So what would you do? Here was the situation: My wife and I were invited to a private dinner in the home of new acquaintances. This couple is very much interested in wine—indeed, they attend Wine Spectator's Wine Experience every year—and take pride in their wine collection.
Let me reiterate that we didn't know these people very well. I had met the husband just recently, and until this dinner had never met his wife. My wife, for her part, hadn't met either of them. So we’re not talking here about old friends whom one knows well.
The dinner party started smoothly and we all seemed to be enjoying ourselves. But when the first wine, which our hosts were quite proud of, appeared at the table it was unmistakably (to me, anyway) corked. But nobody said anything.
Here lies the dilemma: In such a situation, do you say something? Or, even though you are sure you're correct, do you keep your gob shut? (As you might imagine, I often have a problem keeping me gob shut.)
What if no one else at the table says anything, not even a discreet, diplomatic question along the lines of, "Is this the way this wine is supposed to taste?" I've used just that construction on other occasions, but since I was the acknowledged "expert" at this dinner, asking such a question would have seemed a little odd.
I decided that because our hosts were very interested in wine—and seemed to be reasonable sorts—I would suggest that the wine was corked. I said as much, trying to put it as mildly and gently as possible. The hosts retasted and agreed that something was not quite right. Then came a brief discussion about whether to find another bottle of the same wine, which would have taken some time. I urged them to instead move on to the next wine, knowing that they had many wines in reserve for dinner that evening.
Was I right to say something? Would you have said something? I frequently find these problems of what might be called "wine etiquette" to be perplexing, even vexing.
For example, I was surprised to read in Wine Spectator's anonymously-written Ask Dr. Vinny feature that "it’s considered rude to invert an empty bottle of sparkling wine in an ice bucket." Really? This was news to me. I've long inverted the empty Champagne bottle in an ice bucket in a restaurant. How else would the server know that we had finished the wine (and might want another bottle)?
According to Dr. Vinny, "There’s no particular reason other than that it’s just seen as improper. After all, we don’t flip over our dinner plates or upend our wineglasses when we’re finished."
Frankly, I don't see why it's rude or improper. Am I missing something here?
These issues of wine etiquette seem to be all around us. For example, if your host hands you the wine list at a restaurant and asks you to make the selection—this happens to me all the time and I'll bet anything it happens to you too—what's the etiquette in deciding how high-priced a wine to choose? I mean, can you really say to the person who's picking up the bill that evening, "So, Susie, how much do you want to spend on wine?" That seems to me to be inappropriate, to say nothing of putting the host on the spot.
On the other hand, as the person asked to choose the wine, you are on the spot. My approach, for what it's worth, is to look for wines that are inexpensive and preferably on the weird side. That way I can turn to the table and say, "I've chosen a couple of wines that you’ve probably never tasted or even heard of. They're not very expensive, but I think you'll enjoy how different they are."
I like to think that the person picking up the tab is silently grateful for my frugality. But for all I know, the host may have wanted a grand California Chardonnay that cost $100 on the list—and could care less about the expense—while I wrongly subjected everyone to a lively, if less dramatic, Spanish Albariño for $35.
Then there's the question of what to do with wines people bring when they arrive at your house for dinner. I often bring wines to other people's homes and make a firm point of declaring that these are gifts and that my host should not feel any obligation to open the wines that evening. That seems to me to be the polite thing to do. Yet my wife and I have had guests who’ve said no such thing, and I've often wondered whether they were disappointed—or worse—that I didn’t pour their wines that evening. Should I have asked if they wanted their wine served? Am I rude not to inquire?
Here's yet another example: What if, in a restaurant, you would like to try a wine in a differently shaped glass than the one in which it was served? I am a major offender (if that is the word) of this sort of thing. Maybe I've spent too much time with Georg Riedel, but I am deeply impressed with the difference the shape of the glass makes to the scent and taste of a wine.
Very often when we are dining at what I call a "wine serious" restaurant, I will ask for a different glass than the one I have been presented with. And yes, I will do this when other people besides my wife are present at the table. Is this wine geekery? Yes, I suppose it is. But is it rude or inappropriate?
My answer to that last question is that it depends upon who else is at the table. Believe me, I didn't do this when I went out to dinner with my parents. They had no interest in wine.
But if the other people at the table are interested in wine, then why not? I recognize that it's an added complication for the restaurant and the server, but a "wine serious" restaurant has just such a variety of glassware for just such an inquiry. But maybe such "geekery" is best saved for the privacy of your own home and shouldn't be pursued in a public space. You tell me.
Of course, there are all sorts of other minor wine etiquette matters, such as:
Decanting: I leave that up to the sommelier.
Smelling the cork: I never do it. You can no more tell the quality of a wine by smelling the cork than you can the quality of a shoe by smelling the sock.
Calculating the tip on a bill chockablock with expensive wines: If the service is good, I leave a tip of 25 percent on the food and then a generous pourboire—just the right word here I think—on top of that.
If you're the person handed the wine list, should you try to ensure that others at the table—especially the women, who often seem to be ignored at such moments—also be handed a wine list? Or at least each couple? I try to do this, but often restaurants simply don't have enough lists to go around.
All of these matters, and more, are part of modern wine life. Is there an invariable etiquette to dealing with these situations? Or is it strictly a case-by-case basis? Have you found yourself perplexed, flummoxed or embarrassed in situations such as I've described? Are you, like me, not quite sure what is or isn't rude? (I spent my formative years in New York, where "rude" is a relative notion.)
It might surprise you to know that even a so-called wine expert finds himself walking on what often feels like a social quicksand. What's a wine guy (or gal) to do?