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Service Points


Imagine that the waiter brings the wine you ordered, but it's already uncorked. Do you reject the wine, as convention dictates, and ask the waiter to open a new bottle in front of you?

That is protocol in most fine restaurants, yet there are times when it's better to simply accept the already-open wine.

As Edmund Osterland, a master sommelier and wine consultant, says, "You shouldn't be so wine-geeky at simple places that have low prices."

Restaurant etiquette is a subject rarely dealt with in wine literature, and I suspect many writers avoid the subject since there's no accepted rule book on it. Much appears to be handed down by oral tradition, so the "rules" that follow are not universally acknowledged. "However, from discussions with restaurant owners and wine stewards, I am confident that the following won't get you in much trouble.


At a good restaurant, you should be handed the wine list as soon as you are seated. Unfortunately, you often have to beg for it. At one Hollywood restaurant last year, I was told to wait. "We have only one list, and someone's looking at it," said the waitress.

When you're ordering by the glass, it's fair to ask for a sip of one or two wines you're not familiar with. With wine going for $8 a glass and up, most restaurants permit patrons to try half an ounce (that's a tablespoon) of a wine sold by the glass.

When the wine comes to the table, most of the time you have to take it on faith that what you ordered is what's in the glass. Few restaurants pour the wine from the bottle at the table. But if in doubt, ask to see the bottle.

Serving sizes of wines ordered by the glass vary. Most restaurants serve six ounces in a by-the-glass serving, though some serve only four ounces, and with a few special items (such as Opus One, the famed Napa Valley red wine), the standard serving is only three ounces. It's my experience that when you order a glass of sparkling wine, you scarcely ever get six ounces.


When ordering wine from the wine list, you may need assistance. Osterland suggests you open a dialogue with the waiter.

"The patron should ask questions," says Osterland. "And the waiter should either make recommendations based on the desire of the patron, or bring someone to the table who can."

Osterland says when good waiters are asked for suggestions, they don't simply respond with their personal favorites: "They will ask, 'What do you drink at home and do you want something like that?' This gives the waiter two bits of information: the type of wine the patron likes and the approximate price point he's prepared to pay."

You might say, "I like a rich Chardonnay, like Ferrari-Carano." Or the waiter might ask whether you prefer a lighter style of Cabernet, or one with a lot more power.

Patrons should be alert to "bait and switch" tactics. They aren't common, but they do occur. Three years ago, I ordered a Chianti selling for $25 at an upscale Beverly Hills Italian restaurant. The waiter said it was sold out and recommended another. But he never told me that the price was $38, even when I asked. (And there were cheaper wines on the list he could have suggested).

In many top-rate restaurants, when a wine you have ordered is out of stock and a more expensive substitute is recommended, you are given the replacement wine at the same price as the wine you ordered. This is how it should be.


When the bottle arrives at the table, the waiter should show you the label. Be certain the wine is the one ordered--proper producer, vintage, special designations. For instance, you may order an Inglenook wine, expecting it to be from the Napa Valley (where the winery is based), but instead get Inglenook Navalle, which is cheaper and contains little, if any, Napa Valley grapes.

In a fine restaurant, the cork should still be in the bottle when the wine arrives. If you're in a small, inexpensive place, though, it may not be.

"If you're in a mom-and-pop restaurant where the entire tab will be $10, you probably shouldn't be so demanding if the cork is pulled in the kitchen," says Osterland, owner of Grape Escape Consulting of San Diego. "As the check price goes up, you ratchet up your expectations."

"I've even had waitresses (at other restaurants) ask me to open the bottle," said Manfred Krankl, wine buyer for Campanile in Los Angeles. "In small cafes, if they open it in the kitchen, I usually don't mind."

After the cork has been pulled, the waiter should put it down for you to look at it. Long ago the cork was verification that you were getting the wine you ordered. Decades ago, fraud was more prevalent than today and bogus labels occasionally turned up on some famed wines. The branded cork, with the name of the producer and the vintage, was one additional way to make sure the wine was what it was supposed to be.


These days, however, you needn't worry about the cork. It's the aroma of the wine you're concerned about, not the aroma of the cork.

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