Managing the Wine Presentation Ritual
The wine presentation used to occur with such ceremony that you’d think you were involved in high church or temple services. The hushed tones of the waiter, the ritualized performance, the seriousness of it all could make you want to laugh (but that seemed wrong — almost like laughing in church). Fortunately, most wine servers aren’t taking the ritual so seriously these days. But the process and the logic behind it remain the same.
Step by step, the ritual (and the logic) goes like this:
The waiter or sommelier presents the bottle to you (assuming that you are the person who ordered the wine) for inspection.
The point is to make sure that the bottle is the bottle you ordered. Check the label carefully. There’s a decent chance you could receive the wrong bottle or vintage — especially when there is no sommelier on staff. Feel the bottle with your hand, if you like, to determine whether its temperature seems to be correct. If you’re satisfied with the bottle, nod your approval to the server.
The server removes the cork and places it in front of you.
The purpose of this step is for you to determine, by smelling and visually inspecting the cork, whether the cork is in good condition, and whether the cork seems to be the legitimate cork for that bottle of wine.
In rare instances, a wine might be so corky that the cork itself has an unpleasant odor. On even rarer occasions, the cork might be totally wet and shriveled or very dry and crumbly; either situation suggests that air has gotten into the wine and spoiled it.
Once in a while, you might discover an incorrect vintage year or winery name on your cork. But most of the time, the presentation of the cork is inconsequential.
If the cork does raise your suspicions, you should still wait to smell or taste the wine itself before deciding whether to accept the bottle.
Once, when one of our wise-guy friends was presented the cork by the server, he proceeded to put it into his mouth and chew it, and then he pronounced to the waiter that it was just fine!
If your wine needs decanting, the server decants it.
The server pours a small amount of wine into your glass and waits.
At this point, you’re not supposed to say, “Is that all I get?!” You’re expected to take a sniff of the wine, perhaps a little sip, and then either nod your approval to the waiter or murmur, “It’s fine.” Actually, this step is an important part of the ritual because if something is wrong with the wine, now is the time to return it — not after you’ve finished half the bottle!
If you’re not really sure whether the condition of the wine is acceptable, ask for someone else’s opinion at your table and then make a mutual decision. Take as long as you need to on this step.
If you do decide that the bottle is out of condition, describe to the server what you find wrong with the wine, using the best language you can. (Musty or dank are descriptors that are easily understood.) Be sympathetic to the fact that you’re causing more work for him, but don’t be overly apologetic. (Why should you be? You didn’t make the wine!) Usually, a sommelier will smell or taste the wine himself, as well.
Depending on whether the sommelier or captain agrees that it’s a bad bottle or whether he believes that you just don’t understand the wine, he might bring you another bottle of the same, or he might bring you the wine list so you can select a different wine. Either way, the ritual begins again from the top.
If you do accept the wine, the waiter pours the wine into your guests’ glasses and then finally into yours.
Now you can relax.
The sommelier or wine specialist in a restaurant is there to help you make an intelligent choice of wine(s). Don’t hesitate to use his (or her) services.