The Restaurant Wine Ritual: A Host’s Perspective

As a frequent business dining host, you will be taking part in the age-old honor of ordering a bottle of wine for the table. For some, the very thought of such a responsibility is intimidating, even panic-inducing, and rightly so; without a professional wine background, it is natural to feel at a loss when flipping through a comprehensive restaurant wine list, let alone when attempting to assess the bottle once it arrives at the table, and in your glass. The solution: Stop, take a breath, and familiarize yourself with the basics of assessing wine in public. Allow me to walk you briefly through the restaurant wine ritual, and arm you with the confidence to tackle any wine-assessing scenario like a seasoned host.

Just The Facts

Once you’ve made your wine selection, the server should present the wine bottle to you. Your first mission is to make sure that the facts on the label are the same as they read on the wine list. Inspect the label for the winery name/vineyard designation, and the grape variety (when applicable). Most importantly, check the vintage, as this is the likeliest area for discrepancy, as well as the determining factor for a stellar vs mediocre drinking experience. When you’ve determined the correct bottle has arrived, the server will uncork it (or unscrew it) and pour you a modest taste.

Ah, The Smell of It

Car Tire

I assure you, ma’am….you’re Cabernet is not flawed.

Pick up your glass, swirl it a bit to coat the inside, and take your first whiff of the wine. The point of the exercise is to spot aromatic flaws, which can take many forms. Red flags that you can consider deal-breakers include damp basement or wet cardboard smell (indicating cork taint), the smell of rotten eggs (high sulfur content) and nail polish remover/acetone smell (indicating volatile acidity, too much of which is a flaw). However, there are numerous idiosyncratic wine aromas that you should be familiar with, as they are funky, but not considered to be flaws. For instance, if your Sauvignon Blanc smells like cat pee (pee du chat), your Languedoc blend has a whiff of barnyard (pastoral elegance/bret), your Rhine Riesling reminds of a petrol station, or your South African red gives off rubber tire notes, all is fine, if not desirable.

Should it Stay, or Should it Go?

If the wine smells flawless, go on in for a taste. Think to yourself, “does it taste pleasant?” If so, give a nod to the server and the wine will be poured for your party, ending with you. If, however, you are disappointed with the first taste, don’t panic. Take a second sip. You might still be tasting your own toothpaste or afternoon coffee. Keep in mind also that wine changes perceptibly when food is introduced; acid tends to mellow and tannins soften with the addition of fatty proteins on your palate. If you are still disappointed after the second taste, it’s time to voice your concerns.

The Art of The Send-Back

Be gracious when sending back a wine. If your server or sommelier had initially helped you choose the wine, it will make it much simpler to communicate your desire. Simply saying “this isn’t how I imagined this tasting” will signal the somm to take a taste. They will determine if the wine is flawed, or, if they assess it to be sound, will ask if they can bring you a bottle of something else. Regardless of the procedure, do not stress over rejecting a bottle of wine….the restaurant will pour the rest by the glass, and will not lose money. If the wine is truly flawed, the restaurant will get credit from the distributor.

Want to jump start your wine IQ and advance your restaurant wine-ordering skills? Take the next step and join me at In Good Company on March 26th for a Wine List Navigation tutorial that will your earn you your wings!