Rituals concerning the service of wine have developed over centuries, many for good reasons, but they can be baffling and daunting to diners who don’t understand them. But when you do you can not be embarrassed by overbearing waiting staff.
At some casual places you order a wine and it is opened at the bar and then placed on the table. This is for the convenience of the restaurant and if it’s a cheap wine I don’t mind. But at an otherwise good restaurant in Tampa I noted the menu said the wine was opened at the bar for ‘my convenience’. I was paying $50 for the bottle and so I asked it be opened at the table. So begins the ritual.
1) The unopened bottle is brought to the table and shown to you. The sensible reason is so you can check that it is the one you wanted or the one you ordered. I know a case of a diner ordering Ch Cheval Blanc thinking it was a white wine. It isn’t. I have ordered a Zinfandel thinking it was red and found it was ‘white’. And there are easy confusions with names, wine lists often do not have as much information about the wine as they could. A Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel is not the same as a Ravenswood Amador County Zinfandel. And there is the matter of whether the vintage supplied matches the one you wanted.
Seeing the unopened bottle gives you the chance to change your mind.
2) Once the bottle has been opened you may be handed the cork. The origin of this part of the ritual was to prove the wine inside hasn’t been tampered with. Quality wines have the name and vintage stamped on the cork and that should match the label. This ritual arose because of the habit of some places to stick fancy labels on bottles of plonk.
You cannot tell the condition of the wine from the state of the cork or tell if the wine is faulty by smelling the cork, so when handed the cork give it a glance and place it down on the table.
3) Now some wine is poured in your glass for you to taste. The purpose of this part of the ritual is to allow you to reject the wine if it is faulty. Unfortunately up to 5% of all wines closed by corks are affected with a chemical known as TCA. Such a wine is known as ‘corked’ because TCA is harboured in the cork. People have different levels of perception of TCA and the taint itself can be mild to extreme. At worse the wine will stink like mould, rotting wet cardboard or dank mushrooms. At low levels TCA will suppress fruit flavours so the wine will appear dull and lifeless.
If it is faulty reject the wine. You wouldn’t hesitate to send back an overcooked steak or bad smelling fish. Don’t accept bad wine.
Those are the purposes of restaurants’ wine rituals. Do they irritate you? Tell us your experiences on the friendly wine forum. Click the button on the right of the screen.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.