Restaurant Wine Tips - dummies

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

Drinking wine in a restaurant requires so many decisions that you really do need a guidebook. Should you leave the wine in an ice bucket? What should you do if the wine is bad? And can you bring your own wine? Let the following list guide you:

  • Can I kick the ice-bucket habit? Most servers assume that an ice bucket is necessary to chill white wines and sparkling wines. But sometimes the bottle is already so cold when it comes to you that the wine would be better off warming up a bit on the table. If your white wine goes into an ice bucket and you think it’s getting too cold, remove it from the bucket, or have the waiter remove it.

    Sometimes, a red wine that’s a bit too warm can benefit from five or ten minutes in an ice bucket. (But be careful! It can get too cold very quickly.) Just explain to the server that the wine is too warm. The too-warm red-wine problem occurs frequently in over-heated restaurants.

  • What’s with these tiny glasses? When various glasses are available, you can exercise your right to choose a different glass from the one you were given. If the restaurant’s red wine glass is quite small, a stemmed water glass might be more appropriate for the red wine. Ask the server what glassware options you have.

  • Should the wine “breathe”? If a red wine you ordered needs aeration to soften its harsh tannins, merely pulling the cork will be practically useless in accomplishing that (because the air space at the neck of the bottle is too small). Decanting the bottle or pouring the wine into glasses early is the best tactic. Don’t hesitate to ask for your wine to be decanted.

  • Where’s my bottle? Many wine enthusiasts prefer to have a bottle of wine on or near the table, not out of our reach. You can look at the label that way, and you don’t have to wait for the server to remember to re-fill your glass, either.

  • What if the bottle is bad? Refuse any bottle that tastes or smells unpleasant (unless you brought it yourself!). A good restaurateur will always replace the wine, even if he thinks nothing is wrong with it.

  • May I bring my own wine? Many restaurants allow you to bring your own wine — especially if you express the desire to bring a special wine or an older wine. Restaurants will usually charge a corkage fee (a fee for wine service, use of the glasses, and so on) that can vary from $10 to $35 a bottle, or higher, depending on the policy of the restaurant.

    You should never bring a wine that’s already on the restaurant’s wine list; it’s cheap and insulting. (Call and ask the restaurant when you’re not sure whether the wine is on its list.) Anyway, you certainly should call ahead to determine whether bringing wine is possible — in some places, the restaurant’s license prohibits it — and to ask what the corkage fee is.

  • Can I take the remaining wine home with me? The answer depends on where the restaurant is located. Some states and municipalities prevent you from leaving a restaurant with an open bottle of wine. Others permit it, often with precautions attached, such as sealing the wine in a bag with a copy of your bill for the meal on the outside. Ask your server about the local regulations.

  • What if I’m traveling abroad? If you journey to wine-producing countries, such as France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Spain, or Portugal, by all means try the local wines. They’ll be fresher than the imports, in good condition, and the best values on the wine list.