Let’s face it. The era of the sommelier –in America at least–is dead. More accurately, it’s over even before it ever began.
In today’s American restaurant, every waiter must also be a sommelier. He must be as polished and comfortable about suggesting and serving Chardonnay as he is about suggesting and serving steak tartare.
Ironically, many restaurateurs hire waiters, assuming that the waiter’s wine-service skills are top-notch or at least decent. But look around any dining room in any restaurant on any given night in America. Corks are being crumbled to smithereens, glasses are being refilled and removed without rhyme or reason, and waiters are stumbling over the list as though every wine were Chateau Unpronounceable.
Recently, in the wine training sessions for waiters that I teach, I’ve noticed that certain questions keep cropping up; they are as much questions of style and diplomacy as of technique.
Waiters say that the person they are most likely to go to with a question about wine service is the restaurant owner or manager. So here are the 15 questions waiters have asked me the most, along with my answers.
Q. Is there any way to prevent a cork from breaking?
A. Not 100 percent of the time. If you open a bottle of wine correctly, however, you can minimize the number of times you’ll break a cork. (Broken corks are usually due to bad technique or a bad corkscrew–not to defective corks.) The correct technique goes like this: Insert worm; screw down; jack up a bit; screw down a second time (worm should pierce the bottom of the cork); jack up; and pull out.
Q. If the cork won’t budge, can I brace the bottle between my knees for leverage?
A. It depends on the kind of restaurant you work in and–for women– what you’re wearing. It takes between 50 and 100 pounds of pulling force to extract a cork using a standard corkscrew. Bracing a wine bottle between your knees for leverage is acceptable at a cafe-type restaurant where the service and ambience is casual. It’s unacceptable, however, in a more formal or expensive restaurant; in this case, bottles should be removed from the customer’s view and wrestled with in a back room. Women wearing skirts should never open a bottle between their knees no matter what kind of restaurant they work in.
Q. Should I steer a customer away from a wine that I feel isn’t as good a choice as something else on the list, or always respect the customer’s choice?
A. This calls for diplomacy. For example, if a customer is entertaining a business client, you may embarrass him by suggesting–however obliquely –that his choice wasn’t perfect. On the other hand, if you know that a certain wine has disappointed past customers, or if you suspect that a certain wine’s quality has been compromised by poor storage, then you could be doing the customer an important service by steering him toward a better bottle. Use your judgment. Get a feeling for how familiar the customer is with the wine he’s ordering. If the customer exhibits a lot of confidence in the wine choice, don’t offer an alternative suggestion no matter how wonderful you think your suggestion is. But if the wine is technically flawed, explain so politely.
Q. Should white wine automatically be put in an ice bucket?
A. No. If a white wine has come out of an extremely cold refrigerator, it may be too cold to really taste. After you pour the first tasting sip, ask if the customer finds the temperature pleasing. If it’s too cold, the customer will ask you to leave the bottle on the table to warm. (Have an ice bucket ready anyway, since at some point during the meal, the bottle may begin to need some chilling.) If a white wine is too warm, the quickest way to chill it down is to completely submerge it in ice and water or shaved ice. Fine white wine is at its best when served between 45 and 55 degrees F. Some restaurateurs chill jug and inexpensive whites down further, precisely so you can’t taste every nuance.
Q. If a customer asks me to describe a wine I’m unfamiliar with, what should I do?
A. Don’t fake it. And don’t say something innocuous such as, “It’s nice.’ Once again, it’s part of your professional responsibility to be familiar with the wines on the list, even if it means getting a few of the other waiters together and chipping in to buy a few bottles to taste. If you get caught off guard and are completely unfamiliar with a certain wine, you might still suggest to the customer that other customers have seemed to enjoy (or be disappointed with) the wine he is considering. Remember to taste the wine you didn’t know as soon as possible so that you don’t find yourself in that situation again.
Q. How often should I top up glasses?
A. This is one of the most controversial aspects of wine service. Many restaurateurs and managers instruct their waitstaff to constantly top up, so that the glasses remain approximately half-full at all times. It is precisely this unrelenting attention, however, that is often resented by customers–and wine-savvy customers in particular. First, by constantly topping up, you give the appearance of controlling (and rushing) the rate at which the customer is drinking. The customer begins to feel as though you’re pushing for the second bottle sale. Second, customers who know a lot about wine often want to see how the wine develops in the glass. Does a tannic red soften? Do the flavors of a Sauvignon Blanc become more dramatic as the wine warms? By constantly topping, you destroy the possibility of assessing these subtleties. The correct way to refill a glass is to do just that–refill it. Wait until the customer has a sip or two left in the glass, then bring the level back to midpoint.
Q. If, during the meal, a customer reaches for the bottle and begins pouring his own wine, have I neglected the table?
A. Not necessarily. Some customers prefer being in control of the bottle and pouring their own wine. Most customers, however, feel that having the waiter pour their wine is part of what they are paying for in a restaurant. Customers who prefer to pour for themselves will usually let you know the first time you go to refill the glasses by saying something such as, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of this . . ..’ If you’re unsure, there’s nothing inappropriate about asking a host if he would prefer to have you handle the wine or do so himself.
Q. If one customer is drinking faster than everyone else in the party, should I add a token drop of wine to the other customers’ glasses when I refill his?
A. Another controversial point. I say “no.’ By adding a token drop to an untouched glass, you call attention to the person who isn’t drinking and perhaps embarrass him. Refill glasses that need refilling; don’t worry about the others.
Q. What kinds of wine need to breathe, when and how long?
A. Breathing–or exposing wine to air–is done mainly to let the tannins in a red wine soften and allow complex flavors to develop in the glass. In a restaurant situation, it’s unlikely that any appreciable breathing can take place by simply opening a bottle of wine a bit early and letting it sit opened on the table. (The ratio of air in the bottle neck to wine in the bottle is too small.) To breathe in the bottle, a wine must be opened several hours before it’s drunk–an unworkable scenario in most restaurants. In a restaurant, a wine that needs to breathe should be poured into a glass, where it will receive significantly more oxygen contact. One of the best ways to breathe a hard, tannic young red is to simply pour it into a wide-mouthed carafe; transferring the wine from bottle to carafe mixes it with air. There is no rule on the length of time a wine should breathe. Wine continues to change as it’s exposed to air. It’s up to the customer to determine when to begin drinking.
Q. When the restaurant is busy, how can I decant a bottle of wine quickly?
A. You can’t. Decanting takes a few minutes–but if you do it right, it shouldn’t take so long that service is delayed. Wines that need decanting are usually red wines or port 10 years of age or older. Decanting simply means pouring off most of the wine into another container, leaving any sediment behind in the original bottle. Open the wine carefully and pour it slowly and evenly into a decanter, so that you don’t shake up and disperse the sediment throughout the wine. Aim to leave about one inch of wine in the original bottle. Often, wine is decanted over a candle which helps you see the sediment in the bottle better before it moves into the neck.
Q. What should I do if I can’t pronounce the name of the wine the customer has ordered?
A. There’s nothing more embarrassingly tacky than to have a customer order a Pouilly Fuisse or Chambolle-Musigny, for example, and for the waiter to then say something to the effect of, “Number 43? Very good . . ..’ It’s your professional responsibility to learn how to pronounce words used in your profession. You learned how to pronounce “escargot’ and “tagliatelle,’ didn’t you? Find someone who can help you learn to pronounce “Montrachet’ and “Barbara.’ (I recently asked a group of 30 restaurateurs how many had gone through their wine lists and read the correctly pronounced wines aloud to the waitstaff. Only one restaurateur had taken the time to do this very basic and essential primer.)
Q. What should I do if I can’t get the cork out of a bottle of Champagne?
A. Anyone can muscle an easy cork out of a bottle of Champagne. But if the cork is especially tight, you must use the correct technique for getting it out. First, remove the foil and loosen the wire, keeping one hand on top of the cork. Tip the bottle to a 45 degree angle, and slowly begin turning the cork in one direction and the bottle in the other. If you do this too fast, you can twist the cork in half, so be careful. If the cork doesn’t seem to be moving, excuse yourself from the table, and try again–or have someone else try–in the back of the house.
Q. If a customer orders a second bottle of the same wine, should I change the glasses?
A. In an expensive or super-deluxe restaurant, this sort of attention to detail is appropriate. Different bottles of the same wine can taste different, so fresh glasses are, technically, in order. However, in more casual restaurants, using the same glass is consistent with the relaxed attitude toward wine. Never, however, pour wine from a new bottle into a glass that has wine from the old bottle still in it.
Q. If a customer has ordered white wine to accompany the appetizers and a red wine for the main course, should I remove the white wine when the red wine and main course are served?
A. Not unless the host requests that you do so. More and more customers enjoy experimenting with food and wine combinations. Just because the roast chicken and red wine have arrived, doesn’t mean the customer doesn’t want to taste the chicken with the white wine too. The best policy is to ask if the customer would like to keep the first bottle or have it removed.
Q. Is there a big difference in corkscrews?
A. Very big. A bad corkscrew can virtually assure some broken corks. In restaurants, the most commonly used corkscrew is the so-called waiter’s corkscrew. The best of these have a very thin body made of stainless steel (no plastic) and a sharp-pointed stainless steel worm with five turns. Look for corkscrews where the turns form a helix–a straight line wrapped around an imaginary cylinder so that the screw follows the point down through the cork. More and more restaurants are allowing their servers to use screwpulls, probably the most effective corkscrews on the market.