Wine Service ~ The Dos & The Do Not Dos
Wine has a long and storied past that parallels the advancements of human civilization. It is one of the first products to be involved in long-distance trading and shipping by the Phoenicians, then the Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks, and eventually became a prominent industry with the Romans, who continued its spread across the old world of Eurasia. Through this history, the protocols of the service of wine have developed into widespread etiquette which is ingrained in the service industry and society in general. There are many rules which most people are aware of, but may not truly understand. Modern restaurant wine service is a simple procedure that has many subtle conventions that can elevate the process of wine consumption from the basic notion of caloric ingestion, to an experience of pleasure, a notion of sophistication, and a shared feeling of enjoyment. Having the knowledge to discuss the wine you are serving is a boon that can not be overlooked, but the time it takes to absorb that amount of information can be daunting. In the meantime, you can perfect your wine service technique to one which exudes confidence, poise, and grace. This article has a list of rules to follow to reach that level of service expertise that will put your guests at ease, knowing they are in good hands. It also has tips and techniques for enhancing the overall experience, and a smattering of common pitfalls to avoid. To impart the greatest amount of knowledge and remain inclusive to any reader, I will begin with the most basic bits of required knowledge and work towards the more advanced.
1. Wine Bottle Anatomy
2. Wine Not?
3. Selection and Retrieving
5. Foil and Wax
6. Crank, lever, and pull
8. Sediment & Decanting
9. The Pour
10. Finishing a Bottle
Wine Bottle Anatomy
Knowing the correct terminology is helpful in discussing any topic, and wine is no different. I am sure that you have seen a wine bottle before and know what a label is. Some of the other parts of the bottle may not have been named to you before. For example, the punt is the indent in the bottom of the bottle. Almost all wine bottles have one, of varying depth. They allow the surface contact to be a ring, instead of a flat surface, which, somewhat counter-intuitively, creates a more stable base. The origin of punts is from the glassblowing technique of pressing-in the seam at the bottom so there is no protrusion.
They also increase the strength of the base, which is most notably important in sparkling wine, due to the pressure inside the bottle.
For service purposes, the punt can give extra purchase to the grip when pouring, especially helpful when reaching to pour across the table, which is not ideal service but is often necessary. The punt-hold pouring technique is cupping the bottom of the back (non-label) side of the bottle with the four fingers, and inserting the thumb into the punt. (See Fig. 1-2)
The shoulder of the bottle is another feature that you may not be aware of the importance of. Unfiltered wine, aged red wine, and even certain white wines can have sediment.
Sediment will be discussed in greater detail in the decanting section, but it is worth noting that much of the sediment can be left in the shoulder of the bottle, and not end up in the glass or be churned back into the wine while decanting if the server is aware of the sediment and pours with proper technique to leave the solids behind.
(See Fig. 1-3)
Chapter 2: Wine Not?
Being aware of the power of wine and how it is served, to alter the event perception of the guest is the first step to elevating oneself from a food and beverage carrier to a table host capable of influencing the mood and the guest experience.
Whether you have a full-time sommelier on hand or work in a Ma and Pa pizza restaurant, wine service protocol and etiquette can be maintained and will add perceived value of service to the guest experience. This results in the memory of an elevated level of service in the mind of the guest, which can raise the scores in restaurant reviews and elevate the perception of quality of care in the general public and online forums. This leads to increased business, higher sales and profits for the business, and more tips for the server. How the wine is handled and served is a part of that perception-building process. Knowing the wines that you peddle is a paramount aspect of this process. Wine tasting as a group is a key element to product knowledge. Having a skilled and knowledgeable sommelier to lead the tasting and provide insight into the nuances of flavor, aroma, and balance, as well as some background on the region, terroir, vintage or perhaps even the winery or wine-maker, can add details to the repertoire of the server which can be utilized in discussing the wine with the guests. Many wine reps that sell to the restaurants and stores are happy to provide a wine tasting of their product to the servers. I recommend scheduling such a tasting session at the end of a staff meeting. It can provide knowledge as well as a team-building experience. Be sure to maximize the time by giving lessons on service, like practicing opening and pouring, while the tasting takes place. Also, allow all participants to evaluate the wine before telling them what they should be tasting and smelling.
Using a wine evaluation system, like the Rs form (See Fig. 1-4), can provide structure to the tasting and help each participant to begin thinking in wine terminology and form opinions that will transcend any information you can give them. It is easier to recall your own thoughts than those of someone else.
If you are a server/waiter that is new to wine service or know that you could improve your skills, ask your manager if they can arrange such a training session. If you are the manager of a restaurant ‘front of house’ team, I think you will be pleased by the result that a tasting event or two, can have on your team, your wine sales, and the overall perception of the quality of service that your establishment provides. So indeed, wine not?
Chapter 3: Selection and Retrieving
If you sell wine in any capacity, be it a wine shop, a restaurant, a bar, a winery, or as a sales rep, you should know the product you are peddling. If you work in a wine bar that has thousands of labels and you are not the sommelier or wine director, the prospect of familiarizing yourself with each and every bottle is improbable if not impossible. What you can do, however, is learn about the regions and varietals, and even research the growers and wineries and information on vintages within regions. You may not know the exact wine, but you can then make an educated guess at what each bottle contains. Once you are knowledgeable enough to discuss any wine on your product list or menu, then you can really begin up-selling, recommending, food-pairing, and guest-educating. As with any other aspect of service, however, be sure to read the guest and be careful not to over-step, pontificate to, nor degrade their wine knowledge. Discussing wine with confidence and authority can raise the perceived level of service, but treating the punter in a diminutive manner will create an uncomfortable exchange that can quickly go awry. So, discuss wine options with the guest, being helpful and pointing out logical choices, then let them make the final decision. As with all good service, repeat back the name of the wine and the vintage, to be sure you get the correct bottle. Many bottles have very similar names, and different vintages can have completely distinct characteristics and be priced accordingly. Bring the bottle to the table, carrying it without turning, shaking, or covering the label. Shaking up the contents within, particularly of an aged red wine, is tantamount to wine heresy. The sediment that had been settling in the bottom will be swirled back into the wine and reverse the mellowing effect of the maturation. Sediment is, by nature, bitter. It can also be sandy, chewy, or gritty. That’s why you should always carry the bottle with care, give recently arrived wines time to settle, as well as decant most red wines. Once you have brought the wine to the table, present it label forward to the guest who made the decision. Point out the name and vintage to ensure you have the right wine, and that they accept it. Now, you can open the bottle.
Chapter 4: Foil & Wax
As illustrated in Fig. 1-1, each bottle will have a cap. This could be of the screw-top variety, sometimes called a Stelvin closure, or a wax cap, or a foil wrap. Obviously, this will determine how you approach opening the bottle.
The screw-cap is becoming a much more accepted method of bottle closure and indeed has many advantages over the traditional cork, in its ability to keep wine from spoiling as well as ease of opening with no equipment necessary. It does lack in the finesse and presentation side of the ritual. It also maintains some stigma of a lesser quality or cheaper wine, though this is fading as it gains wider acceptance by established wineries. There is also an effect on how the wine matures in bottle when closed with a Stelvin versus a cork. Real cork, harvested from a cork tree, is porous. This allows a limited micro-oxygenation to occur while the wine ages, which may not occur with a screw-top or a plastic ‘cork’.
The most common cap for quality wines is the foil wrap. These enclose and protect the top of the cork from air and help to keep the cork from drying out as the wine matures. Cleanly cutting away the foil is a job that can be accomplished looking suave and confident, or clumsy, messy, and unsure. Having a sharp knife on your opener can make all the difference to how the foil cuts away or tears. I prefer a serrated knife, but a straight edge is fine as long as it is sharp enough. Serrated blades require less sharpening, but all blades can be honed once in a while to maintain their edge.
Use the underside lip of the bottle as a guide to get a clean straight cut. The motion should be a two-part, quick and easy process, with both the front and back being sliced in the same direction (Left to right if you are right-handed). The bottle should not be turned in the process.
(See Fig. 4-1)
Wax caps are less common, but have a certain visual appeal and add a perception of care that leads one to assume an overall high quality. This may not actually be the case, but perception is half the battle. There are many brands and bottles that press a small round disk of wax onto the top, just covering the opening. These can be popped off with the knife fairly easily, or pierced with the screw/worm, but some producers give the top of the bottle a deep dunk into wax, wrapping the top of the bottle in a thick shell. Attempting to hack the wax away to expose the cork beneath creates a mess and leads to a horrid-looking top when the bottle is finally opened. To avoid any of this fuss, simply ignore the wax and plunge the screw straight through it and into the cork. The wax will break fairly cleanly when the cork is pulled out. A light scoring with the knife around the top of the bottle prior to plunging the worm will often result in the wax breaking exactly along the scoreline. This can be achieved with the same motion as with the foil cutting, but close to the top of the bottle, not under the lip. (See Fig. 4-2)
Chapter 5: Crank, Lever & Pull
Once the bottle has been presented to the party host and accepted as the correct bottle, the opening procedure can begin. A screw cap can simply be twisted off, obviously. This brings you directly to the sample/pour stage. The sampling will be described in the next chapter, but it should be noted that its purpose is to establish that no cork taint has spoiled the wine, so is a redundancy in screw-top bottles. Assuming then that you are faced with a cork, or a plastic cork substitute, the pre-opening, as described in chapter 4 should have left the cork exposed with a clean cut in the foil or wax around it.
You should be using a two-tier lever wine crank for the uncorking.
(See Fig. 5-1)
Avoid the use of silly gadgets, two-armed ‘jumping-jack’ wine openers, or non-levered corkscrews. A two-prong wine butler-style opener is great for older corks and completely acceptable for any.
(See Fig. 5-2)
The curves of the screw, or worm, should be about the same length as a standard cork, so insert directly into the middle of the cork and turn until all the curves are embedded in the cork. Failure to go deep enough can result in a broken cork and too far will break open the bottom of the cork and possibly crumble bits into the wine. Use both tiers to smoothly lever the cork to almost out, then pry/turn the cork out, avoiding a popping sound. Turn out the screw from the cork and present it to the guest for inspection. Corks often have the name of the wine on them to prove that the wine within is indeed what the label suggests. There have been scams in the past that warranted this cork presentation. It is often assumed that presenting the cork is for checking to smell if the wine is corked. While it may be possible to detect a corked wine from the cork, corks generally smell like cork, so are not the best way to do so. Sniffing the wine itself is a much better method of detecting cork taint and other common faults. The guest should be prompted to once again acknowledge acceptance of the wine, before continuing to the pour stage.
Chapter 6: Sediment & Decanting
The cork is out. The guests are thirsty. There are still, however, protocols to adhere to. If the wine has a cork, there is the possibility of cork taint. If the wine is red and likely to be tannic or contain sediment, it should be decanted. It can be assumed that if the wine is white and has no cork, that poring can commence. All of these factors should be considered before deciding how to proceed. You should make the recommendation to the next step, but once again allow the guest to decide.
Red wine will usually benefit from being decanted. The exception to this is very light, low tannin wines. Younger full-bodied reds are decanted to add oxygen and open up the flavour. Aged reds will often have sediment that should be removed before pouring. Sediment is mostly formed from the tannins that, through maturation, clump together to form small bits and drop out of the liquid to the bottom of the bottle. These are bitter and should be left in the bottle during decanting, as described in chapter 1. (See Fig. 1-3)
A clear glass or crystal decanter should be used for the decanting process. There are many great shapes and sizes available, with often elaborate and stylish designs. A lit candle is traditionally placed behind the bottle to highlight the sediment and allow for the maximum amount of wine poured into the decanter, with the minimum amount of sediment. If the wine is likely to be tannic, the wine should be poured with an emphasis on oxygenation. If it is well aged and has already lost much of the tannin, it should be poured gently, as too much oxygen will lighten already subtle flavors and aromas. A highly tannic wine can benefit from a lengthy period between decanting and tasting to allow more oxygenation. Once the wine is decanted, the sample pour can begin.
Restaurant wine service provides the opportunity for a server or somm to make a connection with the guests and put on a bit of a show. Feeling very comfortable removing crumbly old corks or thick wax seals can put your guests at ease, that they are being well taken care of. Oppositely, if you fumble with uncorking, break a cork, or generally look clumsy and unsure, the customer will pick up on the lack of confidence and view the experience as less professional and an overall lower grade of service. As in all service, as well as many other facets of work and general life, being prepared is paramount to success. Know your product. That is of course the contents of the bottle, as aforementioned, but also the quirks and characteristics of the closure. Some corks are longer than others, so turning the screw an extra half-turn could be the difference between leaving the bottom quarter of a broken cork in the bottle, and a smooth remove. If you are faced with opening a twenty-year-old Bordeaux, you may want to use the wine-butler style of opener (See Fig. 5-2). Having the right tool for the job is a part of that preparedness. If your wine crank has a loose knife, a dull blade or a bent worm, you could fail at presenting yourself as a capable and confident server and lose precious style points and ultimately tips. Service is a show. Do not clown, but using a sense of humor can create a relaxing atmosphere and lower the guard of difficult or skeptical guests. During a bottle opening, you are often the center of attention, so do not waste this opportunity to make a great impression.
Chapter 7: Analyze & Accept
Before any pouring into glasses occurs, the cork should be presented to the guest who ordered the wine, for inspection. It should be placed in front of his or her wine glass, with the print facing them. The practice of opening the bottle in view of the guest, and presenting them the cork, is to prove that the contents in the bottle are indeed the same as indicated on the label and the menu. The cork will usually have a print or logo on it, to identify it as the original closure from the winery. If the bottle is sealed with a screw-top, plastic cork, or any ‘other than cork’ stopper it should still be opened in front of the guest. The guest may want to examine the cork. It is often assumed that the cork presentation is for the purpose of identifying cork-taint in the wine, and so many people will smell the cork. The cork may give clues to wine faults, but is actually a very poor method of identifying them, so is neither necessary nor beneficial. A very dry cork is an indicator of possible taint, but it is not definitive until the sample pour. The sample pour is another of those practices which most people are aware of, but may not really understand. The sample is presented to the ordering guest, to allow them the opportunity to decline it in the case of cork-taint. It should not be confused with a wine tasting. It is not a moment for them to display their uncanny nose for distinguishing dried plum aromas from fresh ones, or decide whether they like syrah better than cab. It is only to seek wine faults, particularly cork-taint, and accept or decline the bottle based on this one factor. The sample pour, therefore, is only relevant to bottles that have a real cork. If the bottle had any other type of closure, it can not have cork-taint. The guest who ordered the wine may want to sample the wine anyway, so a cursory inquiry should be made to establish whether to begin guest pouring or to pour the sample. This is merely a perfunctory courtesy and serves no purpose other than providing the guest with the experience they expect.
When pouring from decanter or bottle into the wine glass, avoid if possible, picking up the glass. The glass should be in its set and original position, though guests will sometimes move them. If a sample pour is required or requested, it is poured for the ordering guest. Pouring the sample, as with all wine service, should be done with your right hand around/over the right shoulder of the guest. The handling of the bottle can be achieved by one of three acceptable methods. (See Fig. 7-1)
The sample pour should be between one and two ounces of wine; just enough to get a good nosing. The guest will often taste this sample before accepting the bottle, but the smell will tell any experienced enthusiast if the bottle is corked or not. Cork-taint is a bottle-specific fault, so if it is detected, the guest may choose to try another bottle of the same wine or select a new bottle from the list. Save the corked wine in the bottle and re-stopper it, as it can be returned to the supplier for a refund.
Once the wine has been accepted, guest pouring can commence.
The rules on wine etiquette are long standing traditions that are accepted without question in some areas of society, but may be becoming outdated in others. I am not in charge of what the future holds, so can only relay the protocols as they have been. I am making this point in advance of releasing the chapter on wine pouring rules, because several of them are based around gender. The more modern view of gender is to accommodate a broader spectrum than the once unquestioned two-party system. I strongly believe in a live and let live society so the gender specific rules as they have been may require some tweaking, or perhaps should no longer exist at all. This article, however, is about traditional etiquette of wine service, so I am simply stating the wine pouring rules as I have long known them. I thus pass the decision of following all these rules, or some, or none, on to you. Use them at your own discretion. I don't like to tell anyone what to do, but I suggest being accepting of other people. Try questioning your own beliefs instead of someone else's, and you will undoubtedly expand your horizons.
Chapter 8: The Pour
CHOICE OF GLASS
There are many different shapes and sizes of wine glass. It is an equal mix of science and tradition which determines the most appropriate glass for each style of wine. For example, an aromatic white is usually served in a narrow rimmed glass, to preserve the aromatic qualities within the bowl. A tannic red, on the other hand, will benefit from being served in a large bowl with a more open rim, to allow oxygen integration, and unlock the flavors and aromas. (See Fig. 8-1)
The rules on pouring are based around several key points. The first, is that the server/pourer does not interfere with the guest anymore than is necessary. Attempting not to touch the guest, reach across the table, put an elbow in front of their face, or disrupt conversation, is part of the basic rules of service, wine or otherwise. To accomplish the feat of non-interference pouring, several key steps of preparation are necessary.
The placement of the glass on the table is dependent on the type of event. For a wine tasting, there are usually several glasses per person, and they are arranged from left to right, as they will be poured and tasted. For a dinner situation, the glass is positioned on the right side of each guest, approximately level with their right arm. If there are more than one glass, for example a white and a red glass, the white should be on the right with subsequent glasses positioned right to left. I will assume the dinner set-up for the remainder of this article.
FREE STANDING TABLE vs. BOOTH
Many restaurants have booths along one or several of their walls. They are a logical use of space and provide a level of seclusion that a free standing table does not. It is not possible to follow ‘proper’ wine pouring techniques in a booth, since it is necessary to reach across the table to serve the guests. Other table set-ups will create situations that inhibit the servers ability to serve as protocol dictates. The server will have to figure out the most appropriate method based on the table or booth set-up. For the remainder of the article, I will assume the classic free standing table, with room enough to maneuver behind each seat.
ORDER OF POUR
The guest who ordered the wine, henceforth referred to as the host, may or may not have had a sample pour. Regardless of this, they will get the last pour, not the first. The order of pouring is traditionally clockwise. The ladies at the table will be offered wine before the men. Thus, the server should offer the first pour to the woman sitting left of the host, then continue clockwise to all the other women. Once all the ladies are served, then the first man clockwise of the host is served and around until finishing at the host. Pay close attention to the amount in the bottle and the number of guests, as there should be enough left to pour for the host.
How much wine you pour into each glass depends on three factors. The first is how large the glass is. Varying glasses hold differing volumes, and the total amount of alcohol consumed must be monitored. The second factor is the want of the guest. Some people only wish to sample a wine to be courteous, others may want to have a large sip with each bite of food. A cursory question before pouring can ascertain the guest desires. A simple “wine?” or “would you like some syrah?”, gives them a chance to decline or relay preference. The third factor is how many people you are serving from each bottle. Before pouring the first glass, you need to establish the number of glasses you will be pouring into, and ensure that there is enough to go around. Despite these three factors, the protocol is that the wine amount should not exceed the outward curvature of the bowl.
(See Fig. 8-2).
Assuming the glass is in the correct position, in front and to the right of the guest, the server should leave the glass in place when pouring and use their right hand in one of the three acceptable pour/hold techniques (See Fig. 7-1). If moving the glass is necessary, it should only be handled by the stem. The wine label should never get covered up by your hand and should be facing the guest during the pour. The pour should be controlled, with no chugging or bubbling from over-tilting the bottle. To finish the pour, raise the top of the bottle back up, still over the glass, and gently turn-flick the bottle to dislodge drops from the bottle rim. It is helpful to have a napkin in the left hand or over the arm, to wipe away any other drops before they drip down the bottle and onto a guest or stain the tablecloth. Proceed around the table, standing behind and to the right of each guest as you pour for them. If you poured the first round, you have assumed the responsibility of pouring for the rest of bottle. The guest should never have to pour for themselves, though some prefer to do so.
Chapter 9: Finishing a Bottle
There are 26 ounces or 750 milliliters in a standard-sized bottle of wine. That divides into 5 glasses of 5+ ounces or 150 ml. Judging how much wine to pour into each glass becomes second nature after serving many bottles over time, but initially, it is important to remember not to over pour any one glass, because it will leave a deficit in someone else’s. Err on the side of caution, and under-pour just a little. If wine is a focal point of the group, chances are good that every person will want to sample some of every bottle so assume that, no matter the number of guests in the group (within reason), the wine must be divided into that many portions. If the wine is red, you may need to plan ahead for the next one, or even two or three bottles in advance, in order to allow oxygenation time before sampling. Keep the empty bottles as they collect, in case a guest wishes to revisit a label or in case of any doubts as to the number of bottles consumed. If it is a small group sampling, then there will be several top-ups from each bottle. Plan ahead and get permission from the host to have the next bottle chilled or opened or decanted, to provide maximum service, but of course, it is the responsibility of the server to not over-serve anyone, so maintain a count and a general awareness of the amounts being consumed. Being the only hand that pours the wine is not only providing a great service, it is also a control mechanism for alcohol consumption.
Clean wine glasses should be offered with every switch to a new wine and can be suggested with every bottle. Whether or not new glasses are employed with a new bottle, the new wine should not be mixed with the previous one. Guests will often finish their wine at differing rates, so new glasses may be required to set aside a sample pour from the new bottle; once again assuming that every guest wishes to sample every bottle. This practice is much less important if the bottles are the same label and are not cork stoppered.
Ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant, or similar establishment is common practice and easy enough a task for anyone with a bit of experience. It does happen, however, that a guest has no experience choosing or sampling wine. Being a good somm, host, or server, requires a level of tact, and assisting an inexperienced winer and diner with wine choices and guiding them through the process can be a pleasant and helpful enterprise, or conversely, could leave them feeling embarrassed and insecure. It is important not to assume that the guest knows all the nuances of the ritual and has any prior knowledge of the wine they are ordering. Your job is to provide guidance in these matters, without condescension.