Service of Wine: Protocol & Practice

September 17th, 2015

Categories: Restaurant, Retail, Wine

Wine expert Lettie Teague covered “7 Habits of Annoying Wine People, Readers’ Edition,” in The Wall Street Journal. [She’d written about her own peeves in an earlier article.] I agreed with some of the grievances and was curious about others.

Like her readers I also am irritated when given harsh tasting house wine by-the-glass, reminiscent of nail polish remover, when a restaurant has countless toothsome low-priced choices to pick from these days. At fundraisers wine often tastes atrocious, equally unacceptable for the same reason.

Readers told Teague they’d been served fabulous, expensive wine in crummy glasses which spoiled the impact and taste of the vintage. This hasn’t happened to me.

They were understandably perturbed when they’d bought a wine touted on a card in a store by “critics [who] rated [a wine] 95 out of 100 points only to find that it’s not the actual wine they were rating.” I don’t buy wines of this caliber so have missed the bait-and-switch, as Teague called this blunder, in which the copy about the top-rated, promoted wine applies to the previous year’s vintage, not the bottle on the shelf.

Her readers complained that too many sommeliers automatically hand the wine list to a man when they should ask who, at the table, would like to order it. When Teague chooses the wine, the server regularly gives the first taste to her husband. Her pique increases when her husband actually tastes it!

She also wrote about extravagant corkage fees: “As many as 80% of the restaurants in New Jersey don’t have liquor licenses, due to the state’s antiquated liquor laws. Most observe a bring-your-own-bottle policy, and legally, they aren’t allowed to charge a corkage fee.” But they can in Manhattan where Teague has seen them as high as $150 at Per Se, but generally, she wrote, they range between $35 and $50. She reported that restaurants like Le Bernadin don’t permit visiting wines at any price.

I go back and forth on the next situation though from a slightly different perspective. Teague asks: “As a guest, if you bring along a nice bottle, shouldn’t you expect to be served something as good in return?” I ask: “Should you serve a wine a friend brings?” My husband collected wine over the years. Today, some bottles are a rare treat. He opens a special bottle just before guests arrive so the wine has time to breathe. At the same time, we want to honor a gift.

Teague continued, “Some might argue that a guest should not expect to drink the bottle he or she brings, with which I agree in principle, although this doesn’t make it any less painful to trade a lovely Grand Cru Chablis for a bottle of $10 Concha y Toro Chardonnay.” A friend of hers brought chilled Champagne in an ice bucket expecting the host to take the hint and open it but instead he put away the bubbly and that was that.

Like Teague I was surprised by the complaint about staff in wine tasting rooms wearing strong perfume. I don’t care for powerful scents anywhere—in an office, plane or meeting room—and especially not near food or wine. It gives me a headache. I love freesia but would never use them in a centerpiece as the sweet scent can overpower food and bother some guests.

Do you have other wine-related likes and dislikes? Do you agree/disagree with those of the Journal’s readers?

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6 Responses to “Service of Wine: Protocol & Practice”

  1. hb Said:

    Interesting. I’d be offended if the sommelier did not hand the wine list to me first, unless she was my hostess.

    Corkage fees are legitimate. Profits from wine sales are often what keeps good restaurants afloat. They may even lose money if you don’t buy a bottle with your meal.

    All wines benefit from being properly stored, being allowed to breathe and served at the right temperature, but elaborate wine service, being given a plastic cork to smell for example, is embarrassing overkill for at least 90% of all the wines served in most restaurants. However, it is entirely appropriate, and adds to the theatre of the occasion, if you are drinking a 1961 Petrus as my wife and I did a few years back at the old Lutece.

    My pet peeve is composite and plastic corks. They are a pain in the neck to get out of a bottle. Again, at least 90% of all the wines served in most restaurants would do perfectly well with screw tops. Corks, which have become increasingly in short supply, should be used only with wines which are likely to benefit from the extra expense.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    To respond to your comments in order, how would the waiter know who the hostess or host is without asking–which in a way is covered when a sommelier or waiter asks who is selecting the wine as suggested by the readers. When I treat my husband, I’m happy to pay for the wine but because he so enjoys selecting it and more important, knows so much more about it, I welcome his input and his getting the first taste—as well as the theoretical bit of cork that might have fallen in the bottle.

    I have also heard that wine and liquor sales save many restaurants. If someone orders a few drinks instead of wine, that would also help support a place.

    You actually added two significant peeves: Wait staff being supercilious in serving a wine with a faux cork and the fact of the plastic corks to begin with. I have not studied whether a wine tastes better with any kind of stopper vs. none, i.e. when there’s a screw top. Removing a cork or cork-like stopper makes a wine seem more important to me—-it’s a part of the romance. Opening a bottle with a screw top reminds me of opening a bottle of soda. It just doesn’t feel the same.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Sounds like a tempest in a teapot – or perhaps a vineyard. Local liquor stores periodically hold wine tasting events, and since the wine is free what’s the fuss about? It’s not in the hosts interest to serve lousy wine since the idea is to attract buyers, not chase them off! Not everyone likes the same thing, so what tastes bad to one person might be just what another is looking for.
    I have yet to hear of anyone being dragged kicking and screaming to a freebie, so there’s not a drop of sympathy from this quarter. So someone doesn’t like the glass, and lets it interfere with the enjoyment of its contents? Tough! Who cares?

    There are differing ideas about bringing wine as a gift, so let’s make it simple. A gift is just that, and is to be enjoyed at the leisure of the recipient. Any objections?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    OR a tempest in a wine glass!

    I haven’t been to a vineyard in quite a while but am pretty sure some charge for the tastings–though the cost may come off the wine you buy. I think that the complaints were about these, not the tastings in stores, though wherever the tasting, someone’s heavy perfume would spoil it for me even if I wasn’t sipping a thing.

    As for the jelly glasses or other thick goblets that spoil an expensive wine, I think those bothered were paying $mucho for food and wine in a restaurant. It would seem strange to me for a high end restaurant not to have appropriate plates, glasses and tableware…but I guess it happens or there would be no complaints. More often, I’m pleased by the attractive glasses in which I’m served wine and as noted in the post, I’ve not run into the opposite.

  5. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: All good pet peeves…although one caveat: when we invite people to a formal dinner, we usually plan out the courses and select appropriate matching wines. If a guest brings a bottle, we may or may not serve it, depending on if it goes with a particular dish or not. So, it really is “food-specific.”

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your [fortunate] repeat guests must know what you do. Some generous friends of ours bring a white and a red to cover all bases–and they don’t drink. If we finish what my husband has opened, we often will open a gift. I like to serve red wine with turkey at Thanksgiving, which would make some people swoon–and who could guess? I have white at the ready as some people can’t tolerate red.

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