Dear Salty: I like wine, but I’m no expert. Somehow though, I always get stuck being the one to order wine for my group, so naturally the server presents me the bottle and the small splash to taste. I always give it the sniff and swirl and nod that it’s fine, because I don’t know what else to do. Do people actually send bottles back after this? What should I be tasting for?
This is sort of an odd little ritual, isn’t it? It’s not like the server brings you out a tiny bowl of the soup du jour to taste before committing, right? But the wine presentation/sniffing/tasting ritual evolved because some wines can go bad in storage, and the staff is presenting you a cellared bottle so you can confirm it’s still good.
In actuality, unless you’re ordering really pricey vintages, you’re probably not going to get served a corked or flawed wine. But it’s still important to pay attention during the wine presentation.
First, make sure you actually look at the label when the server presents it. Some restaurants might list one vintage of a wine on their menu—a pricey 2005 something-or-other—and then try to serve you a different year. Maybe they’re not trying to be sneaky, but they just ran out of something and haven’t updated their wine list. (Then again, maybe they’re trying to be sneaky.) Or the server was in a rush and grabbed the wrong wine from the next bin over, or something—it’s hard to believe, but we are only human. In this case, you can point it out right away and either pick another wine or ask the server to bring over the correct bottle.
Once you’ve got the right bottle, watch the server open it and pour a splash into your glass. Unless you’ve ordered a really old bottle, the cork shouldn’t crumble or fall apart. It should also not be moldy (shudder). And again, unless it’s a really old bottle, you shouldn’t see any sediment or floaty bits in your glass—that could be a sign of trouble.
Finally, give the glass a swirl and a sniff, but please hold off on the deep inhalation and theatrics—we know you’re no master sommelier. Trust your gut: If you smell something off-putting or that you really don’t think should be there, speak up. You really only get one shot to send your wine back, and this is it. Once you drank it, you bought it, sweet cheeks. Red flags here include wine that tastes like nail polish, gross basement, old socks, your ex-boyfriend’s wet dog, or vinegar. Send that shit back. You can’t send a wine back for not being your favorite, but you can send it back if it’s undrinkable. If you’re really unsure whether something tastes okay, ask someone else at your table to take a sip.
If you do want to send it back, explain to the server exactly why: “This tastes like ass” isn’t a helpful remark. Explain that it’s corked, or moldy, or has gone to vinegar. If all is well, congratulations. Tell the server verbally “it’s good, thanks” and let them pour it for the rest of the table. Simple as that.
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