What would Elvis do in a Restaurant?

Ordering wine in a restaurant can be enjoyable or slightly frightening. Here are a few tips to help you out for your next dining experience. Why Elvis in the title? Read on to find out why.


What to do when confronted with an enormous wine list of unpronounceable words and locations? Is it a variety, a region, sparkling, white, red, by the glass, by the bottle, by the bucket? Should you just point to something that looks medium expensive and hope for the best? Don’t panic and make an excuse to take a call when you are really trying to find a wine list app on your telephone. No, restaurants have sommeliers to help you, that’s their job. They are well trained to know the menu and the wine list and can offer you suggestions. But you need to ask. And, you should discreetly tell the sommelier your price point. Don’t worry it’s normal and you definitely don’t want “sticker shock” when you receive your bill!

You’ve ordered the wine, but have you ordered enough? Count on 4-5 full glasses in a bottle and 4 glasses for a sparkling wine, so calculate how many bottles you need to order depending on the number of people at the table. With a sweet wine, only a small amount is poured, so you can get away with fewer bottles. Again, the sommelier is your friend, at least for the night, and he or she has a lot of experience.

Presenting and Accepting the Wine

After your big decision, the sommelier will come to your table to present the wine. How does this work? Often the person who ordered the wine will be considered the “host”. The bottle should be presented to you, the host, and make sure you look at it to verify it is the bottle and vintage you ordered. The sommelier will open it in front of you, make sure they don’t go elsewhere to open it, which is rare. The sommelier will present you the cork and pour you a very small amount of wine in your glass. Don’t think you are being cheated out at this point! Your role is to smell and taste it, then approve or disapprove. Please do not take this time to talk about the notes you find in the wine, ah this smells like the fresh flowers hanging in the gardens of Italy where we visited last summer. Nobody cares, they are thirsty. If the wine is acceptable, then say “very nice” or just nod your head.

When is it ok to refuse a wine at a restaurant?

If it is not what you ordered – that is why you need to look carefully at the bottle before it is opened.

Should you smell the cork? Only if you want to look like a snob. However, looking at the cork can give you clues. Make sure the bottom of the cork is moist which means it has been in contact with the wine and there is less risk of oxidation which can ruin a wine. If the cork is completely saturated with wine, this may also be a concern. Of course if there is smelly green mold, don’t accept the wine.

If the wine smells or tastes bad: vinegar, cardboard, rotten eggs, dirty drain or even skunky. Yes, those are all faults that unfortunately can be found in a wine.

What if you don’t like the taste of the wine? Too dry, too fruity, too tannic, etc. Well, too bad for you. You generally cannot refuse a wine based on your preconceptions of taste , that is why you need to ask the Sommelier about the style of wine before ordering. For example an Amarone della Valpolicella from Italy should be slightly higher in alcohol with dried fruit and earthy characteristics.

Ok, you are happy, we are all happy, yet parched by this point. Get on with it! Traditions vary around the world, but an international tradition is that the sommelier will go around the table and pour the women first, then the men, and the host LAST! No matter if the host is a man or woman. The wine bottle will then be put down with the label facing the host. There are many pitfalls here, especially in business situations, who outranks who, etc, but more on that in a later post.

You look up and notice that Aunt Beatrice’s glass is empty (she drinks way too much anyway, but it’s not the moment to bring it up). However, other glasses are empty as well. Do you pick up the bottle and serve them? Do you pass the bottle around the table for them to serve themselves? Certainly don’t give it to Aunt Bea. This depends. In an upscale restaurant, the sommelier should be attentive and you should wait for him or her to refill the glasses. If necessary, you may need to order another bottle or suggest it is time to move on to another course. Your sommelier should be removing empty bottles as you make your way through dinner. If it is a casual restaurant, you may perhaps pour yourself, just read the situation.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Bottle – Taboo or Tolerated??

You bought an incredible bottle of wine on your fabulous trip to Italy and want to share it with friends at a restaurant. Is it possible? Maybe yes, maybe no. You need to call ahead to the restaurant to ask if it is ok. For some restaurants it is against their policy and in some regions it is even against the law!

You’ve found a nice Italian restaurant who is willing to let you bring your own wine, thanks to your third removed Italian cousin, Antonio. What is the protocol? You bring the wine, but it is Sommelier Antonio, who will open and pour it for you and your guests. Do not pull out your fancy corkscrew and open it yourself! Proper etiquette is that you offer Antonio a taste of the wine. He may take a tiny, oh so minuscule sip because it is really a nice wine, however he may refuse because it is against restaurant policy. But always offer. Antonio will then serve the table. Be careful. If you only have one bottle of this precious nectar and have invited twenty people to join you, there may be bloodshed.

If you do bring your own bottle, be prepared to pay a “corkage fee”. This fee, ranging from 10-25 euros is a cost to bring your own bottle. Why? Because you are engaging the services of Antonio, wine glassware is provided, and a potential sale is lost by the restaurant. Don’t complain, it is a privilege. Oh, and don’t bring wine in a box to the restaurant. Is there even a need to explain?

Other Tidbits

Should you tip on the cost of the bottle? Is Elvis still alive and living in Argentina? It’s a difficult question and depends on the country and situation. For now, I will leave you hanging.

Often the Wine List will be separate than the menu and depending on your location, it maybe offered only to men, although that is becoming less common. Go with the flow.

Your sommelier has dropped the pen taking your order, although now it is mostly on an I-Pad. Don’t pick it up! It’s an evil game that unscrupulous Sommeliers may play. If you pick up the pen, they know they are in charge and may up sell you. It happens.

Lastly, remember, you are the customer. It is your dining experience and make it a great one. Santé!

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