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How to accept a bottle of wine at the table

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Wine doesn't need to be mysterious, but it often is. Wine culture goes out of its way to surround itself with rituals and pomp at every turn. In the right situation this can add to the experience of enjoying a bottle of good wine, but often it just serves to make us feel like we don't know what's going on. Few situations are as simple yet intimidating as ordering and accepting a bottle of wine at a nice restaurant. Understanding what's expected of you is all that's needed to make it a fast, and painless process, however.

First of all, understand that this should be a relatively quick process. If nothing is wrong with the wine, it should take only a few seconds. Those who know wine spend a minimum of time with the various checkpoints along the way, because most problems or flaws are readily apparent, and don't require any time to recognize. It is only those who are inexperienced, or trying to show off for the waiter or their friends, who spend an inordinate amount of time before allowing the wine to be served.

So, you're at a restaurant, and you've ordered a bottle of wine for the table. As the person who ordered the wine, you will be expected to check the wine to make sure everything is as it should be. If you happen to be dining with a wine expert, it is acceptable to ask the waiter or sommelier to present the wine to them, but generally it will be you.

The waiter or sommelier (wine expert) will bring the wine to the table. They will first present the bottle to you. This is simply so you can make sure it is in fact the wine you ordered. Check the name, check the varietal (if it's a New World wine), and check the vintage. Most restaurants shift vintages regularly, and nicer restaurants may have enormous cellars, so it's not uncommon for the wrong year to be grabbed by accident. If that's the case, simply mention to the waiter that you ordered a different vintage, and ask if they still have that vintage available. If everything on the label is correct, a simple nod should suffice for the waiter to move on to the next step.

They will next uncork the bottle and place the cork in front of you on the table. While most people believe this is to check for 'cork taint', the ritual in fact dates back to an era when unscrupulous importers would fill empty bottles of valuable wine with cheaper wines, and recork them with corks from other bottles (as the original corks had expanded). Checking the cork allowed customers to make sure the winery and vintage on the cork matched that on the wine. Since no one does this anymore (and most bottles are covered with a foil to prevent this anyway), checking the cork is mostly a matter of ritual. Unless you know exactly what you're looking for, examining the cork will tell you nothing – a wet consistency can be normal, crystals can be normal, and all corks smell predominantly like cork, even if they are tainted. Whatever you do, don't sniff the cork – this is a sure sign of an amateur. You can either nod to the waiter again, or simply wait, and they will continue.

The final step is tasting the wine. The waiter or sommelier will pour a small taste in your glass. Lift the glass, smell the wine quickly, and take a quick taste if you wish. The point of this is not to decide whether or not you like the wine – so don't bother swirling the wine, or spending time tasting it in depth. All you're tasting for is a flaw in the wine – this may be cork taint, which manifests as a smell like rotting cardboard, or a number of other flaws which can manifest as a total lack of flavor, a strong coppery taste, or others. Generally, if there isn't an obvious flaw you recognize, at this point you should accept the wine – again, a simple nod or affirmation that it is good will suffice. The waiter will then proceed to pour the wine around the table, finishing with you.

 

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