Service Points

TIMES WINE WRITER

Imagine that the waiter brings the wine you ordered, but it's already uncorked. Do you reject the wine, as convention dictates, and ask the waiter to open a new bottle in front of you?

That is protocol in most fine restaurants, yet there are times when it's better to simply accept the already-open wine.

As Edmund Osterland, a master sommelier and wine consultant, says, "You shouldn't be so wine-geeky at simple places that have low prices."

Restaurant etiquette is a subject rarely dealt with in wine literature, and I suspect many writers avoid the subject since there's no accepted rule book on it. Much appears to be handed down by oral tradition, so the "rules" that follow are not universally acknowledged. "However, from discussions with restaurant owners and wine stewards, I am confident that the following won't get you in much trouble.

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At a good restaurant, you should be handed the wine list as soon as you are seated. Unfortunately, you often have to beg for it. At one Hollywood restaurant last year, I was told to wait. "We have only one list, and someone's looking at it," said the waitress.

When you're ordering by the glass, it's fair to ask for a sip of one or two wines you're not familiar with. With wine going for $8 a glass and up, most restaurants permit patrons to try half an ounce (that's a tablespoon) of a wine sold by the glass.

When the wine comes to the table, most of the time you have to take it on faith that what you ordered is what's in the glass. Few restaurants pour the wine from the bottle at the table. But if in doubt, ask to see the bottle.

Serving sizes of wines ordered by the glass vary. Most restaurants serve six ounces in a by-the-glass serving, though some serve only four ounces, and with a few special items (such as Opus One, the famed Napa Valley red wine), the standard serving is only three ounces. It's my experience that when you order a glass of sparkling wine, you scarcely ever get six ounces.

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When ordering wine from the wine list, you may need assistance. Osterland suggests you open a dialogue with the waiter.

"The patron should ask questions," says Osterland. "And the waiter should either make recommendations based on the desire of the patron, or bring someone to the table who can."

Osterland says when good waiters are asked for suggestions, they don't simply respond with their personal favorites: "They will ask, 'What do you drink at home and do you want something like that?' This gives the waiter two bits of information: the type of wine the patron likes and the approximate price point he's prepared to pay."

You might say, "I like a rich Chardonnay, like Ferrari-Carano." Or the waiter might ask whether you prefer a lighter style of Cabernet, or one with a lot more power.

Patrons should be alert to "bait and switch" tactics. They aren't common, but they do occur. Three years ago, I ordered a Chianti selling for $25 at an upscale Beverly Hills Italian restaurant. The waiter said it was sold out and recommended another. But he never told me that the price was $38, even when I asked. (And there were cheaper wines on the list he could have suggested).

In many top-rate restaurants, when a wine you have ordered is out of stock and a more expensive substitute is recommended, you are given the replacement wine at the same price as the wine you ordered. This is how it should be.

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When the bottle arrives at the table, the waiter should show you the label. Be certain the wine is the one ordered--proper producer, vintage, special designations. For instance, you may order an Inglenook wine, expecting it to be from the Napa Valley (where the winery is based), but instead get Inglenook Navalle, which is cheaper and contains little, if any, Napa Valley grapes.

In a fine restaurant, the cork should still be in the bottle when the wine arrives. If you're in a small, inexpensive place, though, it may not be.

"If you're in a mom-and-pop restaurant where the entire tab will be $10, you probably shouldn't be so demanding if the cork is pulled in the kitchen," says Osterland, owner of Grape Escape Consulting of San Diego. "As the check price goes up, you ratchet up your expectations."

"I've even had waitresses (at other restaurants) ask me to open the bottle," said Manfred Krankl, wine buyer for Campanile in Los Angeles. "In small cafes, if they open it in the kitchen, I usually don't mind."

After the cork has been pulled, the waiter should put it down for you to look at it. Long ago the cork was verification that you were getting the wine you ordered. Decades ago, fraud was more prevalent than today and bogus labels occasionally turned up on some famed wines. The branded cork, with the name of the producer and the vintage, was one additional way to make sure the wine was what it was supposed to be.

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These days, however, you needn't worry about the cork. It's the aroma of the wine you're concerned about, not the aroma of the cork.

After the cork has been pulled, the waiter pours a tiny amount (perhaps a half-ounce) for the person who ordered it. This is to smell and taste it, to determine whether it is sound. In general, the only reason to reject a wine in a restaurant is if it is spoiled. And the patron should know what sort of spoilage he is objecting to--corkiness, oxidation, vinegar, etc.

If the waiter makes a suggestion on a wine without having asked any questions of the patron, and the patron doesn't like the wine, who assumes responsibility? "I think the waiter should take it back," says Osterland. "By making a recommendation, he is putting his reputation on the line. If the waiter says the wine is soft and you find it acidic, the waiter hasn't done his job."

One last tactic is bringing your own wine from home. Many restaurants permit it (though in some states it's against the law). Call ahead to alert the restaurant you will bring a wine from your cellar and ask if there is a corkage charge. (Standard charges range from $3 to $10 per bottle.)

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Courtesy dictates you don't bring a wine the restaurant already stocks, and it's impolite to bring a cheap wine just to save money.

One last warning: Restaurants in the United States are notorious for not training their wait-staffs in wine, so be prepared for some humorous banter with the less-well-informed. And don't think that just because the guy is wearing a sommelier's cup around his neck on a silver chain that he knows the difference between a Pommard and a Pomerol.

Wine of the Week

1993 Sutter Home Winery Sauvignon Blanc ($4.45)-- The winery that created and still dominates the field of white Zinfandel also makes a line of other varietal wines, and this one is surprisingly bold and full of character for so low a price. There is a lot of varietal intensity here, with olives, tarragon, green and herbal teas and lemon grass all adding interest. (I tasted this wine blind, and my tasting notes say, "Is there too much varietal character here?") The flavors are fairly deep, and the texture is soft and pleasing. Considering that the wine will be discounted to about $3.50, this is worth trying.

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