[barrel logo] [oenoLogic]








[frequently asked questions]

home > articles

Steward’s folly

Free your wine, and your glass will follow

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

It was one of those restaurants. The kind with three waiters to every diner. The kind with fifteen courses to every meal. The kind where, if you get up to go to the bathroom, a hidden army descends upon your vacated table, replacing every utensil, dish, swatch of linen, scrap of food, and dining companion with an artfully-positioned replica fresh from the kitchen closet. And the kind in which your wine bottle is kept on a table a few feet away from yours.

It was one of those restaurants. So how come I was out of wine?

I looked around. Surely the sommelier would see. Or the captain, who’d been keeping an eagle eye on the entire room all night. Maybe a passing waiter. A busboy. The guy at the next table. Somebody? Anybody?


I waited. But, well, “we are the change we’ve been waiting for,” right? I got up, grabbed the wine, re-moistened my glass, then returned the bottle to its nearby staging area. And I noticed that pretty much every waiter in the place twitched. Like one of those movie scenes in which the background noise falls away at the exact moment someone says something embarrassing, the smooth currents of the room crashed against rocky shoals. I felt dozens of eyes on me, the captain and sommelier looking across the room with gazes of increasing despair. To their credit, no one approached to wrest the bottle from my hands; it had been their error, and they knew it.

Afterwards, the evening continued as before. But I never again lacked for wine.

This particular brand of ultra-high-end wine service makes some diners as twitchy as those waiters’ fingers. I’m OK with it, as long as it works. But even in most restaurants, where your wine rests on your table and comfortably within an arm’s reach, the service standard is for the staff to maintain your beverages. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. Restaurants get busy, waiters take the 45-second break they’re allowed amidst a packed house, and all too soon you’re sitting there with a parched glass and an empty throat.

By all means, let restaurants continue to serve wine by whatever standards they set. But when they fail, or if those standards aren’t all that high in the first place, here’s a call to (your own) arms: take charge of your wine service. Here’s how:

  • Don’t wait until the appetizers are on their way before looking at the wine list. If you want to start with wine rather than a cocktail, ask for the list as soon as you sit down. Or better yet, glance at a copy while you’re waiting to be seated. And there’s an added bonus: less table time spent ignoring your date. Unless that’s the goal…
  • Know your temperatures. If a white wine arrives frosty-cold, keep it out of the ice bucket. Reds should be at cool room temperature, not a simmer; ignore the stares and the inevitable hectoring remonstrance from establishments who don’t know what they’re doing, and ask for a bucket (or a refrigerated “time out” for the bottle). After all, it’s the restaurant’s fault the wine’s too hot or cold, not yours. And if you like your wines a little cooler or warmer than normal, say so. You got to choose how much heat you wanted applied to your cow, didn’t you?
  • Be smart about sending wine back. If it’s corked (smelling like moldy cardboard, or of absolutely nothing at all) or otherwise damaged, send it back and request another bottle of the same wine. If you don’t, the restaurant might suspect – sometimes correctly – that you’re asking them to fund your own private tableside wine tasting. But if you really can’t stand a wine, have a polite conversation with the staff anyway; in many cases, they’ll replace it even though they aren’t really obligated to.
  • If you’re forced to do your own pouring, the key is to avoid drips. (Other than your date, I mean.) Wrap a napkin around the neck of the bottle, and make sure to pour over the table…not your plate. Firm and smooth is the motion, but don’t splash. When you’re done, give the bottle a slight twist as you tilt it away; this catches the last drops on the rim, rather than letting them run down the side of the bottle, and thus onto the tablecloth…or your sleeve. Small glasses get filled halfway, large glasses considerably less.

And if you’re in one of those restaurants? Try using the restroom. They’ll replace your date and your wine for you.

(First published in stuff@night, 2008.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.