The Wine Schmooze: How to test that bottle of wine

wine serverAh, the ever solemn, oft confusing restaurant ceremony of “tasting” a bottle of wine. Centuries of custom and formality have twisted it into a byproduct of wine snobbery, but it’s really a necessary quality-control exercise. I call it the “Wine Schmooze” since it’s a dance between you and the server. We all know there’s not exactly a training class in high school or college that teaches you the machinations of the ritual, so it can be intimidating. But knowing the reasoning behind the apparent madness helps understand the necessity.

Wine schmoozing involves a series of steps and a couple of loose rules. The first rule says the person who ordered the bottle should test it. After ordering, the server will bring the bottle to your table and present the label. This is to make sure you have wine you ordered. Next, the cork is put in front of you, not to sniff (it smells just like wet cork) but so that you can inspect it for mold, cracks and wetness. A good cork should be moist 1/4 to 1/2 of the way down and be free of mold — although in very old bottles this is bound to happen and isn’t really a flaw unless the wine tastes like mold. If the cork is cracked or crumbly, then the bottle has probably been badly stocked and perhaps has been contaminated with oxygen, but that doesn’t mean the wine is ruined. I can’t wait for screwtops to invade the mainstream so we don’t have to worry about this anymore.

Since wine is an organic product, it is susceptible to degradation. You detect damage when the server pours one ounce into your glass. While the server waits, give the wine a swirl to release the aromas, sniff and taste the wine. If it’s at all funky smelling or tasting, ask for someone else at the table to taste it and assess whether the off-taste is the wine or the aftertaste from that funky cheese you just munched.

If it smells like mold, rotten eggs or vinegar, then ask your server to taste it as well. Etiquette has it that if the customer thinks the wine is bad, then the restaurant should take it back, but some restaurants have a sommelier who will also chime in. I’ve sent back several bottles in my career and never had a problem.

Keep in mind that receiving a wine that doesn’t suit your taste doesn’t mean you can send it back. Most restaurants have send-back policies with wines by the glass, but the cost of a bottle is too high to justify taking a bottle back on a taste whim. Be certain the wine is spoiled before you go down that road.

If everything’s a go, tell the server you’re pleased and he or she will begin pouring for the table. The traditional order of pouring is ladies first, then men, then the person who ordered the wine. If the server fills your glass more than half full, speak up since wine should be swirled before each sip and it’ll runneth over if the glass is slam full.

At upscale restaurants, it’s the server’s job to keep the glasses filled, but if your server falls down on the job, it’s perfectly acceptable to jump in and do the duty.

The final step is my favorite, when you make the toast: Prost, Sante, Salud, Salut, Cheers!



  1. I have been working as a somellier for around ten years first in Australia, then in california and now in Britain, I agree that smelling the cork in front of the guest is unsightly but then in most good restaurants the wine is presented then opened away from the table to allow other servers to continue service and the guests to continue their converstaion. I always smell the cork when I open a bottle of wine because cork taint will be immediatley apparent there when sometimes it is masked on the nose or palate, it is an extra check that I would say is quite important as I would never wish to serve a guest an unclean wine.
    I write this letter more in doubt of myself than any critisism however I know I can always improve and look frward to your thoughts.

  2. Steven,

    My how things are different here! I suppose Americans are inherently distrusting since our servers open the verified bottle at the table. Yes, it’s awkward and borderline intrusive but we know we’re tasting the bottle we bought. I’ve seen some sommeliers smelling the cork at the table, merely brushing it past their nose after opening. So it’s definitely done. But I, for one, am rarely able to detect cork taint from the cork itself, preferring to smell the wine instead to get the full, fabulous bouquet of wet dog (I jest). But obviously, that can’t be done at the table in front of a customer.

    I think if you’ve got the skills to decipher cork taint by smelling the cork, then go ahead and sniff away.


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