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Picture this: you’re in a crowded restaurant on a Friday evening (post-pandemic). You’re surrounded by good friends, and everyone is in high spirits. You decide to order a couple of bottles of wine for the table.
Great wine service starts before you decide to order a bottle. You’ve given your server a chance to display their knowledge. They suggest a glass based on your entrée or ask about the flavor notes you prefer. When you order, they prepare the table for wine service. As a customer, you might barely notice the server’s efforts, but that subtlety makes the experience all the more elegant.
The subtleties of wine service can elevate any dining experience. Customers might not expect world-class wine service at a casual, family restaurant but formal dining rooms will be measured, in part, by their ability to properly serve wine.
Every restaurant server can learn to serve wine like a fine dining pro, and use those skills to dazzle every customer, turn them into regulars, and help bring in more tips.
Looking to refresh your bar menu, or make a new one from scratch? Check out these tips and examples to bring your ideas to life.
When opening a new restaurant, starting a job where you’re expected to serve wine, or learning about wine as a hobby, there are a few basic facts of winemaking that are important to know.
Wine is, of course, made from grapes. The kind of grapes that are used to make the wine determine the name of the wine. For instance, merlot is made from dark-blue merlot wine grapes which were first cultivated on the banks of Bordeaux in France. If a wine is blended, the percentage of each grape in the wine is usually listed on the bottle.
There are two basic processes in winemaking: 1) growing and picking and 2) fermentation. For thousands of years, people have been using fermentation to turn grapes into wine, and there are hundreds of methods that are used in the process. Increasingly, “natural wines” have been growing in popularity and you can read all about the debate surrounding that category.
Some Key Wine Terms and Information:
Tannins – the chemical compounds in grapes that are detectable by our olfactory senses, taste, and smell, are called tannins. The same compound is responsible for the taste of coffee.
Dry – tannins are responsible for the “dry” mouthfeel of wine and dryness refers to the scale of tannins in wines. Higher tannin content makes a dryer wine.
Sweet – sweetness is determined by how much sugar, whether natural or added, is in a wine.
Tannins are contained in the skin of the wine. Red wines are dryer because they have more tannins, whereas white wines are sweeter because green grapes naturally have more sugar.
Some wines are named for the region in which the grapes were grown, such as champagne. Sparkling wines are either carbonated in the bottle during fermentation or through forced carbonation after fermentation is complete.
How to Serve Wine
While we won’t be as in-depth here as the wine service standards of the Court of Master Sommeliers, we’ll start with an overview of wine service that can elevate the experience in any restaurant.
Cracking a bottle at home or during service and just need to know how to operate that corkscrew you’re wielding? You can skip ahead to the how-tos for wine tools below.
What Equipment Do You Need to Serve Wine?
An updated wine list, polished glassware, and all the other equipment for proper wine service should be ready to go at the start of service each shift. That might include chillers for white and sparkling wines, corkscrews, glasses of various sizes and shapes, and linen napkins.
Lots of restaurants with wine service have a glass steamer or, otherwise, have their service staff polish glasses by hand. Clean linen is the best for polishing glassware.
If you’re making wine a priority in your restaurant kitchen – or even your home kitchen – wine storage is a good investment. All different kinds of wine should be stored and served at precise temperatures to preserve their flavor.
When you receive wine at your restaurant or get it back to your home, store it at a constant temperature of 10-13 ̊ C or 50-55 ̊ F. It’s best to store wine lying down so that the wine stays in contact with the cork to keep it intact and not dried out — to keep oxygen out and to make the opening process easier.
Where Not to Store Wine
Avoid storing wine in pantries or kitchens where smells could seep through the corks, in direct light, or excessive heat.
And if you’re serving individual glasses behind a bar, use a cork that will allow you to pump the extra air out of wine bottles at the end of the night so that you can preserve the freshness of open bottles for a day or two.
Standards of Proper Wine Service
Certain traditions and rituals accompany the service of all types of wine. Of course, you can select the steps of service that are best for the level of formality in your dining room.
Prepare your servers and bartenders to be ready to talk about your wine list. Customers might ask about origins, blend types, and flavor notes. Staff wine tastings or tastings during training are a great way to educate your servers and have a little fun after a shift.
The level of wine service that you want your servers to perform should be clearly communicated. Tell your servers where to place wine glasses on the table, how to position bottles and chillers, and how many steps of service they should observe.
These are the highlights of proper wine service – find the most detailed guide to proper wine service here, from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
- As a server, ask each table if they’ve looked at the wine list. You might even incentivize your servers to sell certain high-profit glasses and bottles.
- Be ready to provide suggestions based on each course guests have ordered and use the menu as a guide to the age of each wine.
- Describe the flavor notes of wines for guests if you’re familiar with them. Remember to ask guests what flavor notes they prefer or want to avoid.
- Set wine glasses on the right side of each guest if they’re not already on the table. Traditionally, the wine glass is set between the guest and their water glass.
- Then, retrieve the bottle, a linen cloth, and your corkscrew. You’ll present the bottle to the person who ordered it using your forearm, say the name of the wine and the year, have them confirm it’s the bottle they ordered, and then proceed to open it with your server’s wine key.
- Be very careful not to break the cork, and offer it to the person who ordered the bottle or leave it on the table.
- Ask that person if they want to taste the bottle before you pour. You might be able to tell if the wine is corked (or gone bad) if you smell it while you pour. Don’t let guests drink bad wine if you can avoid it.
- Wipe the top of the bottle before you begin to pour. Each bottle contains about four glasses – practice pouring with water so that you know how to pour a fourth of a bottle into each glass, about 6oz. Lift the mouth and twist the bottle slightly as you stop pouring to avoid dripping any wine.
- Place the bottle in the center of the table near the guest who ordered it if there is any wine left after you’ve poured. Leave the cork so that the bottle can be sealed if it isn’t finished. Some restaurants have bags to seal wine for carryout depending on state and local law.
How to Use a Corkscrew
Using a corkscrew or wine key is standard practice in the service industry, but at home you might have a wing corkscrew or an electric corkscrew – find out how to use those bottle openers below.
To use a wine key for proper wine service:
- Keep the bottle’s label facing the customer throughout service.
- The foil cutter is the small knife at the back of the tool. Using your thumb, guide the cutter around the bottle just under the lip on the neck. Then, cut the foil up toward the mouth of the bottle to score it.
- Tear the foil along your cut in one motion and put it in your apron – not on the table.
- Use your index finger to guide the corkscrew into the center of the cork and firmly screw it in until about ¼ in of the corkscrew is left out of the cork.
- Most wine keys have a notched lever mechanism. Use that to pry the cork from the bottle. Be careful not to do this with too much force or too quickly. Corks in older bottles of wine can be especially fragile.
- Then, you’ll have to pull the cork out of the bottle. Pull it slowly and directly from the bottle – I like to make my arm into a right angle to pull the cork straight from the bottle with a little force as necessary. You might have to wiggle the fork a bit to get it free but, again, be careful not to break the cork.
- Serve the wine to the guest using the proper steps of service.
How to Use a Wine Bottle Opener
Winged corkscrews and electric bottle openers simplify the process, but they are less delicate on sometimes fragile corks. When at home, use a corkscrew if you’re opening a particularly old or valuable bottle to have the most control over the process.
Electric corkscrews will do the job for you. Just place them on the bottle and press the start button.
To use a winged corkscrew:
- Use a small knife or your fingers to tear the foil off the top of the bottle.
- Firmly guide the corkscrew into the middle of the cork using your index finger, twisting the top of the corkscrew and stopping before the corkscrew is completely in the cork. The wings will fly up as you do this.
- Use even pressure to depress the wings and pry the cork from the bottle.
- You might have to wiggle the cork out for the final few centimeters but be careful not to break the cork off in the mouth of the bottle.
How to Open a Champagne Bottle
Since champagne and other sparkling wines are corked under pressure, opening them is a unique challenge.
To uncork champagne or sparkling wine:
- Never point the cork at your face, or anyone else’s, while uncorking champagne. Corks are under a lot of pressure and, if the cork pops out, it could be seriously damaging.
- Place your thumb on the top of the cork while you unwind the wire cage.
- Remove the cage when it is loose enough, being careful not to let the cork pop out.
- Hold your hand over the cork and wiggle it lightly so it loosens. The pressure in the bottle should push the cork out as it loosens.
- Keep control of the cork so that the pressure in the bottle can’t build and the wine won’t fizz up out of the bottle as you uncork it.
How to Serve Red Wine
Red wine is meant to be served at 15-18 ̊ C or 58-64 ̊ F. Sometimes that range is called room temperature, but dining rooms tend to be a bit warmer than that. Your guests might request a decanter to let a red wine “breathe.” This allows the tannins to oxidize in reaction with the oxygen in the atmosphere. After a wine “breathes” it tastes more mellow.
How to Serve White Wine
Serve heavier white wines at 10-13 ̊C or 50-55 ̊F and lighter white wines from 7-10 ̊C or 44-50 ̊F. White wine should be chilled to the proper temperature before serving and should remain that temperature, with the use of an ice bucket or stainless chiller, during service.
How to Serve Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine and champagne are served even colder, from 6-10 ̊C or 48-50 ̊F. A chiller or ice bucket on the table is typically used to keep champagne cold throughout service. Unlike with corked or Stelvin (screw-top) bottles, most champagne bottles can’t be resealed.
Does Wine Go Bad?
The short answer is yes. After opening, a bottle of wine is generally only as tasty as it once was for 1-2 days, and that’s if you use a high-quality wine bottle resealing cork that lets you pump out excess air.
What is Corked Wine?
In short, it’s wine that’s been tainted by a chemical compound that is sometimes found in corks (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which contaminates wine and can contaminate an entire wine cellar. Many wineries have stopped bleaching corks to stop the compound from forming in the first place.
Corked wine will have a smell and taste like wet cardboard. While the compound is not harmful to humans and the wine is safe to drink, the valuable taste of the wine is tainted.
As a server or bar manager, it’s good to be familiar with the smell and taste of corked wine so that you don’t accidentally serve a corked bottle to your guests. When guests order a bottle, they might ask you to smell if it is corked before tasting it.