This post has been a long time coming. The tipping point was a recent Saturday night when I shared dinner with a good friend and fellow Master at a bistro somewhere in the nation’s heartland. We’ll leave it at that. We ordered a bottle of Blanc de Blancs from an excellent small grower producer Champagne house. What followed in terms service can only be described as a not so sublime combination of comedy and tragedy with the primary constituent of the proceedings, i.e., our server, being completely and blissfully unaware. In short, everything that could have been done wrong to open the bottle was done wrong–but with style!
There’s really only one way to do Champagne service correctly. And while there are several minor variations therein the major components are pretty much unchangeable unless you view opening the bottle as some form of weapons training. Here is a step by step commentary for servers and sommeliers on how to do it right with pertinent and pithy commentary from yours truly.
Initial Thoughts–For Servers Approaching the Table
Be friendly, engaging, and helpful but NOT overly familiar. It’s annoying. Odds are the guests at your table really don’t care about you beyond your name and the fact that you will be serving them unobtrusively. So unless they specifically ask, they probably don’t really care about your favorite color, where you went to school or the last audition you didn’t win. They do want you to tell them about the specials du jour AFTER they’ve had a chance to look at the menu. They don’t want you to interrupt their conversation even if your hair is on fire or the rest of your station happens to be sliding into an abyss right at that moment. But they do want their cocktails, their bottle of wine, their coffee and the check right now. In between those important events of the meal everything else can flow along cheerfully.
In the context of a specific glass or bottle of wine on your list, they want you to be able to tell them what color it is, what it tastes like (without drowning them in a sea of Martian wine verbiage), if it will go with what they’re considering for dinner—and if it’s a good value. If you know about a great value they might be interested in by all means tell them. Finally, undersell on the price of the bottle if possible. You’ll build trust with the guest which is not easy to achieve and they will desire to return to dine with you again and again. That’s a good thing because any restaurant, much less any business, relies on repeat sales to survive.
Taking the Order
Nothing says “I’m really clueless” quite like not getting the order right. Repeat the order once the host has given it to you (that would be the person who ordered the bottle) and a second time when you present the bottle. Otherwise, you risk a creating a misunderstanding at the end of the meal that could cost the restaurant—and ultimately you—lots of money.
Mise en Place
There’s not too much equipment required for Champagne service–but none of it is optional:
Glassware: Champagne flutes only and they should be clean and polished. The flutes should be polished over a source of steaming water with a clean cotton or cotton blend cloth napkin (Nyet on the poly napkins as they repel water).
Serviettes: two clean, folded serviettes are required for Champagne service—one for presenting and opening the bottle and the other to be left on top of the bucket at the table. There are lots of ways to fold serviettes but I highly recommended folding the seams inside so they’re out of sight.
Service tray: everything used for service—as in glassware and underliners–comes to the table on a service tray lined with a napkin. The napkin bit is important. There’s nothing quite as exciting as watching several filled Champagne flutes skid around the top of a metal service tray as the server whisks around the table. I think this was how NASCAR was invented.
One last note on the napkin used to line the tray: simply unfolding it and draping it over the tray is best. Avoid any fancy origami folds that could also send the glasses skittering across the floor on a tight turn.
Champagne bucket and stand: fill the bucket with half ice and half water. The bucket is placed to the right of the host within their reach with the second folded serviette draped over it at the end of service.
The bottle: check the temperature of the bottle. Literally feel the neck and body of the bottle when you retrieve it to make sure the bottle has been evenly chilled. If the neck is warmer odds are the bottle was quick chilled and you’re in for a thrill ride getting the cork out. Be forewarned and be prepared.
Placing the Glassware
Bring the glassware to the table on the lined tray. You’ll also need to bring two underliners or B&B plates, one for presenting the cork and one in case the host wants the bottle kept on the table and not placed in the bucket.
Place the glassware at each cover as consistently as possible. There are multiple ways of placing wine glasses and all are equally acceptable as long the glassware is placed the same way at each cover. Handle the glassware by the stems only. Handle a glass by the bowl and you immediately attach a moron label to your forehead. It’s also far from hygienic.
Carrying a tray: this is the one element of service that cannot be faked. Your adoring public and especially your ever curious examiners will know in mere seconds if you’ve carried a tray enough to be proficient at it. How do we know? Perhaps it’s your expression of restrained terror as you stare at the tray and glasses as if they will betray you at any moment while trying to walk through the dining room. Anyone with enough experience and confidence carrying a tray has their eyes and attention on everything else but the tray. After all, they’re just working. If you’re not quite at that stage practice–as in a lot of practice–is highly recommended. You’ll be glad you did. We will too.
*A reminder: you will, of course, always be moving around the table in a clockwise direction and serving the guests from the right side.
Presenting the bottle
Use the first folded serviette underneath the bottle when presenting to the host. Repeat the vintage and name of the wine for a second time to make sure you have the correct wine.
Sensory acuity: when you present the bottle don’t stand too close to the guests at the table. It’s the dining version of a close talker and it can really make guests uncomfortable as in “creepy bus driver.”
Opening the Bottle
From here on out until you leave the table safety is the most important thing. The average bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne has over 120 pounds per square inch—as in more air pressure than in your car tires. Everyone has a story about the “big one that got away.” Believe it or not, people are injured and even killed every year from tragedies associated with mishandling a bottle of sparkling wine. Don’t become the next statistic.
Opening techniques: the bottle can be opened either in the air or in the bucket.
a. Opening in the air: highly recommended. You’ll have maximum control of the bottle and easily be able to go to another option in case something goes wrong as in a stuck or broken cork.
b. Opening in the bucket: unless you’re 5’6” or shorter, I strongly recommend against opening a bottle in the bucket. Really. Otherwise, you’re too tall and have no leverage and less control over the bottle. You might also imagine for a moment what the view is like to the tables behind you as you bend over working on the bottle looking like Ichabod Crane adjusting the saddle. Nice.
The Opening Sequence
Cutting the capsule: most bottles have a pull tab that is guaranteed not to work. Example “A” is Dom Perignon where the foil seems to be permanently glued to the top of the bottle. Use the blade of your corkscrew to cut the capsule below the cage without turning the bottle. Remove the top of the capsule gently in one piece if possible and place in your pocket–not the bucket.
Loosening the cage: this is important. Next place the folded serviette over the top of the bottle. Holding the napkin over the top of the bottle firmly, find the ring on the cage and loosen– BUT DO NOT REMOVE–the cage. If you remove the cage before taking the cork out of the bottle the hand of the almighty should come down out of the clouds and smack you on the back of the head really hard. Removing the cage before the cork is out is extremely dangerous. You should also know that it’s grounds for failing any of our service exams.
Removing the cork: hold the bottle at a 45° angle pointed AWAY from everyone at the table or anyone else in close proximity. With your hand firmly over the folded serviette and the top of the bottle, twist the bottom of the bottle (not the cork and cage) slowly back and forth to remove the cork. Once you feeling the cork coming out gently but firmly move it to the side and allow the excess CO2 to escape the bottle in a gentle, almost silent hiss. Above all, try to remove the cork as quietly as possible. It goes without say that this takes a lot of practice.
Presenting the cork: remove the cork from the cage and place on the underliner closest to the host. The cage then goes in your pocket–and not the bucket.
Wipe it right: wipe the top and lip of the bottle and then pour a one to one-and-half ounce taste for the host. Stand back with the label of the bottle facing the host and wait for them to approve the wine. Once they approve the wine proceed to pour for the guests (if they don’t approve the bottle see below*).
Pouring for the Table
Pour for the lady guests first, gentlemen next and the host last, regardless of gender. If there is a guest of honor at the table pour for them first after pouring a taste for the host. Also, do remember to pour for the host as it’s easy to pour around the table, jam the bottle in the bucket and then take off for your next table without filling their glass. Bad form. They’re also probably the ones picking up the check.
The grip: hold the bottle as if it were a bottle of still wine with the label facing out when pouring. Holding the entire bottom of the bottle is acceptable, especially when refilling glasses at a cocktail party or reception, or reaching across a banquet to serve. However, the bowling grip with your thumb in the punt is definitely NOT acceptable. You may think it looks cool but some bottles have a very shallow punt or no punt at all. Ultimately it’s not safe and if someone at the table even breathes on the bottle while you’re pouring you’ll drop it and make a complete spectacle of yourself. You should just clock out at that point and go home.
Pouring technique: although one slow continuous pour for each glass is the best of all worlds the easy answer is two pours for each glass. Pour a couple of initial ounces into the glass and allow the mousse to recede. Then pour a second time to a maximum level of one inch below the top of the glass. The general rule is to fill each glass separately at least ½ full before moving on. Making multiple trips around the table to fill the glasses is not even banquet service. It’s ludicrous. Make sure your pours are as even as possible. That, too, takes practice.
No drips: that’s why you have a serviette and it should be right there after you finish pouring each time to catch any potential drips.
*A note on serviettes: during service serviettes are in your hand 99% of the time. They are NOT to be carried on your forearm, definitely not to be placed on your shoulder and, for god’s sake, never to be placed in one of your pockets. Nothing is more distasteful than a server suddenly whipping a hidden serviette out of a pocket to wipe the top of the bottle they’re about to serve you. We at the table have no idea of where the serviette has been or what it’s come into contact with. I’m reminded of the scene with Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles when he first arrives in Rockridge. Ahem.
Once everyone has been served wine the service is concluded by doing the following:
Ask to remove the cork: ask the host if they would like to keep the cork or if you can remove it. If the cork is to be removed save it to the side in case the host later changes their mind and wants to keep it. That will save you rooting through the garbage at 9:30 on a busy Saturday night.
The bottle: ask the host about the temperature of the wine. Would they like the bottle to be kept chilled in the bucket or kept on the table? If the bucket is the chosen option gently place the bottle in the bucket with the second clean serviette draped over the bucket. Then remove the second underliner on the table along with the cork. If the host wants the bottle on the table do so and remove the bucket and stand.
Final Thoughts: Two Scenarios
* Rejected bottle: if for any reason the host does not like the bottle the sommelier or server is to apologize and remove glasses and bottle from the table–no questions asked. The server or sommelier then offers a second bottle of the same wine or the list to choose another selection. Above all, remember that in the age of social media the potential ill will and negative PR from a disagreement or argument over a rejected bottle can render considerable damage to the reputation of a restaurant.
Second bottle service: if someone else at the table orders a second bottle of the same wine that person becomes the “new” host for the second bottle. If the wine in question is a current release sparkling wine, a new tasting glass is brought for the host of the second bottle. The opening procedure is the same as before with a taste poured for the new host in the second tasting glass and the guests at the tables served wine accordingly in their original glasses. The new host is served last in their original glass as well. The second tasting glass is then removed when the cork is removed. However, if the wine served is a vintage or prestige cuvée Champagne, then new glasses are brought for everyone at the table for each new bottle. If in doubt, the sommelier or server should always offer new glasses to the host with each bottle.
Á Votre Santé!