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

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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. 

Tags: wine, etiquette, restaurants