Advanced wine service: wine lists, decanters, tasting notes

In the year and a half or so that I’ve been working at this current restaurant, I’ve learned a fair amount about wine. About our wine list at least. Definitely the popular wines that we sell, the stuff that we serve by the glass. Everything else, well, it’s probably from California, or near California, and if you ask me about the year, I’m pretty confident that it’s from sometime between 2009 and 2012.

decant

Around six months ago, when I really started becoming familiar with at least the basics of our wine list, I had this mistaken idea that I actually knew something about wine, like in a more general sense. I got tricked. By working day in and day out at my restaurant, I just sort of started to absorb these random wine facts. It was totally unintentional, almost like osmosis.

And so I’d be out at a restaurant and I’d hear a familiar phrase or word used to describe a wine that I kind of thought we maybe had at our restaurant, and I’d be like, wow, I’ve got this. But that false sense of knowing what I was talking about would unravel as soon as I’d look at the wine list, bottle after bottle of something that I’d never heard about, and then whoever I’d be with would see me studying the menu intently, maybe they’d throw me a wine question. I’d just have to pull something out of my ass, “Hmm, yeah, this is definitely very … oaky. Uh … dry. Yeah, classic … uh, that’s definitely a classic California … you know what? I think I’m just going to have a beer.”

I’m at the point now where I’m at least somewhat self-aware of what’s going on, that even though I don’t know much about wines, like I said, at work I can deftly maneuver our list to the point where, when mixed with my natural ability to bullshit about pretty much everything, I can at times give the impression that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to wine.

Which isn’t to say that I’m immune to occasionally showing my true colors. Like the other night, I had this party of four, and one of the guys went straight for the wine list. I saw him looking way past the typical cheap stuff, and so I got a little nervous, prepared all of my nonsense qualifiers in case I was questioned, “high acidity, very tannic, old-world style,” but he didn’t ask me about anything, he just pointed to a bottle and said, “This one.”

When I got to the computer to ring it in, I noticed the price, it was like over a hundred and fifty dollars. So I started freaking out a little, I mean, I serve wine on a nightly basis. I rarely if ever make a mistake handling the bottles, but just knowing how much this stuff cost, just imagining me having to go to my manager and be like, “OK, try not to get mad …” it was enough to put just the right amount of added pressure into the mix to make me overthink the situation, to do something unnecessary.

For some reason, I thought, OK, this is an expensive bottle of wine, I should decant it. Decanting a wine is when you pour a whole bottle into a decanter, a large wide-bottomed glass jar with a thin spout for pouring. I think that the idea is to allow the wine to react with oxygen faster, or something, I don’t really know, and I couldn’t tell you if it actually did anything besides showing off to the rest of the restaurant that you ordered a bottle of wine worth decanting.

Anyway I got to the table with this heavy glass piece in addition to the bottle and four glasses. The uncorking went smoothly enough, which, if I were going to make a huge mistake, I would have expected it to be here, the cork not coming out right, or me splashing a little as I popped it out. But it was fine.

Then I started dumping the contents into the decanter. And as soon as I did, I realized, there are four people here, that’s basically the entire bottle of wine in four glasses. Why am I decanting this? I’m pouring it into a receptacle that’s then going to be immediately emptied.

I looked at the host and said, “So, should I pour now or do you want me to let it breathe for a little while?” And he was polite, he didn’t try to make me feel bad or anything, but it was obvious that he realized just like I did that this whole process was a little awkward. “No, you can just pour.” And so I poured, four glasses, grabbed the empty bottle and the decanter and disappeared into the kitchen.

Halfway through the meal, the guy ordered a second bottle, and I knew I’d just pour straight from the bottle this time. But he didn’t leave it to chance, telling me, “and don’t worry about the decanting.”

And so yeah, like I said, he was nice. I’m probably making a bigger deal out of the whole situation than it actually was. But it was a humbling experience, a reminder that, just because I might get away with pretending to know what I’m doing ninety-five percent of the time, I need to always be prepared to confront that other five percent, those times when it’s obvious that, just because I can name three glasses of Cabernet, I really don’t know anything about wine.

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