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Restaurant Wine Service 

Finding Flaws: Understanding the rituals of restaurant wine service.

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Well-executed restaurant wine service is a filter that deters flawed wines from flowing into guests’ glasses. At times, it may seem pretentious and drawn out, but the wine bottle-opening ceremony is rooted in history, and rich with merit and purpose.

When your ordered bottle of wine arrives at the table, the server should clearly state the producer, vintage, region (e.g. Chianti) or varietal. Take a glance at the label to verify that the wine about to be opened matches what you ordered. Pay special attention to the vintage; incorrect vintages are often served.

Before you have a chance to taste the wine, the cork is presented. Many guests feel compelled to do something with it. This step is an anti-counterfeit measure. The producer’s name—and, in rare and collectible wines, the vintage—is branded on the cork. Wine labels are easy to forge; corks aren’t.

Sniffing a cork reveals little beyond how a plug of tree bark smells. Visual inspection provides a rough track record of the wine’s storage. Long staining streaks indicate a time of temperature variance when air may have seeped in, causing oxidation. If the cork is brittle and crumbles in your hand, the wine may have been stored upright or in a very arid environment. Both instances are warning signs, nothing more. What matters most is in the bottle. It would better serve you to take a whiff of the empty glass and make sure it doesn’t smell of detergent, dust or mildew. Ask to feel the bottle to make sure it isn’t warm; red wine bottles should feel cool to the touch.

Now just swirl, sniff and taste. Swirling incorporates oxygen and encourages the aromatic compounds in the wine to become airborne; that’s why wine nerds are incessantly twirling and sniffing at their glasses like a dog on the scent of a bitch in heat. If the wine smells like, well, wine—you know: like fruit, maybe earth, wood and, in some French bottlings, a natural fertilizer— then go ahead and give the nod of approval or say something mundane like, “It’s great, but it needs to breathe.” If the wine is sound but not your favorite, better luck next time. If it’s flawed, reject it and reorder. Taste each successive bottle; they’re just as likely to be flawed as the first.

This whole tasting ritual began centuries ago, when naturally cloudy wines were the perfect conduit to poison a rival or nemesis. To prove the soundness of a wine, the would-be host would taste from a bottle or carafe before the guest as a gesture of camaraderie and friendship and, ultimately, as proof the wine was not poisoned. This led to the raising of the glass by the guest as a sign of trust. The glasses would then be clanked together, followed by reassuring words of the solidarity of their friendship—hence the modern-day toast.

Let’s backtrack to the “let it breathe” statement. If you do feel the wine is a bit stingy with its aromatics and will benefit from air contact, then let it breathe. Don’t just leave it in the bottle with empty glasses. Partially fill your glasses and swirl away or, even better, ask if the restaurant has a decanter (a fancy carafe designed to increase the wine-to-air surface contact). Letting your wine breathe in the bottle is like snorkeling with a straw.

I’ve been sent ’round and ’round tables as the host passes the tasting duties to other guests as a sign of “generosity.” In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Flawed wines are in the minority, but they’re out there and can be awful. If you’re the host, play your part. And remember: Sniffing corks is silly.

Louis Koppel is sommelier at Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops.

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