Don't Sniff the Cork (& 5 Other Rules for Drinking Wine at a Restaurant)

October 30, 2015

Yesterday, I outlined the rules I follow when drinking wine in general (be it at a friend's house or at a restaurant). Today, I'm elaborating on wine etiquette in restaurants specifically.

Here are the principles I try to stick by: 

  1. Don’t compulsorily order the second cheapest wine on the menu. I don’t know that this is widely accepted advice in the wine industry—it’s more of a personal rule. The second cheapest wine on the menu may be a perfectly good choice, but order it because it’s what you want, not because you want to order the cheapest wine but don’t want to appear cheap!

    If you have a budget, let your server know what kinds of characteristics you’re looking for in a wine, then point to a couple of wines in your budget and ask if any of those have those characteristics. Even if they don’t, the server is likely to pick up on what price range you’re looking at and guide you appropriately.

  2. Which leads us right to one of my biggest pieces of advice, which is, don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn! There’s no need to pretend you know more than you do. Faking confidence can close off opportunities for learning. Ask your server what different wines are like, and if he or she doesn’t know, I think it’s totally reasonable to ask to speak to someone who can describe different wines to you so you can get a better sense of what you’re looking at.

    Be willing to be guided towards something you haven’t tried before. Even if you don’t like it, you can store that info away for future wine decision-making. If you know a ton about wine, then order confidently, and dispense your wisdom to people who want it, but, you know, be nice about it. A wine enthusiast is perfectly likeable. A wine snob, not so much. 


  3. Don’t sniff the cork. In a nice restaurant, the server will still ceremoniously hand you the cork for inspection, but the wisdom has long been that the cork tells you virtually nothing. You can check to see that it is moist, indicating that the wine was stored properly (wine needs to be stored horizontally to keep the cork wet to prevent air from entering and hurting the wine), but you have to smell the wine itself to determine whether it is flawed or not.

  4. Do look at the label closely. This is a widely given piece of advice, the reason being that even an excellent server can accidentally grab the wrong bottle of wine in the rush of service. They display the label to you specifically so you can check that the wine is the vineyard and vintage (year) you ordered. Different vintages of wine can taste very different from one another and have very different prices, all while having similar-looking labels. So, analyze that label to make sure you’ve been brought what you ordered.

  5. Don’t try to send the wine back because you don’t like it or it wasn’t what you expected. The server gives you an opportunity to smell and taste the wine to check and make sure that it doesn’t have flaws, particularly that it doesn’t have cork taint. A corked wine will often smell of moldy basement (as opposed to barnyard which is a desired characteristic in certain styles of wine!), wet dog, or canned tuna. It will taste flat and dull.

    If you strongly feel the wine is corked, you should send it back and order a different bottle. But, if there are no flaws, it is generally considered bad form to send a wine back just because you don’t like it. 


  6. Do work together as a group to order a wine, or take turns choosing bottles. If there is an obvious host of the table, he or she will generally be looked to to choose wine, unless that person defers to someone else. But, if you’re a group of friends with no obvious leader, work together to choose a wine, taking into account different taste preferences in the group and what people are ordering. Again, don’t hesitate to get advice from someone who knows the wine list well.

What's the most embarrassing mistake you've made when ordering wine at a restaurant? Confess in the comments below. 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nate
  • Jessica Mahlum
    Jessica Mahlum
  • jackie
  • ChefJune
  • Negative Nellie
    Negative Nellie
I like to say I'm a lazy iron chef (I just cook with what I have around), renegade nutritionist, food policy wonk, and inveterate butter and cream enthusiast! My husband and I own a craft distillery in Northern Minnesota called Vikre Distillery (www.vikredistillery.com), where I claimed the title, "arbiter of taste." I also have a doctorate in food policy, for which I studied the changes in diet and health of new immigrants after they come to the United States. I myself am a Norwegian-American dual citizen. So I have a lot of Scandinavian pride, which especially shines through in my cooking on special holidays. Beyond loving all facets of food, I'm a Renaissance woman (translation: bad at focusing), dabbling in a variety of artistic and scientific endeavors.


Nate November 7, 2015
I agree. I'm at sommelier at a place in Washington DC. And I will let guests send the bottle back if they can honestly tell me they did not like the particular wine I guided and selected for them. Bc I feel it's on me at that point.
Jessica M. November 1, 2015
I completely agree that it is very bad form to send back a bottle you just "don't like". Wether someone guided you to that bottle or not, you ultimately chose to order that specific bottle of wine. Everyone has a unique do way they taste wine. Don't ask for a recommendation if you can't appreciate another person's pallet!
Negative N. August 17, 2016
"a unique way"
jackie November 1, 2015
Don't understand why you say not to smell the cork. It seems to contradict your statement that one way to find out if a wine is corked is to smell the cork. Also, a corked wine will taste of TCA, the component that causes corkiness.
fiveandspice November 1, 2015
I say that the way to tell if a wine is corked is by smelling the wine itself. Sorry if I explained it confusingly!
jackie November 2, 2015
Yes and yes. You do tell if a wine is corked by smelling it but smelling the cork is often confirmation or a preview of the coming disaster. So it was confusing but hardly fatal.
ChefJune October 30, 2015
Being a wine professional, my friends always ask me to choose the wine. :) But I disagree on not sending the wine back if you don't like it. I think there is definitely one time for sure when you should do that - and that is if you asked the sommelier or waiter for a recommendation, and you don't like the wine they recommended.
fiveandspice November 1, 2015
Good point! I would totally agree that if the sommelier or server really guided you to a particular wine and then you don't like it, it's reasonable to send it back. I really meant that if you choose the wine you shouldn't send it back just because you don't love your choice! :)