Great wine service? Pour it on

Special to The Times

YOU’VE ordered the 2003 Yangarra Estate Vineyard Old Vine Grenache, and the server brings you the 2004 -- but you don’t notice until he’s already left the table. He’s poured so much in each glass that you can’t swirl it around -- but ack! It’s way too warm.

Is there any way to prevent such a wine nightmare?

In the last few years, Los Angeles has truly become a city of wine lovers, and restaurants have risen to the occasion with seriously interesting lists. But wine service hasn’t necessarily kept pace.

There are some strategies you can use to head off bad wine service -- and have a much better dining experience as a result. But first you have to know what good wine service looks like.


When you’re seated and the menus are handed around, a wine list should arrive too. Most sensitive servers and hosts will place it in a neutral position on the table (some tent it in the middle, which can result in a bit of “capture the flag” activity). Others will read the table and target the person who seems to be seeking out the list. Still others will simply ask who would like to make the wine selection -- that’s probably the most diplomatic.

But you’re entitled to as many wine lists as you’d like, and should ask for more if you need them.

If the restaurant has a sommelier, he should find his way to the table shortly after the server has made the first greeting to offer his services.


Who’s in the know

IF a restaurant does employ a sommelier, chances are good that appropriate service will follow. But many restaurants -- even those that do take wine seriously -- don’t have a sommelier. Nevertheless, there is probably someone on hand who knows the wine list -- it could be a wine director or a manager who put together the list. As you look over the wines, it makes sense to involve someone knowledgeable from the staff. If you show your seriousness by asking for expertise, chance are the restaurant will take extra care with your wine service.

In some cases, your server may be a go-to person. Ask if he knows the list pretty well. If he says no, insist on seeing someone who does. If he says yes, ask some specific questions. You might choose two wines you’re considering and ask how they’re drinking. Then listen.

Does he seem knowledgeable and confident in describing them? Or does he seem as though he’s making it up as he goes along?

If you’re uncertain, watch him like a hawk; even if you don’t have someone with polished skills, you might be able to guide him ever so gently into the kind of service you want.

Once you’ve made your selection, while the wine is being dispatched, examine the glasses on the table. Most fine restaurants these days pay close attention to stemware and use glasses from European crystal suppliers such as Riedel, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau. These are generally lighter, thinner, larger and more balanced than the dinky old clunky standbys. At this point in history, if you find yourself in a restaurant with undersized, thick and graceless glasses, it’s a pretty good indication that wine is not a priority.

Occasionally restaurants will offer a better glass for the pricier bottles on their list, or for those diners who care about the wine. Look around at the other tables and see what they’re drinking from. Don’t be afraid to ask for an upgrade -- you’re paying for the experience, you should make the most of it.

Now give the empty glass a sniff to be sure it has no smell. If it smells like detergent, ask for a new glass.

The server returns to present the bottle -- to you, the person who ordered it, not anyone else (you’re the one who knows what you ordered). If the server presents it to someone else (say, to a man at the table, when it’s a woman who ordered it), this is the moment to politely and firmly insist on what’s correct. This is no mere ceremony; countless mistakes are made at this juncture, so double-check the winery, the appellation, the vineyard and especially the vintage. Occasionally a sommelier will point to each of these things on the label. To me it’s a good sign; I know I’m in competent hands and the sommelier is taking care of me.

The server then takes out his wine key and cuts the foil, uncorks the wine and deposits the cork, dry-side down, for you to inspect.

If you’re dealing with a sommelier or the manager who put the list together, this is the perfect moment to ask a few questions -- how did he discover this wine? What can he share about the winemaker or the place the grapes were grown? Most sommeliers, as authors of their wine lists, are proud of their wines; if you express interest in their efforts and focus, they’ll become more engaged and treat your table with more attention.

Moreover, chances are good that the person before you has parlayed a degree in the humanities into a career in wine, in part because the wine field has so much history and so many stories to learn and to tell. All wines taste better with some context, and all sommeliers love telling stories.

As for the cork, there’s some professional disagreement as to whether it should be presented at table. On one hand, if the wine has been spoiled, poorly stored or is “corked” (tainted with the chemical compound TCA), the evidence turns up here first, so you might want to see it. But some sommeliers think that the cork is unsightly, and so has no place on the table, and that it’s easier to detect corked wine by smelling the wine itself.

Now the server pours a taste: again, to the person who ordered the wine. He should pour a healthy amount -- at least an ounce -- something you can swirl and work and sink your nose into. Concentrate and smell, taking care to notice any off odors in the aroma.

A few trendy restaurants use stemless O glasses by Riedel (or a knockoff version). The crystal is fine, but they’re difficult to swirl, and they present a bit of awkwardness during the tasting ritual: The bottom is flat, so quite a lot of wine must be poured for a taste.

If you’re in a restaurant with a sommelier and you’ve ordered a very old wine (say a Bordeaux from the ‘80s or earlier) or if the wine is from the top end of the list, the sommelier will often taste the wine himself, away from the table.

Some restaurants reserve this service for very expensive wines -- say, a $400 cult wine. Others care so much about what they’re presenting you that they’ll taste every bottle (this is the case at Cut steak house in Beverly Hills, for example; at Il Grano in West Los Angles, wine director Peter Birmingham tastes every bottle over $50). This is face-saving for the sommelier and for you: He’ll know what the wine is supposed to taste like, and the preemptive tasting ensures that you’re getting a bottle in good condition.

Whether or not a sommelier has already tasted and approved it, it’s now your turn to taste. If the wine seems flawed or tastes funny, say so. If you’re not sure, ask the server for his opinion if you’re convinced by this point that he’s knowledgeable; if not, ask the sommelier or manager for an opinion.

If the wine is flawed, the server should immediately remove the wine, the cork and the tainted glass from the table, and return expediently with a fresh bottle and tasting glass. (A good server will realize that time is of the essence and that delaying your gratification at this juncture is not in his interest.)

If the wine isn’t flawed but it’s simply not to your liking, you’re not necessarily stuck with it. If the sommelier or server bears some complicity in your selecting it -- if you chose it based on his effusive praise, for example -- you can reasonably refuse the wine. Most sommeliers are more willing to swap out a wine to make sure your evening is successful than have you struggle with something you don’t like.


When to decant

WITH certain bottles of red wine -- especially older reds that are likely to have tannin deposits, such as a Brunello, Bordeaux or Cabernet, as well as these types of wines when young -- good service includes decanting. If you’ve ordered a young red that tastes coltish and tannic and decanting is not offered, by all means ask for it. Ditto for any wine over 10 years old.

If you haven’t managed yet to determine whether your server knows proper wine service, now you’ll want to focus: Watch him pour. He should pour, first for ladies, only about a third of a glass. If he pours the first glass too full, thank him for his efforts and take over immediately.

But if you’re not confident about how he’ll handle the pour, this is a point where you can head off a faux pas. Just say something like, “That’s lovely; please pour just a small amount for each person. We really want this to savor this.” Or simply, “I’d love to pour this for my guests.” Usually servers are more than happy to be let off the hook.

Now, at long last, you have a glassful of wine. But egad -- that red is unpleasantly warm. (For reds, the wine should taste fresh, but not shrill.) Cellar temperate, usually a few degrees cooler than the room, is best. Room temperature is acceptable, but anything warmer suggests the wine hasn’t been properly stored, and at the very least you should request a chill down, with 10 minutes in the ice bucket. Don’t be embarrassed to ask to chill a red. Any restaurant that takes wine seriously will understand such a request, and may just respond with more-attentive service.

White wines are rarely served at a temperature that’s “just right” -- they’re often either too warm or too cold. Ideally, they should start cold and come up to temperature. If the wine isn’t cold enough, it should be placed on ice after it has been tasted and a small amount poured for the table; if it’s too cold, ask that it be placed directly on the table, rather than in the ice. This will help them to breathe and open too.

At some point, someone should check on how the wine is performing, whether it’s an attentive server or a sommelier. It’s wise to let him know how you think the wine is evolving. Not only does this keep him engaged, but it also improves his understanding of the wine. All of which adds up to the likelihood to attentive service through the rest of the meal, and on future visits too. As diners we’ve all been taught that no self-respecting server or sommelier would allow a glass to empty before it’s refilled. As a former server and sommelier, I’m a bit more forgiving if this part of the social contract isn’t upheld, especially on busy nights. And particularly because it’s better than the contrary: the dreadful situation in which wine is poured almost to the brim all around, and when the bottle gets back to you -- or one of your guests -- there’s nothing left and you’re forced to order another bottle.

Refills should be discreet and modest -- a good server or sommelier can read a table and recognize who’s doing most of the consuming, and will pour accordingly.

When the bottle is exhausted and the glasses are low, the server should return with a wine list, or ask if you’d like a second bottle. If you select the same wine, it’s appropriate to use the same glasses, but the server should always bring a fresh tasting glass.

If you do manage to get good wine service, remember that good wine knowledge, good storytelling and good flair with the bottle are worth rewarding, and returning for. And when you do return, ask for the server who treated you so well the last time, and give him the chance to lead you down yet another memorable path.




Service savvy

* Size up your server’s wine knowledge and service skills as quickly as possible in order to head off bad wine service before it starts.

* If you’re not the only one in your party interested in wine, ask for wine lists for your guests.

* If you need help deciding on a wine, and you’re unsure of your server’s abilities, ask her to describe a wine or two. Does she seem confident in her wine descriptions? Can she get specific (e.g., something more than “Oh, that’s very good” or “Pinot Noir is lighter than Cabernet”). If not, enlist the help of a sommelier or anyone else who knows the list. You’ll get the best service by dealing with the staff person who knows and cares the most about wine.

* If there is a sommelier, get her involved. Even if you know wine and know what you want, starting a dialogue with her will draw her into your table and get her engaged with your wine experience, and that will improve your service.

* Make sure you’re comfortable with the glassware. If what’s offered on the table is subpar and there’s a better set of stemware in the house, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

* Is the white wine too cold? Ask to have it removed from the ice bucket and kept on the table for a while.

* If your red wine seems youthful and tannic, ask for a decanter. If the wine you’ve selected is 10 years old or older, it should be decanted as well. If the server starts pouring it without decanting, stop her and ask to have it decanted.

* Is the red wine too warm? Ask to have it iced down a bit. You won’t look silly; on the contrary, any sommelier or server who knows wine will respect you and probably step up the service.

* Take an active role in monitoring how the wine is poured throughout the meal. Remind your server, if necessary, to keep the pours short and even.

* If glasses are being poured too full, take over, telling the server you’d like to pour for your guests.

-- Patrick Comiskey