The holidays are fast approaching, whether you like it or not. For many of us, that means a major spike in entertaining, either of the at-home or in-a-restaurant variety. In the course of all this entertaining, an increase in the amount of wine purchased and consumed enters into the picture. At least in my circles, anyway.

I serve wine to people. It’s just one facet among many in my job profile. Recently, in a fit of boredom, I came to the conservative conclusion that I have served at least 140,000 people in my eighteen years of service as a waiter. Granted, some of them are repeat customers, but that’s still a lot of folks. In fact, that’s about the entire population of Pasadena, California. By next year, I will have well outgrown that estimate. I hope to retire before I reach, say, Oakland.

During the course of serving all those people, I have opened roughly 25,000 bottles of wine, or, the equivalent of one bottle of wine for each person living Atascadero, California. I can’t confirm any of this, of course, since I am uncertain as to whether or not the residents of the State Hospital are allowed alcohol. But that is one hell of a lot of wine. 18,750,000 milliliters. Sadly, I’m too stupid to convert that number into liters.

In all my years as a waiter, I have been mildly alarmed by the number of people who seem bewildered by the process of wine service. There are those of you who tense up (you know who you are) as your server approaches with the bottle. It can be as subtle as nervous little clearing of the throat, or as depressing as blurting out that you know nothing about wine tasting and pointing a finger at one of your dining companions to do the job for you. There is no need for that, really. Then, of course, there are those of you who feel the need to emote like a silent film actor. I applaud your enthusiasm. I really do. Of course, I’ll probably point you out to the other waiters, but I applaud your enthusiasm just the same.

As a civilian, I have often been saddened by the shaky hands of servers who appear to have no confidence in their ability to pop a cork out of a bottle, especially if it’s an expensive wine. Very seldom do I see the ritual performed properly. Everything from dripping wine on the tablecloth, which is forgivable, to taking the bottle of wine away from the table to open the cork, which is unforgivable, to putting the bottle of wine between their legs while removing the cork, which brings to my mind certain unpleasantries of the human digestive system or perhaps a crescendo of sexual excitement. In either case, I don’t want those particular corks on my table.

Apart from my introductory ramble, this is a fairly straightforward sermon today, designed to clarify any problems or discomfort at the table. It’s called:

How to behave when a bottle of wine is being opened for you.

1. Let’s pretend that you have ordered the above-pictured bottle of wine, a 2004 Tenuta San Guido “Guidalberto”. Excellent choice, by the way. The server or sommelier will hopefully return with the bottle cradled like some precious baby in his arms (or her, I am not going to spend my time writing s/he him/her, so please excuse me) and present the bottle, label facing towards to you.

2. He will verbalize the producer (Tenuta San Guido), the varietal (If it is a New World wine. In this case, the varietal is not labeled as a Merlot-Cabernet-Sangiovese blend) or name of the wine (Guidalberto) and the vintage (2004). This is extremely important. Stop talking to your girlfriend and pay attention for a moment. Is this the wine you ordered? Yes? Good. Now is it the correct vintage? That’s important. For example, in 2003, there was a major heat wave that killed hundreds of Europeans over the summer. Not that that has anything to do with wine, mind you, but it did make for fruitier wines that year. If the vintage on offer differs from what is advertised on the wine list, that’s nothing unusual. Time– and vintage– marches on. Just be sure to clarify this with whoever serves your wine.

3. When the wine is opened, the cork should be placed in front of you, just to the right. Just eyeball it. There is no need to sniff it. Most likely, it will smell like a cork with some wine on it. Sniffing a cork and then smelling your wine will do you no good whatsoever. The purpose of presenting the cork is to show the condition of storage. Is the outer edge dry and the inner wet? Excellent. If the inner part of the cork is dry, that could mean that the wine was stored poorly– like straight up– which is bad. Very bad. If the outside of the cork is wet, that means seepage, which is worse.

If a bottle of wine has been sealed with a Stelvin enclosure (that’s what those screw caps are called), it should not be placed on the table. I made the mistake of presenting the cap to one of my diners not too long ago, because we were all playing at being overly formal with the wine. He picked up the cap between his fingertips and waved it dramatically under his nose. I’m glad I had my serviette handy to catch some of the blood.

3. The only thing you need your nose to do (apart from breathing) is smell the wine once a taste has been poured for you. You are only looking for defects like oxidation and spoilage. Please do not comment on the wine’s legs. You are not supposed to pass any other judgements on the wine at that moment. Is it fit for consumption? Yes? Good.

4. What if you don’t like the wine? If you have ordered the wine on your own and simply do not like it, you may be considered “at fault.” No one told you to order it. It’s not as cherry ripe as you were expecting? Sorry. Now if you have the advice of the sommelier and he has lead you severely astray (they are, however, typically trained to steer you in the other direction), you’ve got a case. Thankfully, I work in a place that isn’t going to argue with a guest about wine. Don’t like it? Hey, we’ll drink it later! Can I get you something else? That makes my life much more pleasant, anyway.

5. Alright. You’ve given your nod to the person who has opened your wine. He will then pour out for your guests, saving you for last. Do not pour your own wine. Let the server do that. Unless he is a particularly bad server and you are forced to. You should never be forced to.

Wasn’t that easy? And it only took about 90 seconds.

I’ve added a great link to a little series of videos about how to serve wine from Hospitality University. Sounds rather Canadian to me…

Wine: What to Do, What to Do 16 November,2007Michael Procopio

  • Jennifer Maiser

    What do you think of people who say that they’d rather control their own wine? Just curious. I haven’t done it, but sometimes am tempted to.

  • Anonymous

    That’s exactly what I was thinking. It’s always uncomfortable with a table of four and the server has poured all of the wine before the main course has been served. Some like to savor their wine (and their money) and only order one bottle. How does a responsible server gauge the party and the likelihood of ordering a second bottle?

  • shuna fish lydon

    You and I both know someone who believes in impeccable wine service like this. In fact I go to all his line-up speeches because he is so emotional about wine, grapes, wine makers etc.

    Thank you for an educational and funny piece about something you’d think more Californians would know about, considering who we are geographically.

    ps. Patients at mental institutions are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages. Unless, in some cases, said persons are electing to stay there on their own terms.

  • Michael Procopio


    I am assuming that by “control their own wine” you mean that they prefer to pour it themselves. If that is the case and the guests have expressed it to me, I just have to let go of my inner control freak and let them do it– it’s their wine and their experience.

    The concerns on my end are that they a) are going to drip wine all over the tablecloth, b) pour too much into the glass (a glass should be no more than 1/3 full), or c) pour it out too fast or not do their self-assigned job properly by not pouring at all.

    I know that my concerns there are rather selfish, because I see these potential errors as a reflection on my own service. Of course, I then (usually) correct my attitude, realizing that this is what the guest(s) want and that is, of course, what it’s all about, right?


    I find overly zealous pourers somewhat annoying. As I mentioned above, a glass should be no more than 1/3 full at any given time, since one needs air in the glass, as well as wine.

    As a server, if a guest’s glass gets low, I pour. I am careful to pour in such a way that (by pausing briefly), should a guest not wish to be refilled, he has time to indicate that fact. A server pours without interrupting the guests, if he’s any good. I do not consider it my problem if diners opt to suck their wine down– they may have had a long day and need a few good slugs. If a guest wants to make his wine last, he or she will drink it slowly. Of course, there are pushy servers. We’ve all had those!

    Shuna– Yes. That “someone” is rather incredible, isn’t he? He gave me the courage to go get that first level wine certificate from the COurt of Master Sommeliers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the CMS, a first level certificate is equivocal to, say, a junior high school diploma in the real world…

    Who ELECTS to stay at Atascadero on their own terms?


Michael Procopio

I am terribly fond of martinis, Edward Gorey, and sleeping with many pillows.
You are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter: @procopster

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