Wine etiquette has changed drastically over the years, just as the profile of drinkers has changed. Gone are the days of stuffy sommeliers wielding crystal stemware in suits and ties. Instead, a new generation of tattooed, Converse-wearing wine directors has emerged, bringing a fresh breath of air into the restaurant world, and blurring the lines between what's acceptable and what's not when it comes to consuming wine when dining out. This relaxation of the rules has generated lots of questions from diners who aren't quite sure what's cool and what's a complete faux pas when it comes to sniffing corks, bringing your own bottle or sending wine back.
In an effort to set things straight, here's a selection of frequently asked questions that pertain to wine etiquette, particularly as it applies to drinking wine in restaurants. This is the first in a series of posts about wine etiquette, so keep an eye out for other posts that tackle etiquette questions related to wine tastings, dinner parties and more.
At a restaurant, when is it acceptable to send wine back? What should I do if I just don't like my wine?
You should absolutely send your wine back if it has any obvious and detectable flaws such as cork taint, oxidation or reduction. In layman's terms, if you smell anything that resembles wet, musky cardboard, Band-Aid, wet dog (sounds strange, but when you smell it, you'll know it), vinegar, burnt tire or a sherry-like nuttiness when the wine in question is definitively not a sherry, send that bad boy back!
If the wine you ordered is in perfect condition but simply not what you had in mind, the restaurant may not take it back. Restaurants that are big on customer service and are intent on building personal relationships with their patrons may exchange a bottle in an effort to secure your loyalty, but the best way to avoid this predicament is to ask the sommelier, waiter or general manager about the wine before you order it. That way, they'll feel more accountable, and will be more inclined to help you find a wine that you like based on your preferences.
Am I supposed to smell or inspect the cork when it's placed on the table to make sure the wine is in good condition?
Unless the cork is drenched in wine, obviously moldy or noticeably deteriorated, you won't be able to tell much by just smelling or inspecting the cork. In most cases of cork taint, you're likely to get that stale cardboard aroma when you smell the cork, but to be 100 percent sure, smell the wine in a glass and give it a taste.
When a sommelier pours me a taste of wine so that I can approve the bottle, should I actually taste the wine or just smell it to make sure it's not flawed?
Most wine flaws present themselves on the wine's "nose," meaning you'll be able to pick up the flaws by simply smelling the wine. While the nose will pretty much tell you all you need to know to assess the wine's condition, it's totally acceptable to taste the wine as well when it's presented to you. If you're trying to determine whether you actually like the wine, irrelevant of its condition, then you should definitely give it a taste.
Is it appropriate for a sommelier to taste my wine before he or she presents it to me? Should I be upset or honored?
This is a topic that has been widely debated in the wine community. Some people feel cheated if the sommelier sneaks a small pour to taste, while others acknowledge that the sommelier is doing so simply to ensure that the wine is not flawed before pouring it for you and making you pay for it, especially if the wine in question is something along the lines of a 1982 Petrus.
I'm generally pleased when a sommelier tastes my wine before serving it to me. That usually indicates that the restaurant is serious about its wine program and wants to make sure that the wine it's serving me is of utmost quality. As many people don't have the technical tasting skills to detect wine flaws on their own, I find this gesture to be completely acceptable.
When is it OK to bring your own wine to a restaurant? Is it OK to bring an everyday bottle to save money, or should it be something pricey or fancy? Should I offer my server and/or the sommelier a taste of the wine I bring?
First off, if you're planning on bringing your own wine to a restaurant, it's always good to call beforehand to make sure the restaurant allows outside bottles and to verify what the corkage fee is. Many restaurants don't allow their customers to bring in outside bottles (a) because they pride themselves on their wine program and want you to drink the wines they've specifically selected to pair with the restaurant's cuisine, and (b) because alcohol is where restaurants make most of their profit.
If the restaurant does allow outside bottles and its corkage fee is reasonable (anywhere between $10 and $25), then you should feel absolutely comfortable bringing your own wine to a restaurant. I do it all the time! The wine doesn't necessarily need to be an expensive and fancy bottle from an older vintage, although it's always fun to bring a celebratory bottle to a restaurant. In most cases you'll save money on wine by bringing your own, even though you'll be paying a corkage fee. The corkage fee is usually a lesser amount than the markup most restaurants use when pricing their wines.
While it's not obligatory or expected, I always like to offer my server or the sommelier a taste of the wine I brought if it's something unique, offbeat or otherwise noteworthy. I wouldn't feel as compelled to share if the bottle were something commonplace like Yellowtail or the equivalent.
Is it acceptable to audibly sip your wine at a nice restaurant the way you would at an instructional wine tasting?
Yes! Wine is meant to be enjoyed and aerating your wine when you sip it will make it more enjoyable; trust me. Don't be shy just because you're in a restaurant environment. The sommelier will understand.
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Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine-obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the U.S., and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @PlonkOnline.