Tag Archives: wine service

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.


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.

Intermediate to Intermediate-Advanced Wines: An Introductory Course to Bottle Service

I’ve been working at the same restaurant for maybe six months or so. I’ve written about wine before, how I didn’t know anything about wine, and then about how I had to pretend like I knew a lot about wine to get my current gig. But I’m experienced now. Everything’s different. I’ve soaked up so much wine knowledge.

Well, that’s not really true. I’ve soaked up some knowledge. A little bit. And it hasn’t really been a soaking, like a sponge. It’s more like if you imagine me to be a piece of wood, and if you kept that piece of wood submerged in a barrel of wine for six months, you’d take it out, and it definitely wouldn’t be soaked with wine, but there’d be a stain, at least the wine made some impact on the wood.

And that’s what I’m like. I’m stained with wine knowledge. But only slightly. I’ve said this before, but most people who want a glass of wine don’t really care about what wine they’re drinking. “Give me a glass of red,” or “I’ll have some Pinot,” whatever that means. But every once in a while I’ll have some customers that sit down and really start mulling over our wine list. When this happens it’s my cue to stand up a little straighter and do my best to pretend like I know what I’m talking about.

At this point, you should know that if you’re sitting at one of my tables and looking past the wines that we sell by the glass, you already know more about wine than I do. In fact, asking me a question is only going to prompt me to make something up, to sound convincing, and so I’ll be doing you a disservice, doing the wine a disservice, because I’ll say whatever garbage I concoct with the utmost confidence.

Worst-case scenario, I’ll get called out on my mistake, which is easy enough to correct. I just start using my really contrite voice, contrite but equally confident, “I’m so sorry sir/ma’am. I don’t know why I said that. I apologize for my mistake.” Best-case scenario, look, I like wine and everything, but seriously, who is going to go to a restaurant, order a bottle of wine, and then call out the waiter for not knowing what he’s talking about?

One time I had this couple ordering by the bottle. I always get nervous because somebody might order the wine based on the location, like “We’ll take a bottle of the Russian River Valley,” and I’ll try to lean down and squint to where the customer is looking, without appearing too obvious, and I’ll say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Can you repeat that?” and then after they repeat it I’ll say, “Excellent choice,” before running to the kitchen with my own menu, hoping that I can piece together what they were trying to get at.

Anyway, at this table ordering the bottles, the guy kept asking me way too many questions. “What vintage is this Cabernet?” and I seriously had no clue. But I didn’t want to be like, “Let me check that out for you sir,” because then he would have lost all confidence in my knowledge of wines. Which, to be fair, if he had any confidence in my wine knowledge, it was totally unwarranted, and as a paying customer, he should have access to whatever information he wants to know.

“2008,” I told him, totally pulling a random number out of my ass. Come on. The guy’s sitting there with a menu of our wines. Don’t you have an iPhone? Just do a quick two-minute Google search and you can probably find volumes written about whatever bottles we have. It’s like when a tourist asks me for directions to some landmark in the city, I just want to be like, “Don’t you have a phone? Just look it up. What do you think I’m out visiting the Statue of Liberty every weekend?”

I have a firm policy against writing the phrase, “But I digress,” but that’s exactly how I would have started this paragraph if that firm policy weren’t in place. The guy wound up ordering that 2008 bottle of wine. Shit. I hoped he didn’t order that bottle specifically because of the year. I went to the wine closet, found the bottle he was looking for. 2009. Huh. That’s pretty close actually, not bad for just making up a random number. I brought the bottle to the table, showed it off. Should I have said something? About that whole 2008/2009 thing? Maybe. But I didn’t. Not right away anyway. I opened it for him, he didn’t object. About halfway through the meal I went over to see how everything was going and I said, “Huh, I thought that was a 2008. We must have received a new vintage.” The guy nodded. He probably knew I was full of shit.

I’ll conclude with another random wine anecdote. If I’m doing bottle service, I always pour only the first glass, and then I leave my customers alone. A lot of the other waiters and waitresses will be constantly refilling their guests’ glasses, almost after every sip. If I’m ever called out on this I just say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t want you to feel rushed.” But really I just hate pouring the wine, because there’s always that little drip down the side of the bottle, and a lot of the time I forget to carry around an extra linen, and so, what, I’m going to just let it get on the table? Maybe stain their clothes? No, just have at it, because I’m not coming back. Cheers.