Wine service is not rocket science. It’s definitely not neuro-surgery. In fact, the process of opening a bottle, be it still or sparkling, is really straightforward and there’s pretty much only one way to do it correctly with minor variations thrown in here and there depending on the style of restaurant. But to be honest, most of the times it’s done wrong, as in slightly wrong in the form of minor details left out which don’t offend and usually go unnoticed. These are the venial sins of the wine service confessional, if you will. Then there are the tragic errors, the cardinal sins, where even the most unaware diner sits up and takes notice while the other more informed denizens of the dining room are alarmed, offended and possibly maimed. These catastrophic errors are stuff of legend and this is the story of one dinner where not one, but three of them, were committed. The names and the restaurant involved have been changed to protect the innocent.
The year was 2007 and I was in the U.K. to work with flavor development team of Frito-Lay international, the Willy Wonka division of the world’s largest snack foods company. I had worked with the UK team all afternoon on food and wine pairing combinations with an eye on creating a line of wine-friendly snacks. It had been a really productive session so the six of us headed out dinner in the best of spirits. My host had arranged for dinner at a small well-known restaurant on the Thames in the countryside near Reading. He (host) assured me it was the best restaurant in the region and had a great wine list as well.
Part One: Champagne Service is Not Weapons Training
Upon being seated the host suggested that we order a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the occasion. A young very tall red-haired chap appeared momentarily and handed me a leather-bound tome the size of a phone book. The list was indeed very good with lots of depth from most of Europe’s major regions. I scanned the Champagne section and chose a bottle of non-vintage rosé from a small grower producer house. Order taken, the strapping young lad returned in mere moments with the bottle of pink bubbly in tow. After presenting the bottle he started talking non-stop about the weather, the menu, that evening’s specials, all the while undoing the tab and taking off most of the capsule on the bottle in one brash tearing motion (dwarf bull fighting comes to mind). Without missing a beat he undid the wire cage put it in his pocket and kept talking with the unprotected and very naked cork pointing at us then at other guests then at us again and so forth. I considered ducking under the table more than once but thought better of it lest my colleagues think it overly dramatic. Finally, after threatening the entire dining room with the primed bottle he reached for the cork in a grandiose gesture and promptly lost it with a spectacular and deafening BLAM!!! The cork rocketed out of the bottle and bounced off the ceiling leaving a sizable dent before returning to the terra firma of our table and ricocheting on to the floor out of sight. The explosion was accompanied by the inevitable gusher of pink fizzy wine that splooshed over the lad’s hands and on to the carpeting. A few moments of stunned silence ensued. Champagne guy then mumbled something like “uh, happy new year” before proceeding to pour the bottle around the table without further damage.
The sin: losing control of a Champagne cork
Safety first! A bottle of bubbly is under 120 pounds per square inch pressure as in more than in your car tires. Opening a bottle is not to be taken lightly as people do actually die every year from worst case scenarios. Safety is the bottom line. Unless you’ve just won a formula one race or you’re launching the Queen Mary, opening the bottle quietly and safely is the prime objective. The overly zealous lad should have placed a folded serviette over the top of the bottle BEFORE removing the cage. Then with a firm grip over napkin and top of the bottle, he would then loosen–but NOT take off–the cage and then remove the cage and cork at the same time as quietly as possible. Spewing wine—wine that we were paying for by the way–is also not an option and yet another reason to open the bottle with a serviette draped over the top of the bottle.
Chapter II: Did You Want Some Too?
After Champagne guy left the table we quickly regained our composure and enjoyed the bubbly. As everyone looked over the menu I ordered a bottle of Premier Cru Chablis for the starter course. Champagne guy was not to be found so a charming young woman brought the bottle to the table. She, too, was remarkably chatty but managed to get the cork out without further international incident. After bringing the bottle and opening she asked if I would like to taste the wine and proceeded to cheerfully pour me over half a glass. I grabbed my glass with the sturdy grip usually reserved by pirates for a daily ration of grog and rotated it slowly so as not to hose down my fellow diners. I took a sip and it was delicious. She smiled and then proceeded to over pour the other guests running out of wine before she got to the last person at the table who also happened to be the host, as in the same host who would be picking up the check. To reiterate, she didn’t make it around a table of six with a full bottle of wine which is something not easy to do. Much to her credit she smiled and asked if we would like a second bottle. We politely refused and once she left several of us chipped in to make sure our host got a taste of Chablis to accompany his appetizer.
The sin: running out of wine before you make it around the table is inexcusable.
Other than dropping the bottle on the floor or pouring wine on the guest at the table, nothing says “moron” quite like running out wine before you make it back to the host. Period. It doesn’t matter if the table is a 12-top and the host is so clueless or cheap to have only ordered a single 750 ml bottle for the table, the sommelier or server should easily be able to make it around the table and pour off the bottle when serving the host, who incidentally should always be served last regardless of gender. If in doubt, massively under pour everyone’s glasses but never, EVER, run out of wine.
Chapter III: the Body Was on the Floor When I Got Here
After the appetizers were cleared I ordered an older vintage of Rioja Gran Reserva to be served with the entrees and then excused myself to go to the men’s room. In my absence the host informed Champagne guy, who had suddenly reappeared, that I was a Master Sommelier. Probably not a great idea. After I returned to the table the lad showed up with the bottle of Rioja. Gone now was the youthful bravado that accompanied the Champagne blasting incident and in its place was a pretty serious case of nerves. The cork was removed without injury but the dripping began immediately with his pouring a taste for me. After I approved the wine he then went around the table leaving an almost perfect uninterrupted ring of fire red between place settings. By the time he had made it back to me with the bottle the table top looked like a crime scene. Sam Peckinpah movies came to mind. After a truly uncomfortable eternity he finished pouring, set the bottle down firmly and left the table visibly shaken. Everyone looked at the table top for many long and silent moments and then at me. I shrugged and said, “Well, I guess I’ll always have a job.”
The sin: not using a serviette when pouring wine.
The fix: this one’s a no-brainer. A serviette must be used to prevent drips whenever pouring wine. Always. Otherwise, get out the yellow crime scene tape or a wet mop.