Wine Questionary:

Restaurant ritual: how do you deal with the wine waiter?

Does the wine-pouring ritual at a fancy restaurant make you nervous? A lot of people find it daunting, or at least touched with the sense of awkwardness one feels when attending an unfamiliar religious observance and not knowing exactly when to stand, sit or kneel.

Relax! It's really all based on common-sense traditions, and the simple fact is that the diner is under absolutely no obligation to do anything in particular but sit and wait for the wine to be poured.

Let's go through it step-by-step: After you've chosen your wine (and it's certainly appropriate to ask the wine waiter or sommelier for advice -- that's why he's there), the server will bring out the bottle and show you the label. This is simply to ensure that you're getting the exact wine you ordered. Should it be a different wine, different vintage, or in any way not what you ordered, simply say so, and it should be replaced with the correct bottle. (Or, at a minimum, the waiter will explain why he brought a substitute - but he should really have asked you first.)

Then the waiter will pull the cork. The bottle should never be brought to the table already opened. In older days, by all accounts, culinary chicanery was commonplace, and the tradition of opening the bottle in your sight was established as a way to prove that no one substituted "lesser" wine for the contents of your bottle when it was out of your sight.

Once he's removed the cork, he'll offer it to you for inspection. This worries a lot of people, who fear that they're expected to perform in some way. All you really have to do is put it down, out of the way. If you want to pick it up, sniff it, look at it knowingly, put it in your pocket as a souvenir, feel free. In theory, you might be able to get a hint of the wine's condition if the cork is soft, crumbly, wet or smells funny, but you'll learn nothing here that won't become evident in the glass. Also, in older times, you could double-check the maker's name on the cork to ensure that the wine bottle wasn't re-filled with other wine and the original cork replaced with a substitute.

The waiter then pours a small taste into your glass. Swirl it, sniff it, nod and smile -- if you like it -- and he'll then pour around the table, returning to fill your glass last.

In the unlikely event that you feel something is wrong with the wine -- particularly if it has that dank, musty, "wet cardboard" or "damp basement" aroma that indicates it was afflicted by a bad cork -- you have the right to send the wine back and request a replacement. In practice, however, this is rarely a problem in modern times.

That's all there is to it! It takes longer to explain than it takes to endure at the table. Most important, bear in mind that the purpose of the "ritual" isn't to embarrass you or show you up as a non-expert; it's really all just tradition, based on giving you, the diner, every opportunity to make sure that you get the wine ordered and that it's good.

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