A timely article written by guest contributor; Jolan Turkington the Director of Communications for a wine-making franchise called Vintner's Circle, she is a certified Sommelier and regular contributor to the The Unreserved.
Having worked as a sommelier in the fine dining world for quite some time, I learned a lot from my customers. I learned common preferences and common qualms, how to recognize if someone is intimidated by the wine list, and how to deal with rather cranky tables. I learned that wine is an integral part of enjoying a meal, and that the happiest customers walk out not only having had great-tasting food and wine, but having had service that made the evening go so much more smoothly.
I’d like to share some of my experience with you, to help you get the most of your money’s [and time’s] worth when eating out. A quick note: Sommelier is pronounced “sum-all-YAY” [I especially like the yay!]. Not all restaurants have a designated sommelier; if not, you can simply apply the following tips with your server.
1. Be polite: This tip seems like a no-brainer, but it’s most definitely worth the top spot. You would be surprised at how many people are rude to restaurant servers – resulting in bad, or at the very least, sub-par service. Rude customers make servers reluctant to return to the table, to check on satisfaction, or to quickly attend to complaints.
On the other hand, a friendly, polite table will naturally encourage the server to not only give great service, but to go above and beyond. I always wanted to do something special for genuinely nice customers, whether they ordered the least or most expensive bottle on the wine list. By engaging in warm conversation, or simply smiling back at your server, you will often get special treatment – a glass of wine on the house, perhaps, or a specialty cocktail with dessert. Good manners go a long way in the restaurant business.
2. Ask for suggestions: No matter your price point, asking your sommelier for his or her suggestions can be a great value. A wine list is a sommelier’s baby – he or she will most likely have chosen with care some, if not all, of the wines available. The sommelier is incredibly familiar with the list, and though the restaurant must offer a wide range of styles and prices (that is, if the wine list is good), there will be a few gems that you may not recognize on your own. Think of ordering wine in restaurants as a great opportunity to explore – the mark-up is high, so don’t order a bottle that you could normally buy in your neighborhood shop for half the price. Ask for something special, and you will very likely be rewarded.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for a decanter: Decanting isn’t just for older, fine wines. Many wines, especially young, tannic reds, are helped by an hour or two of fresh air. Exposure to oxygen essentially speeds up the aging process, mellowing out harsh tannins and developing flavors. Technically, you may not need your wine decanted – that is, slowly pouring the wine into another container, to separate any accumulated solids from the liquid. You simply need to let the wine aerate for some time to enjoy it best while you’re eating out.
If the restaurant is more casual, and there are no decanters available, ask the sommelier to open the wine and pour it into your wine glasses. Simply uncorking the wine and letting it sit in the bottle will not ensure proper aeration. Wine glasses (the bigger, the better) provide a greater air-to-surface area ratio. Let your wine open up while you enjoy cocktails or your first course.
4. Recommendations versus orders: Asking your sommelier for recommendations is a great way to try new wines; however, as said time and time again, taste is extremely subjective taste is extremely subjective. Even if your sommelier recommends something in line with your preferences (say, suggesting an Australian Shiraz to those who like full-bodied, fruit-forward wines), there is no guarantee that you will indeed like the wine. If you don’t like it, say it. A good sommelier will take the bottle away, recommend something different, or have you order something else – and absolutely not charge you for the wine you didn’t like (and didn’t drink).
When ordering on your own, though, you should be responsible for your choice. If you didn’t like that Australian Shiraz, and the wine was in fine condition, chalk it up to a learning experience. Ask if you can take the bottle home – laws vary from state to state, but if you can, bring the bottle with you, stick it in your refrigerator, and cook with it the next night.
5. Let your sommelier know if the wine is flawed: If you think something is off with your wine, let the sommelier know! While he or she may not be able to wave a wand over the wine to fix it, the sommelier can whisk the offending bottle away. Good service dictates that the sommelier should ask you if you 1) want to try another bottle of the same wine, or 2) ask if you would like to choose a different wine. I know people who are reluctant to send food or wine back, not wanting to be an annoyance. But the sommelier and the restaurant are extremely interested in keeping you happy (and keeping you spending money), so please, please, please – understand you deserve to enjoy the best possible experience while eating out.
6. Bring your own bottle: (and be happy to share) BYO (that is, Bring Your Own) restaurants provide the opportunity to enjoy good food, in a comfortable place, without requiring you to spend money on highly marked-up wines or be limited by the restaurant’s wine menu. Bringing your own wine to a restaurant means you have an extra level of freedom, to some degree, when dining out.
However, bringing your own bottle (or bottles) also entails a certain degree of etiquette. It is not necessary, by any means, to offer your sommelier or server a taste of the wines you have brought, but it is certainly a nice gesture. An offer shows respect not only for your sommelier, but more importantly, for the wine you have chosen for the night. I always appreciated my customers asking me if I would like a taste of their wine – and isn’t enjoying wine with people what it’s all about?
Bringing your own wine still entitles you to proper wine service: Chilling to achieve the right temperature, decanting or aerating, and good wine glasses. [A quick note: your restaurant may not have 10 different types of specialty wine glasses, but they should at least have clear glass stemware, large enough so that you can enjoy all the wine’s aromas.]