The following tips are based on my own preferences as a very fussy wine drinker. Everyone loves a good night out at a fantastic restaurant. It can be the little things that make the difference between it being a fantastic experience and not so great.
These tips are for all hospitality staff. I appreciate that customer service is a very challenging industry and it can be confusing when there are conflicting views about what constitutes 'good wine service'. Thus I have tried to provide a supporting explanation for each of my tips, some of which may be controversial. It is my view that some of the industry standards are misguided.
1. Practice removing a cork from a bottle of wine
Despite the increasing preference for wine sealed under screwcap, it is inevitable that you will have to open a wine sealed with cork at some stage. Good wine service involves being able to remove the cork in its entirety, which is not as easy as it may sound. If the wine is sealed under cork you should quickly look at the front label to see how old it is. The older the wine, the more likely it is that the cork will be soft and prone to breaking or disintegrating.
Wine consumers do have to take some responsibility here, if they bring a special bottle of 20 year old Shiraz to their local BYO and they know that the cork may not be in good condition, it is courteous to mention this to the waiter.
It is important to have a good quality cork screw that you can trust. Cut back or remove the foil layer covering the cork. If you cut it, try to do this neatly. Take notice of how easily the corkscrew goes into the cork. If it is extremely soft take extra care. Keep inserting and twisting the screw into the cork until it is all the way in, but avoid piercing the other side of the cork. Pull the cork out slowly and avoid bending it, which may cause it to crack or break. When approximately 70% is protruding from the bottle, take hold of the cork with your hand and use a twisting motion to completely remove it.
Sometimes you will find that the cork is in such bad condition, that it disintegrates when you insert the corkscrew. If so, explain that you have some concerns about the cork and ask if it is OK to pour the wine into a decanter. Do this using a filter to catch any small pieces of cork. If you need to do this elsewhere, check that its OK. People that are fussy about wine can sometimes get rather paranoid about a special bottle of wine going out of sight!
The other likely cork scenario will involve a bottle of sparkling wine. Again, neatly remove the foil covering the cork. Take hold of the bottle neck and place your thumb on top of the metal holder that is keeping the cork in place whilst you untwist the wire at its base with your other hand. Ensure that the bottle is not pointed at you or anyone else and quickly remove the metal holder. Take hold of the cork in one hand and the bottle in the other and gently twist.
2. Don't automatically fill up a wine glass when it is low
This will help you to avoid a number of potential pitfalls. I will never forget one occasion when I was out for lunch with my family. I can't remember where we were, but we had a bottle of Shiraz and a bottle of Merlot open. The waitress filled up my brother in law's almost empty glass of Shiraz with Merlot. We were not impressed. Winemakers are allowed to blend wines, but waiters are not!
Similarly, I have a very clear memory of being on a date with my wife, to which I had taken a very nice bottle of wine. I was savouring every sip, but had specifically held back because I primarily wanted to enjoy it with the main course. My wife on the other hand, was happily drinking away. I had noticed that there was less than a quarter of the bottle left and had decided that it equalled my share, given I had been holding back. But in a moment of inattention, I looked up to see the waitress pour the rest of the wine into my wife's glass. It made me feel very unhappy!
It becomes very difficult to count how many glasses of wine you have consumed when they are getting filled up along the way. This can create difficulties for a designated driver.
Just because someone's glass is low doesn't mean they want it filled up. The bottom line is, ask first. In fact, I would prefer that the waiter asks at the outset whether we would like them to fill our glasses with wine, or whether we would prefer to do it ourselves. I prefer that waiters don't pour the wine because of the above experiences.
3. Don't over fill the glass
If you are invited to pour the wine, you should avoid over filling the glass. If the glass is too full, wine wankers like me have difficulty swirling and smelling the wine. Inevitably we end up spilling it, which makes us look even sillier.
As a general rule of thumb, pour the wine until it gets to just over one third of the capacity of the glass.
4. Don't take the bottle away when it is empty
Waiters need to understand that a bottle of wine may be very special to the people consuming it. It might be a rare gem that they've pulled out of their cellar for a special occasion, it could be the last of a dozen, it could have special memories attached to its purchase etc. In many circumstances, just staring at the bottle, even if it's empty, will bring a wine wanker like me pleasure. So just leave it there until we leave.
5. Provide appropriate wine glasses
I remember taking a nice bottle of wine to a popular restaurant on Crown St, Surry Hills one time. It was a funky looking place, but they seemed to think that it was quirky to only have basic water glasses. It isn't! It was very difficult to enjoy my wine because I couldn't swirl it without spilling it and it was difficult to pick up the aroma.
Wine glasses have been designed to accentuate the experience of consuming wine. They don't just look good, they actually make a big difference. Any good restaurant will have glasses specifically for: white wine, red wine, sparkling wine and fortified wine.
6. Offer to decant a young red wine
This is particularly important if your restaurant doesn't allow BYO and the red wine available on your list is young (i.e. under 3 years). Offer to decant a young red wine. It will earn you masses of browny points if you are serving a wine wanker. If it's a young Cabernet Sauvignon double decant it.
I recently had a meal at a non BYO restaurant in Beechworth. Unfortunately all of the red wine on their wine list was young. I chose what should have been a nice wine, but it wasn't until the very end of our meal that it just started to open up.
The best service I've had...
...was at the Restaurant of Schonegg Country Guesthouse, Murrumbateman, ACT (unfortunately they no longer serve lunch or dinner). It was a special occasion and I had brought a special bottle of wine. The waitress asked if we would like the bottle opened upon arrival. I took up the offer because it was a nice Shiraz and I wanted to give it some time to breathe. She neatly cut away the top 5mm of the foil and carefully removed the cork, leaving the foil and cork on a small saucer positioned beside the bottle. She didn't touch the bottle of wine for the rest of the night. It was a brilliant night and I still have the cork which I kept as a memento.
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