people to enjoy life to its fullest.