Rules for Service of Wine
There are few rules about this, but those that should be observed are intended to give maximum enjoyment of wine to drinkers – they are not just chi-chi.
For table wines that are not to be decanted, the bottle should be standing upright – ideally some time in advance in the dining-room for red wines – and the capsule, or part of it, should be removed so as to expose the cork. If you do not wish to take this off completely, be sure to cut around it below the lip of the bottle so that, when you remove the top of the capsule, the bottle’s lip is quite clear of any fragment of capsule. This ensures that when the wine is poured there is no risk of any contact with the metal or plastic capsule which could affect its taste. (Some people find this unbelievable – but is it worth risking an expensive bottle if somebody who really may be sensitive to wine finds it metallic or ‘off in some way? A metal capsule can taint the wine poured over it – even if you can’t tell, one of your guests may be able to do so.) The exposed top of the cork and lipof the bottle should be wiped clean of any dust or deposit; if the cork seems moist or sticky there is no need to be concerned, but it should be cleaned. The corkscrew should then be inserted and the cork extracted, gently and without jerking or haste, in a long slow pull. When the cork is out, the inside of the bottle neck should also be wiped, to make sure that no pieces of cork fall into the wine (though if they do, it is no great matter, as the first sample should be poured into the host’s glass, precisely for this reason). Then the wine should be poured, in a steady stream, without splashing if possible as this may aerate an old wine too much.
If people are particularly interested in wine, the cork should be available for inspection – with older wines it can be fascinating to see how much or how far up the staining from the wine will have soaked. Sometimes people secure the cork to the bottle with a rubber band or, if a wine is decanted, they affix this to the neck of the decanter; there are even cork holders, which consist of a pair of pins or prongs on a short chain, which can be used to fasten the cork to the decanter. The cork is sometimes put into the cradle where it can wedge the bottle more securely than is usually possible, but my opinion that the wine cradle has no more place on a civilised dining-table than the chamber-pot has underneath it, will convince the reader who has studied the correct use of the cradle that the cork need not add to the presence of this object among the tableware. The skilled person can, with a little practise, so cut the capsule that it forms a holder for the cork: to do this, cut off the top part or ‘lid’, then cut nearly all the way round just below the bottle’s lip, peel back the band that is thus made and stick the cork into this – it looks pleasant and is not difficult to do with a metal capsule, but a plastic capsule (which has to be cut off or wrenched off) and a bottle sealed by dipping the cork in wax (which has to be tapped off with a knife) cannot be cut in this way.
Always serve even a cheap bottle of wine correctly – you may find it surprisingly good simply because you have taken a little extra trouble.
IN THE RESTAURANT
The educated wine waiter should have been instructed in the service of wine. Essentially, he follows the procedure as outlined above, but with a few additions: he should present the bottle to whoever has ordered it before drawing the cork. Not only may the vintage or supplier of the wine be different from that on the wine list, but the actual wine may have got into a different wine bin. So it is necessary for the person ordering the wine to approve that a particular bottle is the one he has ordered. With a white wine, he may also put his hand on the bottle to see whether it is cold or merely cool so that he can decide as to whether it requires a further period in the ice bucket or whether some may be poured at once.
The cork should be drawn while the person who has ordered the wine is looking on. For reasons of space, this must sometimes take place at the table, but ideally it should be on a side table or trolley brought up specifically for the purpose. But the person paying for the wine must see the cork drawn, unless, of course, he has ordered it to be opened and possibly decanted some time ahead of drinking – in such instances he has confidence that the wine waiter will handle the bottle correctly. The bad old days when any cheap wine might be put into a bottle bearing a famous label – its cork shown separately and ostentatiously to the customer – are in the past but…. It is as well to watch the handling of something for which you have paid a fair sum. This naturally applies to any decanting. If the eating-place insists on the use of the wine cradle, it is up to the diner as to whether he asks for this to be removed and the bottle stood up on the table; some advocate this, but there is obviously no point in making matters difficult for a harassed wine waiter who has the management’s instructions which he must follow. Better, perhaps, to write later, deploring the use of the cradle and address your comment to the managing director of the establishment.
The host has a small sample of the wine poured into his glass to approve before it is served to other diners. This is so that he may get any ‘bits’ that come out with the first pouring, also so that he may judge whether the wine is in good condition, as well as whether it is at the temperature he prefers. Some people like their red wines served virtually luke-warm and if they insist on this (instead of gently bringing up the temperature by cuddling the wine in their glass or even putting their hands round the bottle), then the wine waiter may be told to ‘do something about it’. This may well mean that he disappears and, by the time people have almost finished eating, returns with a bottle that has been plunged into hot water or virtually scorched over a stove. Anyone who behaves in this way is unlikely to be a real lover of wine and deserves all that comes to him, and so my sympathy is with the waiter.
But, as regards the wine’s condition, it is fair to say that very often the ‘bottle stink’ of the little bit of stale air in the bottle under the cork may create an unfavourable impression when the wine is first poured – so swing it about vigourously in the glass and do not be in a hurry to accept or reject. This, of course, is not easy in a busy restaurant, but since on several occasions a truly corked wine has not been immediately noticed by even the experienced, the only thing to do is taste in as leisurely a way as practicable. Unless a wine really stinks from the first sniff or, possibly more sinisterly, has no smell at all (this, to me, is often the indication of corkiness), then it is fair to request the wine to be poured and see what other people say. Faults may be evident by the time the bottle has gone round.
THE ORDER OF POURING
The order of pouring wine in the home or around a restaurant table is for the guest on the host’s right to be served first. After that, in a mixed company, it rather depends on the wine waiter as to whether all the women are served first, or whether he simply goes round the table. I have known scrupulous and traditional wine waiters ask me whether I should be served before or after my guests – when these might all be men! Personally, I think that it is simplest to serve people round the table. If you are enjoying the hospitality of a rather grand private house, where there may be several people dipensing the wine, then it is easy for the women to be served before the men. But the host – male or female – always gets the first sample to approve.
The timing of the service of wines is important but it is fair to say that in a restaurant you must watch this. If, when people have ordered food and wines prior to going to the table, they find that no wine is available when they eventually sit down, it is sense to ask for it and not to start eating until you get it. Otherwise, if staff see you eating away, they may think all is well – and this is when people get their Mosel with the roast and their claret with their ice-cream; the order may simply have got delayed. I do not necessarily recommend following the example of one wine trade friend who, if the wine were not ready to serve when he sat down in a restaurant, would insist on the entire table (not just the food) being cleared away and only permit it to be re-laid when the wine was presented! But he had the right idea. If, of course, the wine waiter takes your order in the bar, then he may present the bottle of the first wine to you there. But it is up to you to say what you want and be definite as to when you want it.
THE SECOND BOTTLE
If the host orders a second bottle of a wine previously approved by him, then he should be given a clean glass and taste the second bottle just as he did the first one. Until he has done this, the second bottle should not be poured. If it is faulty, and is poured, then the contents of the glasses around the table may be spoiled. I have seen two corked bottles be presented in succession, so it is worth while avoiding this. For each bottle, another glass and another sampling.
Of course if a bottle seems to be defective, the wine waiter should also try it – an experienced waiter will know if a query is justified but, in a good restaurant, ‘the customer is always right’ and the bottle should be replaced without a charge being made. A faulty bottle can be returned to the supplier, so no one loses. The incidence of really faulty bottles is so small that anyone finding something unpleasant about a wine should ask themselves if it is really the wine – or themselves. Anyone who has been drinking spirits, eating piquant or very acid food or snacks may be disappointed in even a fine and impeccable wine, so be careful before you reject a bottle. It is also worth smelling an empty glass before you do so: glasses wiped with a greasy or detergent-redolent cloth or insufficiently rinsed clear of any detergent, will make the finest wine in the world stink unpleasantly. Many wines are rejected because of smelly glasses or simply because the drinker does not like the contents.
A napkin should always be used to cover the bottle, providing a good grip and protecting the hand in case the bottle splits. Here, however, for clarity, the process is shown without the napkin.
Untwine the wire loop securing the muzzle underneath the capsule – this is usually to be done anti-clockwise. From this instant on, never leave go of the cork.
Holding the bottle firmly, turn the bottle (if you turn the cork, you risk breaking off the top of the ‘mushroom ) while holding the bottle at a slight angle and not pointing it at anyone or anything breakable. When the cork begins to move, continue to hold it until it emerges with a discreet, fat sound and is received into your hand, not flying.
Have a glass ready to take the first rush of bubbles but, if the wine is extra lively and threatens to foam down the side of the bottle, give the top of the bottle a brief pat with the palm of your hand, which will prevent any loss of the wine.
If the cork refuses to budge, run hot water on to the neck of the bottle just below the cork for a few seconds. Hang on to the cork so that it does not fly out.