Opening & Serving Wine
Fine restaurants are held to a higher level of wine service. But having worked as a Get the latest in the w
wine consultant for new restaurants, I've been witness to the opposite: silly of culinary! Enter you
servers switching the order of wines in a wine "flight" causing customers to mail to sign up for our
misidentify their favorites; panicked wine managers substituting another wine by newsletter.
the glass without asking the customer's permission first; and dimwitted bartenders
trying to "create" a missing wine by mixing cocktail ingredients! Unforgivable
actions, when a sincere apology would have smoothed over any situation. Owners
need to set policies, make common sense mandatory and require absolute
Proper wine service is not that difficult—the following teaches you the secrets of
the pros. And then all you have to do to master these techniques is practice.
Sommeliers or wine stewards carry compact "waiter's friend" corkscrews in their
pockets, each with a handy folding knife to cut off foil capsules over the cork or
to remove plastic covering the cork (then put the knife down before you open the
wine, or you'll cut yourself). Obviously, you won't need a corkscrew to open the
convenient new screwcap bottles. The waiter's friend wine openers have a smooth
spiral corkscrew and metal lever to make it easy to open the bottle while holding
it in front of customers.
The trick to using these professional corkscrews correctly is to approach the cork
with the corkscrew at a 45° angle, place the point of the spiral in the center of the
cork, press down to puncture it until the corkscrew can stand up on its own, and
screw down the spiral into the cork until no more spiral is showing (if you don't,
you'll break the cork when you try to extract it). Then position the metal lever
against the top of the bottle, and gently (don't press too hard with the lever against
the glass or you'll end up with broken glass) lift the corkscrew end until all the
cork is out of the bottle. Some fine red wines have corks that are so long, they
require lifting against the lever, then spiraling down again with the corkscrew,
and lifting once more until all of the cork can be removed.
Practice with this type of corkscrew on empty bottles with the corks pushed back
into them until you are proficient. Many people use the "Rabbit" corkscrews by
Metrokane at home because they have panache and a very long spiral that makes
it easy to remove the cork in one motion. There are also large table-mounted
estate corkscrews that not only remove the cork, but also re-insert it back in the
bottle in one motion—they are great when you have large numbers of bottles to
To open Champagne and sparkling wines, look for the wire circle that holds the
cage over the cork through the foil, extract it and bend until it forms a right angle
(90° degree), untwist it approximately six turns (I know this because I've opened
Opening & Serving Wine
Fine restaurants are held to a higher level of wine service. But having worked as a wine
consultant for new restaurants, I've been witness to the opposite: silly servers switching
the order of wines in a wine "flight" causing customers to misidentify their favorites;
panicked wine managers substituting another wine by the glass without asking the
customer's permission first; and dimwitted bartenders trying to "create" a missing wine
by mixing cocktail ingredients! Unforgivable actions, when a sincere apology would have
smoothed over any situation. Owners need to set policies, make common sense
mandatory and require absolute honesty.
Proper wine service is not that difficult—the following teaches you the secrets of the
pros. And then all you have to do to master these techniques is practice.
Sommeliers or wine stewards carry compact "waiter's friend" corkscrews in their pockets,
each with a handy folding knife to cut off foil capsules over the cork or to remove plastic
covering the cork (then put the knife down before you open the wine, or you'll cut
yourself). Obviously, you won't need a corkscrew to open the convenient new screwcap
bottles. The waiter's friend wine openers have a smooth spiral corkscrew and metal lever
to make it easy to open the bottle while holding it in front of customers.
The trick to using these professional corkscrews correctly is to approach the cork with the
corkscrew at a 45° angle, place the point of the spiral in the center of the cork, press
down to puncture it until the corkscrew can stand up on its own, and screw down the
spiral into the cork until no more spiral is showing (if you don't, you'll break the cork
when you try to extract it). Then position the metal lever against the top of the bottle, and
gently (don't press too hard with the lever against the glass or you'll end up with broken
glass) lift the corkscrew end until all the cork is out of the bottle. Some fine red wines
have corks that are so long, they require lifting against the lever, then spiraling down
again with the corkscrew, and lifting once more until all of the cork can be removed.
Practice with this type of corkscrew on empty bottles with the corks pushed back into
them until you are proficient. Many people use the "Rabbit" corkscrews by Metrokane at
home because they have panache and a very long spiral that makes it easy to remove the
cork in one motion. There are also large table-mounted estate corkscrews that not only
remove the cork, but also re-insert it back in the bottle in one motion—they are great
when you have large numbers of bottles to open.
To open Champagne and sparkling wines, look for the wire circle that holds the cage over
the cork through the foil, extract it and bend until it forms a right angle (90° degree),
untwist it approximately six turns (I know this because I've opened thousands of
Champagne bottles in my career), open the wire cage, take a cloth napkin to protect your
hand and while holding the heavy bottom of the bottle steady, ease out the cork a little at
a time, with the wire cage as your grip on it, until the thick Champagne cork pops out
with a sigh.
If the cork is so tightly jammed into the bottle that it won't budge, use Champagne
"pliers" (yes, they look like a pair of small silver pliers) available in wine catalogs to ease
out the cork. And to properly pour Champagne or sparkling wine, put your thumb in the
deep punt of the bottle, your fingers up the side, and pour from a 45° angle with the label
facing the customer. Do not pick up the glasses and tilt as you pour, this reduces the
lovely "mousse" or crown of bubbles which releases the aroma. And always wait until a
guest has emptied their glass before refilling—don't pour chilled Champagne into
Once wines are properly chilled—please refer to my article on serving temperatures—
and you've opened the bottles, you need wine glasses. Wine glasses come in a variety of
shapes, and the shape of a wine glass can accentuate the aromas and taste profiles of each
grape variety or type of wine. Riedel, the foremost wine glassware company in America,
has proved this at popular "glass tastings.” It is most important to keep these big-bowled
beauties clean and free of soap residue, dust and odors. Wash wine glasses carefully with
special mild liquid soap made especially for glasses, rinse repeatedly and dry with linen
towels. Then my secret is to cover them with plastic wrap before I place them in the
cupboard. Then I know they will be perfectly clean the next time I need them—dust will
ruin good wine.
To pour red wines, I use a "drip stop" to avoid red stains on the tablecloth or guests'
clothing. Drip stops are either metal or plastic circles with inner felt that go over the neck
of the bottle and absorb drips, or they are flat circles of shiny film that when rolled up fit
right into the bottle opening to create a pour spout. Again, these are available in wine
catalogs. If you don't have a drip stop, give the bottle a slight twist after pouring to
prevent drips. And don't forget, older reds with lots of sediment will need to be decanted
through a strainer or coffee filter to remove the sediment before serving.
To properly set the table, the first-course wine glass (usually sparkling or white wine) is
placed immediately above the knife and aligned vertically with it (knife is on the right,
forks on the left of the plates). If possible, each person's place setting is to be aligned with
the one directly opposite on the table. Main course wine glasses, which are larger, are
placed slightly inward and to the right of the first glass. Dessert wine glasses can be
brought in later or are placed last. Servers pour wine (and remove dirty glasses) from the
right of each guest, moving clockwise around the table.
When deciding on the order of the wines for a wine tasting or wine dinner, serve from the
lightest wines (in color, body and alcohol) to the heaviest, and from the driest to the
sweetest. I actually look at labels to find the alcohol content of each wine and then serve
the highest alcohol wines last. The order of wines for a typical wine tasting would be
light, dry white wines; oak-aged, full-bodied dry white wines; rosé wines; light, fruity,
dry red wines; older red wines; rich, concentrated, higher-alcohol dry reds; and sweet
The restaurant "ritual" of wine service involves placing the cork down on the table in
front of the guest who ordered the wine (never hand the cork to the guest), giving the
guest a small sample of wine to taste and verify that it is good (if the sommelier is
wearing a "tastevin" wine cup on a chain around their necks then they also take a sample
of wine in the cup to establish that it is a good bottle), pouring wine for all of the other
guests first and then returning to the host or hostess to top up their glass. Before this
entire ritual begins, servers should be able to discuss the grape variety, origin and taste
profile of every wine on the wine list with customers, and make wine recommendations
for every menu item.
Here are a few "don'ts" so that you do not embarrass yourself (or your employer):
1. Don't pour wine from your glass back into the bottle you'll be serving to guests—
ever heard of germs?
2. Use ice to chill bottles only, not glasses, and do not rinse a customer's glass in
unsanitary ice from ice buckets etc.
3. Wipe off all green/black mold from the tops of wine corks before pulling them,
and even if the corks have no mold, never put the top of the cork upside down into
the bottle because it will ruin the aroma of the wine.
4. Don't touch the inside of a guest's wine glass with the top of the bottle as you
pour, and don't put your hand over the top of the bottle where the wine will flow.
5. Don't put your fingers on the rim of clean glasses as you pick them up, always
hold glasses by their stems, including dirty glasses you are clearing from the
6. Don't fill glasses more than 1/3 full so customers can swirl and sniff without
spilling and splashing.
You would probably hate to have me as a "quality control shopper" in your restaurant,
but proper staff training will increase your profits and help you stay in business! And if
you are just a wine fan, never fear, I'd love to sit at your table and my good manners
would never permit me to bludgeon anyone with my wine knowledge. Restaurant servers
take heed—it is boorish to belittle customers, and will certainly cost you your tip!
Novices stare in wonder as wine experts tilt, swirl, sniff, gurgle and swallow during the
wine tasting process. Is all this really necessary? Yes, these five steps ensure that every
nuance of a wine's color, body, aroma, flavor, and aftertaste is captured and can be
described by the taster.
Let's discuss the 5 steps of wine tasting in more detail:
Color and Clarity
1. Tilt red wines (in your glass) away from you against a white background, such as a
white tablecloth or white piece of paper or place mat. Look at the outer edge, or "lip", of
the wine—if the color of the wine is dark black/red that goes all the way out to the edge,
then that's the sign of a very young wine. In older red wines, the color fades to a
brown/red and recedes towards the middle of the glass, leaving a wide clear lip. This is
called "color separation". To a lesser extent, the same is true of rosé wines. As white
wines age they oxidize or "maderize" and turn tawny brown like Madeira.
Experts also sometimes hold red wines up to the light to judge their color and clarity.
Cloudy wines are an indication of possible contamination, unless it is sediment common
in very old red wines. This sediment will have to be filtered through a strainer (or coffee
filter) as the wine is decanted. Don't drink the sediment.
To judge the clarity of white wines, including Champagne and sparkling wines or dessert
wines, place the wine glass on the table and look straight down into the wine—the greater
the clarity, the more brilliant the wine, and it will sparkle like diamonds.
2. Swirl the wine to judge its body or viscosity. First swirl vigorously, then stop and wait
for the formation of "legs" (clear tears) that fall back into the wine. The thicker the legs,
and the more slowly they fall, the more full-bodied the wine. Very light white wines,
such as a German Mosel Riesling Kabinett, have virtually no legs and look almost like
water. Sweet, luscious dessert wines invariably have the most viscosity and thickest legs.
Some wine experts "chew" the wine in their mouth to judge its body (and tannin and
flavor). But I prefer not to do this, especially with red wines, as chewing them will
blacken your teeth.
3. To judge the aroma, swirl the wine in your glass before sniffing deeply. Glasses should
be no more than 1/3 full so that you can swirl without spilling. Swirling vaporizes the
wine and releases the molecules of aroma that must travel through your nasal passages to
reach the nerve receptors waiting to snatch them and tell your brain what they smell like
—yeast or toast and apple or pear, for example in Champagne.
In general, red wines have more intense and varied aromas than white wines. When
young, great reds exhibit lots of berry aromas with perhaps mint, spice, licorice or
chocolate. As red wines age, they develop more raisin or dried plum (what used to be
called prune) aromas, until they oxidize, become too old and smell of vinegar. White
wines follow a similar progression, but end up smelling like bad sherry when they're over
the hill or "mort", dead, as the French say.
Sweetness, Saltiness, Acidity and Tannin
4. Sip a small mouthful of wine, roll it around your tongue and do the wine "gurgle". To
gurgle the wine, hold it in the middle of your tongue while you part your lips very
slightly and carefully, and suck in some air. This wine gurgling vaporizes more
molecules of the wine so that you can get an intense impression of its sweetness,
saltiness, acidity and tannin or astringency and bitterness.
If the wine is very sweet, it creates a tingling at the tip of the tongue. (All this sounds so
sexy, well wine is sexy!) If the wine is very high in acidity, you will feel a "needles and
pins" sensation on the sides of your tongue. There is only one salty wine that I know of,
Manzanilla Sherry. It is aged in barrels placed by the sea in southwest Spain so that the
salty ocean air penetrates the wood and gives the wine a slightly salty taste, which makes
Manzanilla the perfect Sherry for tapas and appetizers.
And if the wine has a lot of tannin (from black grape skins and oak barrels), then you will
feel a dry sensation on the surface of your tongue and throughout your palate. This tannin
is the same tannic acid in tea. Young red wines have a lot of tannin from the sources just
mentioned, but this tannin acts as a natural preservative and antioxidant in red wines,
which is why they live longer than most white wines.
The tannin explains the health benefits of drinking red wines, such as keeping arteries
clear of plaque and lowering the incidence of heart disease. Tannin in red wines also
helps us digest high fat foods such as cheese and red meat. That's why red wines are used
to marinate meat, and why the protein in cheese actually pulls out some of the tannin in
red wines, making them taste smoother.
Concentration and Aftertaste
5. The greatest red wines have deep fruit concentration in the "middle range" of the
tasting process just before you swallow. Certain red grape varieties, such as Merlot, are
known for tasting watery instead of concentrated—which is why winemakers call Merlot
the grape with the "hole in the middle".
Swallow at least some of the wine to judge the aftertaste or finish. Some experts always
spit instead of swallowing, but I believe you have to taste at least a little bit of the wine to
get a more accurate assessment of its properties. Great wines have a long, lingering,
pleasant finish. This is called the "memory" of the wine. When you consider the price of
the best wines, it is well worth training your taste buds and wine memory because that—
and bragging rights—will be all you have left
Correct serving temperature is crucial to your wine enjoyment. During the heat of
summer, even air-conditioned room temperature is too warm for red wines, making them
taste too much of alcohol. And though white wines should be chilled, they can be too
cold to taste.
To help consumers, wine companies such as William Grant & Sons have used thermo-
sensitive labels with special ink that only becomes visible at a certain temperature. Their
Spanish white Mar de Frades Albariño ($15 retail) comes with a label that shows a blue
ship above the waves if the wine has been chilled to its perfect serving temperature of
52-55 degrees F.
Some wine writers go so far as to specify exact serving temperature for every wine they
review. For most of us it is simply impractical to take the temperature of a bottle of red
wine to make sure it is the required 65 degrees F. What do they expect us to do, carry a
thermometer with us? That would be hilarious, but also dangerous (remember, they're
filled with mercury). Although some wine accessory catalogs had featured insulated
bottle covers with temperature gauges.
There are more practical solutions. The following tips will make it easy for you to
achieve the ideal serving temperatures for each type of wine: Champagne and sparkling,
white, rosé, red and dessert.
Culinary stores, including Westye (Wolf Sub-Zero appliances), Viking Range and
Kitchen Aid, sell upscale wine cabinets. These are either built-ins or under-the-counter
units with both white wine (45 degrees F., so white, rosé, dessert and sparkling wines are
chilled and ready to be served) and red wine (55 degrees F., "cellar" temperature)
compartments. The glass fronts and digital temperature readings showcase your kitchen
wine collection to visitors, and the humidity is the proper 75% recommended for wine
Experts might complain that these standard wine temperatures are too cold for tasting, but
all wines warm up quickly when you take them out of the cabinets, serve them at the
table, pour them into wine glasses and begin swirling. By that time, whites and reds will
be a good 10 degrees warmer, which allows them to release their beautiful fruit aromas
and layers of flavor.
Less expensive versions of these wine cabinets are sold in all the warehouse and home
improvement stores. But check warranties and refund policies before you buy because
my experience is that most of the stand-alone wine cabinets, or wine "vaults" as they are
sometimes called, stop operating after a year or two. Power outages appear to wreak
havoc with these cabinets. Restaurants with large temperature-controlled cellars look for
insurance to cover their wines if they lose power and the wines get hot, but it would take
a wine expert to verify their loss.
Refrigerators Are Not Long-term Storage
What about storing wine in your refrigerator? Refrigerators are usually set at 42-45
degrees F.—good for chilling bottles of white, rosé, dessert and sparkling wines in 2
hours, but too cold for dry red wines. Caution is the key, however. It is not a good idea to
store good wine long-term in the same place as food, that's why wine cabinets are
refrigerated units for wine only.
Wine corks are porous, and wines can absorb food odors through the corks (especially
opened bottles), destroying their flavor. So don't store leftover wine in the refrigerator—
unless you use a wine stopper that creates a tighter seal. Then refrigerating any leftover
wine will preserve it, and is much better for your wine than leaving it on the kitchen
counter. However, if the electricity goes out, remove your wines immediately before the
food rots, and lay them on top of ice in a cooler, labels up.
One final caution regarding refrigeration, if the temperature is set too low, "tartrate
crystals" could form in the wines. The crystals look like large ice, salt or sugar crystals,
or even broken glass to some people! But they are related to the main acid in grapes and
wine, tartaric acid, and are gritty, but perfectly harmless. Wines that do not go through
"cold stabilization" in the winery are more likely to have the crystals when they are
exposed to extreme cold. To prove tartrate crystals are harmless, one California winery
sent them out to customers to use like Cream of Tartar in a Lemon Meringue Pie recipe.
Professional Chilling Secrets
Living in Atlanta, patio service is quite popular, especially at restaurants lucky enough to
have a scenic view. This is how I learned about using "water baths" to keep reds wines at
optimum cellar temperature while making the trek from wine vault to sunny outdoor
veranda. Fine restaurants use a water bath of lots of water and a couple of handfuls of ice
in an ice bucket to carry dry reds to the table and maintain their slight chill.
Alternatively, you can place any red wine in ice and water in an ice bucket for 5 minutes
to approximate "cellar" (serving) temperature. Even great red wines need to be cool to the
touch—yes, it's OK if you actually touch the bottle that the server brings to your table—
to be appreciated. Not cold, cool—there is a difference. As they warm up toward room
temperature, these great reds get better and better. But cool serving temperature is even
more critical for light-bodied red wines such as Pinot Noir or Gamay. I honestly believe
people who say they don't like red wines have been drinking them too warm!
Finally, professional servers know that Champagne and sparkling wines need chilling
even more than non-sparkling (called "still", as in not bubbly) white, rosé or dessert
wines. If sparkling wines have not already been chilled for 2 hours in a refrigerator or
wine vault, they will need about 30 minutes in ice and water in an ice bucket to be cold
enough that they don't foam up when the cork is popped and spill all over the carpet.
Adding water to the ice bucket full of ice is the most important part, for the water helps
the ice coat the thick glass bottles and more efficiently chill them.
Keep chilled bottles in the ice bucket or in an insulated holder until they are empty.
Unless, the wine is too cold for you to discover its secrets, especially those of older
vintages that, like a genie, have been trapped in the bottle for many years eager to bestow
Smokey barbecued ribs washed down with a peppery, fruit-packed Australian Shiraz;
Cabernet Sauvignon with a beautifully marbled steak; California Chardonnay with butter
poached lobster'. These are slam dunk' wine and food pairings. Is this because the buttery
oak in the Chardonnay plays off the butter in the lobster or because the pepper in spicy
barbecue shows Syrah's spicy character?
These bridges certainly do not hurt, but what is at the essence of these and every
successful food and wine pairings is matching the body of the wine with the body of the
dish. This is first and foremost why these matches work so well. Much before worrying
about the nuances of flavors in the food and wine combination, one must be aware of the
When we are talking about body and richness in food and wine, we are talking about
calories. So, where do most of the calories come from in wine? Alcohol. And where do
most of the calories come from in food? Fat and protein.
So, to start with better understanding body in wine, we need to start in the vineyards.
Wine is fermented fruit juice, in the case of fine food and wine pairing, the fermented
juice of vitis vinifera grapes, the fancy term for the classic European grape varietals such
as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah. As with any
fruit, the warmer the growing conditions, the more the potential for riper, sweeter fruit.
And, since fermentation is sugar plus yeast equals alcohol and carbon dioxide, and since
body in wine comes from alcohol, the warmer the climate of the vineyard, in general, the
more full bodied the resulting wine. This is of course assuming dry wines where all of the
natural grape sugar is allowed to be fermented into alcohol.
So, why is this so important? Think about putting in golf. If you are putting toward to
hole and the green slopes down to the left, you aim your putt to the right of the hole. This
way, you at least have a chance at getting your ball in the hole. Forget about wind, speed
of the green, distance, etc. If you aim straight for the hole and you have a slope, you do
not have a chance to sink the ball, even with flawlessly executed speed and distance of
your putt. So, are the speed and distance of your ball not important? Of course they are,
but only when you are aiming in such a way to have a chance to sink your putt.
Wine pairing is much the same. Bridging flavors from food to wine, matching acidity and
sweetness to a dish, contrasting with fruity and spicy are like gauging the speed of your
putt, the wind velocity, the force with which you hit the ball, etc. Important, yes. But
fruitless if your bodies are not in balance.
Balance, balance, balance. Think of the classic food and wine pairing criticism: The wine
overpowered the dish, The dish overpowered the wine. Or food criticism: The chilies
overpowered the dish, the dish was too sweet, too salty or too fatty. These are all
criticisms of lack of balance.
So, we've talked about balance, alcohol, fermentation, climate, body in wine and richness
in food. Let's bring it all together with skim milk, whole milk and cream. Skim milk is
light-bodied wine, whole milk is medium-bodied, cream is full-bodied wine. If you have
cream in your mouth and a low protein/low fat dish, what are you going to taste? Cream.
If you have skim milk in your mouth and a big, fat steak, what
do you taste? The steak.
Just like aiming your putt to the right of the hole when the
puttinggreen is sloped down to the left in order to have a
chance at sinking your putt, you need to have the body of your
food and the body of your wine in balance to have the
opportunity for a successful pairing.
Keep in mind that there is as much art to food and wine pairing as there is a science. This
is what makes it so exciting, so exhilarating and hopefully not too often frustrating. This
first of ten and all ten wine pairing rules' are more guidelines. The danger with these is to
take each as absolute and to not open your mind to new pairing possibilities. If we all
followed religiously the old, simplified philosophy of white wine with fish and red wine
and cheese, we would have missed out on the sensational combinations of Pinot Noir and
salmon or late harvest Sauvignon Blanc and blue cheese.
But, in order to start creating your own pairings, you need to start somewhere, and
starting with full-bodied wines with rich foods will yield successful pairings immediately
where at least the wine does not overpower the food and the food is not overpowered by
the wine. Learn to consider this body factor first, then as you learn my other nine
guidelines, you can take the pairings to the next level and learn how to even break this
rule' by considering other elements in the wine and food to make a pairing work, like a
golfer putting the perfect spin and speed on the ball to compensate for a slope versus
aiming up slope.
In conclusion, like any art and any science, one must start with the classics. The Beatles
studying at Juliard, Picasso painting early realism. From their foundation of
understanding the classical rules of music and art, they were able to learn how to break
the rules successfully. But they could not have done this without starting from a solid
foundation. Consider body first, give yourself an accelerated opportunity to make your
wine taste better than it did alone and your food taste better than it did alone. Start here,
taste, experiment and grow your understanding. With learning about food and wine
pairing by tasting, the joy is truly in the journey.