Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Okay I am NOT @GaryVee, Gary Vaynerchuk,  but I have worked in fine dining and I can give you some very easy common sense advice. If you don’t live in the Napa Valley or a big city, here are some tips to enjoy wine in a restaurant.

Ordering wine, there are a few easy tried and true rules:

Oysters: Champagne or Sauvignon Blanc
Chicken: Chardonnay, aka Chard
Salads or Seafood: Sauvignon Blanc aka Sav Blanc
Pork, Duck, Lamb: Pinot Noir or Merlot
Beef: Cabernet Sauvignon, aka Cabernet or just plain Cab

All of these are subject to change depending on the wine. Personally, I think champagne goes with everything! I love all varieties of wine. There are good wines and bad wines in all varieties so don’t judge all chardonnays by one bad one.

If you have no, or limited, wine knowledge my best recommendation – is to ask the server for a recommendation. You can read magazines or websites or books and do research and find an amazing high rated bottle of wine and then get to the restaurant and find out they don’t carry that wine. If people are having a variety of dishes I will often times suggest a pinot noir, a light red. Your server or the sommelier will ask what type of wine you are looking for, what your price range is, and look at what you have ordered and make a few recommendations. Don’t go with the house red or white unless you are on a strict budget. This wine was bought in bulk by the restaurant and won’t have the best taste.

As a general rule white wine should be less than 5 years old. It is not made to age a long time the way most red wine is.

Once a bottle of wine is ordered, the server presents the wine to the person who ordered it by reading the label, then confirms it by showing the bottle. After they say, “Yes, that is what I ordered”, the bottle is opened, by the server, and a small sip is poured to the person who ordered the wine. That person must try the wine to make sure it is not corked, they do this by swirling the wine, taking a sniff, then taking a small sip. Corked wine smells musty and tastes of mildew. It’s not really necessary to sniff the cork. Once they have approved the wine, the server will pour the wine for the rest of the guests at the table, and lastly fill the glass of the person who ordered. At this time you make a toast and clink glasses!

You may request an ice bucket for champagne or white wine to keep it chilled.  There is usually no extra charge for this. 

If your red wine is quite strong or has too much of a bite from the tannins, you can request that your wine be decanted. There is usually no extra charge for this.  This is done by your server and your wine is poured into a clear glass decanter, which gives the wine more air surface to breathe. This is especially recommended for red wines over 5 years old. Decanting the wine allows it to breathe and smooths out the taste. There is also a really nifty wine aerator tool that does this instantly, called the Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator.  I highly recommend it if you enjoy red wine!

Different shaped wine glasses are used with different varieties of wine. The general rule is that champagne is served in flutes, white wines in a smaller wine glass and reds in the larger bordeaux glass and the largest bowl glasses for the pinot noirs. This rule can change in accordance to the restaurant. Fresh glasses should be provided for each new bottle of wine unless otherwise requested.

If you bring in your own wonderful bottle of wine most restaurants will charge a corkage fee. This can vary greatly in amount from approximately $15 – $50 a pop. This fee is a charge for the service of using their glasses, which will need to be washed and hand polished, and the server opening the bottle and pouring the wine. On the higher end ($50) it can be cheaper to buy a bottle at the restaurant. If the corkage fee is a concern to you I recommend calling ahead to the restaurant and asking what their corkage fee is.

Most restaurants do greatly mark up the price of wine, it can be almost double what you would pay at a wine/liquor store.

Now you are ready to go out to a restaurant and enjoy wine! Cheers!

For more tips please see my other article: How to Tip in American Restaurants.

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Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi. I’ve had the pleasure of waiting on him and his wife and they were frequent visitors to the restaurant where I worked. By the time I waited on them he was in a wheelchair, and I never heard him speak. He was still an impressive man.

His wife, Margrit, was adorable! So friendly and charming and gracious! She reminded me a lot of Carol Channing with her wide smile and silver bob.

When the Mondavi’s came in for dinner Robert was wheeled in by a younger man and woman, who left after he was comfortable. Margrit took care of ordering and would attentively feed Robert and give him sips of champagne and wine.

A funny thing was they would usually bring their little white dog in it’s carrier. Dog’s aren’t allowed in restaurants unless they are seeing eye dogs, but what could we say? They are the Mondavi’s. Our Napa Valley royalty! Generally the darling little dog was good and quiet, but occasionally it would bark! All of the staff’s eyes would get big as we hoped that none of the guests complained. Sometimes Margrit would let the dog out and feed it under the table. One night as they were leaving and the younger couple had come to take them home, the man was pushing the wheelchair and the woman was holding the door and the little dog started running around through the center of the restaurant! Finally we shooed it out the door and the Mondavi’s were wisked away in their limosine.

We had a large event where the Mondavi’s were guests. I had to talk with the organizer and let him know that Robert was in a wheelchair as they had made no provisions for that and were unaware. They were under the impression that he was going to be giving a speech as well. I had to let them know that was doubtful unless his condition had changed since last I saw him. Margrit Mondavi had sat at Bouchon Bakery hand painting touches on all the menus as souvenirs for all the guests. They were such a lovely elegant touch. I am pleased to say I snagged one of the leftover menus at the end of the night!

Robert Mondavi died peacefully Friday morning, May 16, 2008 at his family home in Yountville, California at the age of 94. We were getting ready to celebrate his 95 birthday in June at Copia with a big event that included many of the world’s top chefs. The hope was that this event would continue in his memory. And what a memory he left.

Cheers to your memory, Robert Mondavi!

Chez Panisse

Yesterday, my friend Angela invited me to come visit her. She lives in Albany, next to Berkeley. I drove over and we decided to go out to lunch to this place that I can’t remember the name of, but she said it was across the street from Chez Panisse. So, I said, “What about just going to Chez Panisse?”. Angela said, “Well, I checked on that online and it said that you need to make reservations about a month in advance”. Angela is getting a degree at UC Berkeley (that I don’t remember the name of but it has something to do with food and wine). Angela also just finished reading “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse” by Thomas McNamee. (I can’t figure out how to underline the title here in WordPress – forgive me, I do know better). In any case I knew Angela would love to eat there between her major and just finishing the book, so we drove downtown Berkeley and found a parking spot and put 10 quarters in the meter. Berkeley is so cool and quirky. There were people picnicking in the grass in the meridian of the street. Lots of them! With cars driving by on both sides of them, like they were in a park! Most of them were eating pizza from a nearby place. I was dying for Alexandra’s digital camera! I had asked Angela to bring hers, but the battery was dead, so no luck there either.

We decided to try Chez Panisse before going over to the other restaurant, and they took us right in! We went upstairs to the cafe, which I am told is a bit less formal and pricey than the restaurant.

We were seating in a very tight spot, very close to another table, but we didn’t mind, everyone was very friendly. They first ask if you would care for still or sparkling water and they bring it the table in a pretty etched glass decanter. It says Chez Panisse on one side, and Still on the other. There was a wonderful flavorful brown bread that was served with some very yellow butter. Angela said that the guy that started Acme Bakery nearby had worked at Chez Panisse and Alice Waters had helped him get started, so we imagined that the bread was probably from Acme Bakery. That was where our bread from Julia’s Kitchen had been from, too. The busser girl told us the butter was from grass fed cows and that it was yellower because it had more carotene. Wow. I guess I didn’t even know what color butter was supposed to be. I’ve grown up on the pale butter made from grain fed cows. It’s kind of a shame.

We ordered a bottle of rose wine that was rather inexpensive and Angela said she had read it was one of Alice Waters’ favorites. It was perfect! Our server was apparently in training because another server came over to open our wine while instructing her. Later I saw her trying to open the wine for another table. I wanted to help. (I could have taught her much better…)

We shared an appetiser. (I’m on a budget) It was a salad with fried goat cheese. Angela once again said that she had read that it was one of the classic dishes at the restaurant. Next we share an entree. There was a boneless chicken that they said was pressed as it was cooked to make it crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. It was wonderful! As were the herbed peas. I’ve never had better peas. Honestly. And then there were some homemade potato chips as well. So good! Lastly, dessert. I had a peach and raspberry tart with vanilla bean ice cream and Angela had the fresh fruit, queen anne cherries and a plumcot. We were both in heaven! Truly a meal to remember!

In between all of this, I forgot to mention that since I knew I was going to be near Chez Panisse I thought I would bring along a resume and drop it off, since I am on the market at the moment. After we were seated for a few minutes I handed our server my resume and asked her if she could please give it to her manager. A few minutes later she brought it back to me and said it would probably be better to wait until I was leaving and give it to a manager myself, that way they might have time to sit down with and talk with me. Then, once again, a few minutes later a woman comes up to our table and says, “Hi, I’m Renee, did you want me to look over your resume?” I gave it to her of course and we continued our lunch. When we finished I checked to see if she was available, but the said she was in a meeting and had my number and would call me. Honestly, that is probably for the best, I don’t know what kind of interview I would have given after drinking half a bottle of wine!

Angela and I stopped and she got a couple of cheeses and some bread and salami and a lovely cold bottle of prosecco and we went back to her place, where her son Elijah and boyfriend Jesse were, and watched a French foreign film I had rented from Netflix, called Avenue Montaigne. Not Amelie, but very cute. We had the best French themed day!

Chez Panisse didn’t call today. Maybe tomorrow.

P.S. I LOVE blog comments!