Wine etiquette for restaurants

To BYOB, or not to BYOB? That is one of the questions diners face when considering wine etiquette.

Wine is often credited for having a civilizing influence on the people who drink it. Like many civilizing influences, it has spawned a hoard of customs and protocols. Some are useful, like red wine with meat; some sentimental, like passing the port to the left; some obsolete, like long-stemmed glasses; and some just plain silly, like sniffing corks.

Knowing which are worthwhile and which are a waste of time can be more valuable than knowing the best Bordeaux vintages or being on the Grace Family Vineyards “A” list.

Serving wine Take, for example, the care and treatment of sommeliers. You have just finished a delicious dinner in a good restaurant. The bill is €200, €160 for food and €40 for wine. Not cheap but well worth the cost. You gladly add a 20 percent tip, €40. Then your dinner companion whispers, “Shouldn’t you leave something for the sommelier?”

The wine was the the sommelier’s suggestion, and she did make a point of discussing it as if you knew something about the subject. But wasn’t the wine included in the price of the dinner, and wasn’t the tip based on the total price – presumably €32 for the food and €8 for the wine?

We tend to overlook how much the wine we order adds to the tip, even when we spend more on what we drink than on what we eat, as wine enthusiasts often do. If the wine bill comes to several hundred euros, as it often does these days, should the tip get even bigger?

My feeling is that the 20 percent is adequate, unless the service was very special – for example, if it involved going to considerable effort to locate a particular bottle, or collaborating with the chef to make the evening special.

More restaurants are moving away from the traditional wine service of opening the bottle (without placing it on the table), offering the cork for inspection and pouring a sip of wine to taste. What does one do with the cork anyway? Sniffing is supposed to tell you if the wine is bad.

Rubbing it to see if it’s wet is supposed to show if the bottle was properly stored on its side. But isn’t that what the sommelier is supposed to do? As for that preliminary little taste, unless the wine is truly foul, it isn’t going to do much for you.

Bottle diplomacy

Most people don’t readily recognize corked wine; even experts often don’t detect that moldy smell until the third or fourth taste, and by then the server is gone.

Ary's Warung restaurant, Ubud, Bali, by s.rejekiCalling her back and saying, “I’ve changed my mind; this stuff is corked,” can be embarrassing. If you know the wine person, you can say, “Just pour it.” After all, you’ll know soon enough if there are problems.

Unfortunately, this tends to confuse some enthusiastic young wine stewards who have been taught to take pride in this pre-prandial rigamarole. Happily, some restaurants are bypassing the wine ballet by bringing wine to the table after it has already been opened at the bar. The ultimate decision on the wine is still the client’s; it is just that the whole process has been simplified.

Of course, there will always be a few bad bottles, and one day you may get one of them. Suppose you do feel something is wrong with the wine but, coward that you are, you’re not about to face down the wine person.

Here’s how to do it. Don’t say, “This wine is no good.” Too confrontational. Try, “Taste this and tell me what you think of it.” Now you’re asking for help. Even if the wine maven thinks the stuff is OK, it will now be much easier for you to assert yourself and say, “I don’t like it.”

Actually, these little dust-ups are increasingly rare. Winemaking, and bottling, have vastly improved in recent years. Badly made vinegary wine is practically nonexistent. Yet corked bottles are still a problem.
To some wine fans, bringing one’s own bottle is the solution to all these problems, including that of high restaurant wine prices. One word – no, three: Don’t do it. Unless you are very sure the restaurant welcomes it. A few still do, mostly on the US West Coast. But even there, the picture is changing.

Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, which once welcomed all wines, now charges a $20 corkage per bottle. Restaurants pride themselves on their wine lists and often have major investments in wine. You wouldn’t expect Sirio Maccioni to admit you to Le Cirque 2000 with your own ham sandwich. Why should he welcome you with your own wine?

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One Response to “Wine etiquette for restaurants”

  1. Jason says:

    Great, Great advice on wine etiquette! I think everyone had an uncomfortable situation like this before. It’s good to know how to handle something like that better!