Mastering the Restaurant Wine Taste Test

You’ve ordered your wine, now what?  Your server is approaching the table with a bottle in his hand, and you are entering the zone of the taste test ritual.  Now is not the time for high anxiety…it is only a taste test, and you are not the one on trial. Relax and let me demystify this stage of restaurant wine service for you.

To begin with, a well-trained server will start the proceedings by standing to the right side of the host (code for whoever placed the wine order), and presenting the wine bottle to him or her, label side up.  Your server should verbalize the producer, wine variety, and vintage.  Something along the lines of, “Sir, the 2005 Brookswood Cabernet Sauvignon you ordered” would be ideal.

If this is indeed the correct wine, the server will remove the foil capsule from the neck of the bottle, and place it in his or her apron pocket.  After extracting the cork from the bottle, the server should place it on the table to the right side of the host.

A word to the wise: don’t smell the cork!  There’s not much to be gained by smelling (or squeezing, for that matter) the cork. If a server presents the cork to you, glance at it and set it aside. Some say sniffing the cork or feeling a cork for dryness can indicate whether excessive amounts of oxygen have crept into the bottle, but you’ll smell and taste that soon enough.

Next, your server will pour you a 1 ounce taste.  Then, the server stands aside and waits for your approval.  Don’t despair…you are not expected to come up with a brilliant bon mot or wax poetic about the wine.  All you have to do is determine whether or not the wine is flawed.  That’s right…this is not a Roger Ebert moment where you get to give a “thumbs up/thumbs down” judgment or award gold stars.  And trust me; you are probably not going to need to send that bottle back.

There are really only two ways a wine can be reject-worthy:  if it is oxidized, or it is corked.   An oxidized wine will have a spoiled, flat, prune juice-like smell.  It may also appear cloudy, have a chemical-like odor, or taste vinegary.  A wine with cork taint will show musty, funky, dirty-basement, wet-cardboard-like smells.  Don’t worry if you don’t know what oxidized wine or cork taint smells like…they make themselves known a mile away.

The polite thing to do if you suspect a flaw in your wine is to ask the server to sample the wine.  You might say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure about this wine…could you take a taste and tell me what you think?”  This is usually all it takes to have the bottle judged by the resident expert, and if there is any doubt, the bottle will be replaced.

But let’s not get bogged down with what to do with a bad wine.  Chances are very high indeed that the wine will be faultless, and you can offer your nod of approval.

Proper service begins with the guest to the left of the host and proceeds clockwise around the table.  Women should be served first and pouring should continue clockwise until all the women are served, and then the server should run another lap around the table to pour the men, ending with the host (male or female.)  This gives the host a chance to order more should the bottle be on the wane.

Now, all you have left to do is relax and enjoy your meal.  Notice the star-bright clarity and gorgeous color of your wine.  Swirl your glass and breathe in the aromas, take a sip and savor the flavor.  Note how the wine leaves impressions on your palate long after you have swallowed…this is the wine’s finish and aftertaste.  But mainly, just enjoy.  You have survived the wine ritual, from wine list to wine glass, and that in itself is worth a celebration.


About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

One Response to Mastering the Restaurant Wine Taste Test

  1. Shields says:

    Great post! Good info for both the consumer and the server.

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