Ordering, returning, pairing, tipping—the answers to your questions about doing right by wine when dining out.
Wine is supposed to relax people. So why does the very mention of wine, especially wine in a public space, make people so nervous?
Wine Enthusiast receives hundreds of letters a month, and a good portion of them concern this very subject. How to comport yourself at wineries and how to persuade your retailer to sell you one of three allocated bottles are subjects that we will surely broach in future issues. What our readers seem to agonize about most, though, is proper behavior in restaurant situations. Some questions, given our collective experience, were easy for us to answer. To get the straight dope on others, we had to ask for wine professionals’ advice.
What follows are the best answers that we can offer to your most oft-asked (or most off-the-wall) questions.
What You Already Know
When the sommelier opens and presents your bottle, don’t sniff the cork. Sniff (we didn’t say drink) the few drops of wine that the sommelier has poured into your glass. You can sip—it’s not a faux pas—but your nose is all you need to tell you whether the bottle is corked (it’ll smell musty). And by the way: swirling the wine in the glass may well disguise the corked bottle odor you’re looking for. Best wait to swirl until after you’ve approved the bottle.
The person who ordered the bottle is the Designated Sniffer. Don’t pass the glass around the table and have everyone sniff appreciatively.
As you would not bring uninvited guests to a friend’s dinner party without phoning beforehand, do not bring your own wine to a restaurant without affirming in advance whether it is acceptable for you to do so. You can expect a charge for this privilege; it’s called a corkage fee, and it can range from $10 to $25 a bottle…or much more.
Sommeliers with whom we have spoken indicate that the interloping bottle had best be very special (i.e., commemorate the year of your anniversary, be really expensive, or be really hard to find) and not be a wine that they already have on their list. Many will take offense with your choice if it is not as good, if not better than, a mid-to high-priced bottle that the restaurant offers. (When we pressed one West Coast sommelier on why it might be in bad taste to BYOB, he asked, in all seriousness, whether we thought it appropriate to call the chef ahead of time and ask if we could bring our own dinners.) Most all insinuated that a taste of this treasure should be offered to the sommelier, as a matter of course, and that you should tip extra for the service, in addition to the corkage fee.
Leftovers, Takeouts and Sending it Back
My wife and I often order two bottles of wine when we dine out, but we don’t always finish them. We don’t want to waste the wine—particularly when we splurge and buy the good stuff. Is it bad manners to ask to take it home? Can we offer the rest of the wine to other diners?
Everyone from overzealous couples to employees entertaining business clients wants to know what they can get away with salvaging after dinner’s over. Far be it from us to recommend that you order fewer bottles, or a regular-sized bottle, plus a half bottle, instead of two full bottles. We’re not going to tell you how to spend your money, but this strategy might solve your quandary altogether.
All sommeliers and wine professionals with whom we have spoken agree that the wine is yours to take home—you’ve paid for it—and many will take the first step in offering to recork it for you so that you can enjoy the remaining glasses later. Professionals such as Neil Mechanic, wine director at Absinthe in San Francisco, would prefer that customers take home what they can’t finish, rather than watch them attempt to polish the bottle off before getting behind the wheel.
Sharing what’s left of your wine with other tables is just as acceptable, provided that you 1) know the other diners personally or 2) see that they are celebrating a special occasion and want to send a glass over “with your compliments” or 3) have been watching them eye your allocation-only nectar of the gods hungrily since the sommelier first presented it. But there are limits to this bottle-swapping shenanigans, says Michael Degano, of Tulio, an Italian restaurant in Seattle. Share wines that others would be sorry to miss, or might not get to try otherwise, not your $12 El Cheapo Chianti.
When is it okay to send wine back? What if I’m not sure whether it is corked, just bad, or whether it is just not to my taste?
It’s always okay to ask the sommelier’s (or waiter’s) opinion on the quality of the wine—that’s what they’re trained to do. A simple, “This tastes a little strange to me—what do you think?” will suffice, at which point most sommeliers will pour themselves a small sample into a clean glass or tastevin (the tasting cup on a chain around his neck), sniff it, and either confirm or deny your fear. But be sure to revisit the wine before you call him over—the first sip of wine often tastes acidic (and the first sip of wine after a cocktail tastes even worse).
By asking the sommelier’s opinion, though, you are tacitly agreeing to follow his or her advice. If he advises you to let the Cab breathe for a few minutes before trying it again, or says that your selected vintage could benefit from being decanted, the ship has pretty much sailed on your turning the bottle down, unless said intermediate processes prove that the wine is as bad as you suspected.
If it is clear to you that the bottle is not compromised, but you find that you do not like it, you are indeed in a rough place. Some restaurants, explains Mechanic, will remove the wine from your check, no questions asked, and help you find something that you like better. However, Degano says that “if the wine is bad, you have all the right in the world to send it back. But if you choose it and you don’t like it, it’s not cool to send it back” unless, perhaps, the wine steward recommended it.
I have been searching for a particular bottling for quite some time, and a colleague of mine told me that a local restaurant offers it on their wine list. Is it “done” to go into the restaurant and buy the bottle, but not drink it there?
We assume that you know that most restaurants charge a 200 to 300 percent markup on their wine list offerings (typically, the more expensive the bottle, the lower the markup). It follows, then, that most restaurants will be happy to sell you their hard-to-find bottles. You’ll whistle a happy tune on the way to your temperature-controlled cellar, and they’ll laugh all the way to the bank.
One qualifier: It may not be legal for them to do so. Restaurants and retail wine shops have different classes of liquor licenses, which is why wine stores aren’t allowed to uncork bottles for you when you buy them. In some states, eateries will let you purchase that coveted vintage and take it to go, but must uncork and brown-bag the bottle before you make off with it (what amounts to giving you a partially consumed “doggy-bag” wine, which doesn’t count as a “retail” product). And due to open-container laws, you’ll most likely then have to stow the prized bottle precariously in the trunk.
If you’ve found that the bistro down the street is hoarding your birth-year La Tâche, it’s best to make a birthday evening at the restaurant and drink it there than try to dart home with an open bottle under your arm. Go ahead, nurse that baby at the restaurant’s bar, even. The open bottle won’t make it to next week, let alone to your next birthday.
Pair, and Pair Alike
Five friends and I were out to dinner and decided to order six different dishes so that we could each sample widely from the menu. What’s the best way to order wine in this situation? Is there a wine that goes with absolutely everything that we should have thought of?
There is no perfect wine that pairs well with everything—at least not that we’ve had. The first suggestion that Burke Owens, a sommelier at Copia in Napa, California, offers is to order wines by the glass—that way, everyone at the table will more or less have a wine that suits their entrée. If you are in a restaurant at which the by-the-glass offerings are uninspiring, it’s probably best, he says, to order both a red wine and a white wine for the table—with six people drinking, it’s not likely that it will go to waste. As for whites, Owens recommends Sauvignon Blanc, rich Rieslings and Alsatian wines as choices that pair well with a variety of foods; think Pinot Noir or a lighter Syrah when ordering a red. But don’t spend too much of your valuable time out with loved ones fretting about your choices, Degano warns. “It’s fun if you want to [pair your food with proper wines], but…people shouldn’t ruin their meals. Going out to dinner isn’t like taking a test.”
The other night, my boyfriend and I ate out at a New York restaurant famous for its wine list. I found a Cabernet Sauvignon that I adored, and immediately ordered it, but the entrée that most appealed to me was the swordfish. I ordered both anyway, and I don’t think that I am imagining the funny looks I got from the waiter. Was I obligated to order something that goes with Cabernet?
Yes, you may well have gotten funny looks from the waitstaff, but no restaurant employee will ever forbid you (or snicker in front of you) from eating or drinking what you want, in whatever combination you like. They want you to enjoy yourself. They want you to come back.
That said, some sommeliers we spoke to did take issue with the pairing that you mentioned. If being proper is more important to you than enjoying a memorable evening (it shouldn’t be, but some people may not have the cojones to order so brazenly), let your server know. Owens tells customers when he thinks that a wine will overwhelm its entrée, and will recommend a richer dish. But many other sommeliers won’t try to change your mind if you order with the zeal that you say that you showed. Mechanic’s philosophy, in the end, seems to be the industry’s golden rule: “The customer is right. If they want Cab with their seafood, so be it.” In order to suggest more prudent pairings, he says, sommeliers “need to feel the table out…you have to be tactful. We have a lot of people drinking big, young California Cabs with salads. We don’t want to insult people.”
Pour Pour Me
Frequently when I go out for dinner, the sommelier or waiter hovers over my table, filling up my wineglass every time I take a sip. Is this because he is trying to rush me through the bottle, and to get me to buy more wine? How can I get him to cool it?
Ah, I experience this problem frequently, and, like you, I tend to suspect a profit motive behind it. General Manager Degano admits that servers often employ this pouring-too-quickly trick to sell you more wine, though it’s “totally, totally wrong” of them to do so. Inexperienced servers often fill glasses higher than they should be filled for you to fully enjoy the wine’s aromas and flavors. You should be able to pace yourself and pour your own wine, he says.
Because I’d rather not have words with the restaurant staff, even though I am perfectly in my right to speak up, I usually keep my hand on the glass’s stem (as though I am about to pick it up again) when the sommelier makes his next pass. It seems to have the same effect that not putting your fork down on your plate has for the table clearers—they back off when they’re not sure what your next move is. If you’d rather just speak up and be done with it, tell the server or sommelier the next time he or she comes around that you will serve yourself, thank you ever so much.
I often entertain clients at business dinners, but having an expense account doesn’t mean that I don’t have a strict budget. How can I not look cheap when ordering wine in front of my guests?
Owens, once a sommelier at Masa’s in San Francisco, has handled these make-or-break winers and diners on many occasions. He advises the host to “get [to the restaurant] ahead of time and set something up with the maître d’, or to set something up on the phone.” Have three red and three white options that are within your budget tentatively set before the guests step foot in the restaurant, because, he warns, “if you wait ’til you’re sitting there [with your clients], the pressure’s on.”
When the sommelier comes to your table to take your wine order, tell your clients that you and she had an extensive consultation earlier about what to drink on this special night, and that you hope that they are pleased with what she recommended. Do you think that they’re going to give you grief about wines the sommelier picked out especially for them?
Should the tip I leave for wine be based on the number of bottles of wine that we drink, or on a percentage of the bill? How do I indicate which portion of the tip is for the sommelier, and which is for the waiter?
The problem with asking sommeliers’ opinions on this subject is that they may be responding with their staffs’ interests in mind, but ask we did: by-the-bottle, or a percentage of the bill? After all, the service that you will get will pretty much be the same, whether you order a $50 bottle or a $500 bottle, right?
We were a little distressed to learn that you won’t necessarily get top-end wine service if you buy an inexpensive bottle. The more expensive the bottle you buy, the more “service” (and we use this term loosely) you get. One West Coast respondent says that his restaurant doesn’t bust out the Riedel or Spiegelau glassware unless the bottle is of a certain price; another said that “if you are ordering certain wines, you’re getting better wine service…They will treat [the wine] with the honor and respect that it’s due.”
All wine is due this level of respect, we think, but this sommelier insisted that “if the bottle is something really extreme, there’s a hallowed tone” that the sommeliers or servers will adopt when serving it. Apparently, “carrying it carefully, carefully pulling out the cork, and decanting it” with such a “hallowed tone” merits a gratuity that could run into the hundreds of dollars. But tipping this much doesn’t faze Degano at all: “You tip on the whole dinner experience. If you are going to go out to dinner and spend that much money on wine, you have the money to leave a $100 tip [on a $500 bottle].”
So, yes: The majority of wine service pros with whom we spoke said that tipping 20 percent of the total bill is the industry standard. Tipping based on the bill makes sense to us—to a point. We’re more inclined to side with Mechanic, who “ends up looking at the miscellaneouses” such as the quality of glassware and salesmanship, before arriving at a final figure. Do your best to be generous, because servers are taxed on their total sales, not on how much they earn in tips.
Finally, know that the house’s rules determine the staff’s individual “cuts” of the gratuity. If you want to make sure that the sommelier gets a few extra bucks ($10-$20 or more, if he has done you a special favor), you’ll have to draw a tip blank on your credit card bill, or slip him or her some cash. Otherwise, your tip may all go to the server, or be divvied up in a tip pool.
Are there certain wines, or certain kinds of wine, that restaurants don’t put on the list? How do you cozy up to the sommelier to get these special bottles? How do you ask if they have something that’s not on the list without offending them?
You mean, beyond the reserve list? Are you never satisfied?
Many high-end eating establishments have two wine lists: the “market list,” or mainstream, moderately priced bottles, and the “reserve list,” on which older wines, or hard-to-find bottles are listed. Some servers won’t give you the reserve list unless you ask for it, because Aunt Janie, who’s visiting you from Provo, might have a heart attack if she caught a gander at some of the reserve-list prices.
Some multistar restaurants in “foodie” cities such as New York and San Francisco have bottles that don’t even make it to the reserve list, for a variety of reasons. Maybe the restaurant was only allocated three bottles; maybe they are saving them for special customers. How do you get to be one of those customers?
Roger Dagorn, Master Sommelier at Chanterelle in New York, says that anyone can ask for wines that he doesn’t see on the list, and if the wine isn’t spoken for, it will go to the first person who asks for it. “Spoken-for” bottles, Dagorn adds, are those that customers might see on the list, but may not be able to drink on that particular visit. “I usually don’t hold—except for special customers,” he says mysteriously, which brings us back to the question of how you get to be “special” in the first place.
In less food-centric cities, the answer is simple. “The guest needs to have a relationship with the server, or talk to the sommelier,” says Degano. “Or we will flag them in Open Table [an open reservation database that some cities have]. We can flag their file and we can offer them different things.”
How do you call attention to yourself, let it be known you are a sophisticated person with money to spend…and do it in a classy way? That’s our question to you.
Do you have any questions about restaurant wine etiquette, or tales about sticky restaurant situations? Send them to us at email@example.com.