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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What’s the proper way to present and open a bottle of wine in a restaurant?
—Susan H., Lynchburg, Va.
Formally serving wine in a restaurant can be thought of as few rituals strung together. First, the bottle is presented to the person who ordered it. It’s a way to confirm it’s the same wine that was ordered, and there was no last-minute substitution or vintage switcheroo.
When opening a bottle that’s sealed with a cork, a waiter’s corkscrew is often used because it’s the easiest way to open a bottle without needing to rest it on the table. Here’s a helpful video explaining how to cut the foil and open a bottle with a waiter’s corkscrew. (If you’re dealing with a screwcap wine, a simple twist cracking it open will do.)
The cork is then presented—usually placed on the table in front of the person who ordered the wine. They can look at it, feel, it, inspect it, smell it or ignore it, up to them. In the olden days, inspecting a cork was one way to ensure a wine’s authenticity. Sometimes it gives clues about how the wine was stored—hopefully one end is damp and it’s still a little spongy when you squeeze it, not dry and crumbly. You can take the cork with you as a souvenir if you wish, as I sometimes do. I’ve also seen servers present a screwcap, which is OK with me.
Next, a taste of wine is poured—typically to the person who ordered the bottle—though a server might ask who’d like to try it. If I’m the one tasting, I swirl and sip (or sometimes, just swirl and sniff), then give a smile and nod to let them know it’s OK, or speak up if I think there is something wrong. I’m looking for a possibly flawed bottle—either oxidized or showing signs of TCA, a contaminant that can make a wine smell and taste like wet cardboard. This is also a chance to check on the temperature of the wine, and I might ask for the bottle to be kept on ice. This is also the point when there might be a discussion about decanting.
The rest of the table is served before my own glass is topped off. The best wine servers know not to fill the glasses too high, giving plenty of headspace for the wine to aerate and for me to swirl without sloshing.
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