A Server's Perspective:
Service that Doesn't Sell
By Jorge Eduardo Castillo
I can't tell you how many times I have been shocked by how poorly a bottle of wine was presented and/or served while dining at a restaurant. In fact, I could probably count on two hands the number of times that a bottle was served correctly from beginning to end. That's a little disturbing considering how many times I've eaten out over the past decade and how much money I have spent on wine in restaurants and wine bars. It is amazing that restaurants will go to great lengths to make sure the food they serve is seasoned and prepared correctly and served as the chef intended, while they seem completely impartial to improving the service of their wine (which often exceeds the price of food on a guest check).
The following are common wine serving faux pas that I often see when dining out, and the best ways to correct these errors:
- Presenting the cork. What exactly is a guest supposed to do with this? Smell it? Feel it? Flick it across the room? We all know that the cork is not a good indication of a wine's quality, so what exactly is the point of giving this to a guest? One of the tenets of serving food is that there shouldn't be anything on the table the guest does not need to enjoy their meal, and this holds true with the cork. In fact, some corks (especially those from vintage bottles) are particularly disgusting and covered with mold. Is this something you want to be looking at while eating your dinner? I realize there is an element of tradition or sentimentality when it comes to the cork, but unless your establishment wants you to present the cork (which it shouldn't), just throw it in your pocket and forget about it. Your guest may ask to view/hold the cork, especially if it is from an older bottle, to see how it has held up over time. If at any point, the guest requests the cork, by all means, give it to them. As a side note, I find it particularly entertaining when a server presents the cap from a screwtop bottle.
- Decanting a wine that doesn't need it. A wine should be decanted for two reasons: 1) To remove sediment, or 2) To introduce air more rapidly and help open it up and show aromatically. As a rule of thumb, it is only necessary to decant a wine that is throwing sediment, or a wine that is full-bodied and/or very tight. When you decant a wine, you are speeding up the oxidation process, which can be good or bad for the wine depending on the structure. For example, a Red Burgundy could only have 45 minutes or so of optimal aromatics, so it usually should not be decanted because the addition of extra air to the wine will shorten that window. You will generally want to steer clear of decanting light bodied reds and whites. Also, contrary to popular belief, it is OK (and sometimes recommended) for a white wine to be decanted, but again, make sure it has a big backbone like a rich, buttery Chardonnay or a Chateauneuf du Pape that needs air.
- Mispronouncing the name of a wine. Many people have trouble with foreign languages, so when they say the name of a wine while presenting to the host, they often hack the pronunciation to pieces. To me, this is the same as mispronouncing a menu item, which is inexcusable for a restaurant server. No one expects you to learn a completely new language, but at the very least you should be able to pronounce the names of the products you are representing and selling to guests. Would you buy a car from a salesman who called it a "Toyata" or "Chevrolette"? If you have trouble pronouncing the names of wines, my suggestion would be to get with the person in charge of your wine program and work with them until you get it right. Until then, try to refrain from pronouncing words you do not know. A simple "The wine you ordered, sir" or "Your Merlot, madam" should suffice when presenting the bottle.
- Pouring out of order. I can't tell you how many times I have seen a server pour a taste for the host (the person who ordered the wine), and upon approval immediately fill up the hosts glass and then pour for the other guests. The correct order is to pour the taste, and once it is approved, pour for the eldest ladies first, then the youngest ladies, then the youngest men, then the oldest men, and finally the host. Food should be served in this manner as well when possible. Most restaurants are not this strict and are fine if you serve ladies first (in any order) and then men, which is acceptable.
There are a lot of other errors I often see when dining out, but let's stick with these for now since they are the most common. Feel free to email me if you have any questions regarding proper wine service. Cheers!
Jorge Eduardo Castillo is a representative of Vino 101, which provides on-line server wine training. Visit www.vino101.com for more details.