Master the restaurant wine service ritual

By | June 29, 2012 | Food & Recipes

Master the restaurant wine service ritual

You’re at a lovely restaurant and you’ve picked out a wine. Now what? Do you find yourself feeling nervous or intimidated when the wine server or sommelier brings you the wine for your approval?

Here we explain the etiquette and rituals.

When the wine arrives at the table, verify the bottle, inspect the cork, and approve the wine sample.

Verify the Bottle

When the server or sommelier shows you the bottle, she is simply verifying that the bottle is the wine you ordered. Mistakes happen more often than you might think, especially if a restaurant is offering multiple wines from the same producer and the bottles are similar in appearance. If you ordered a very old and fine bottle of wine, you’ll want to inspect its condition including the bottle fill level, the wine label (producer, varietal, vintage), the foil that covers the cork and the temperature with a light touch of the hand (fine bottles should be stored cooler than room temperature).

Inspect the Cork

The cork gives you a clue to what’s happening inside the bottle. In many fine dining restaurants the wine server will set the cork down on a small plate or napkin, or in the case of the video, directly on the table. This allows the customer to inspect the cork to determine that it’s printed with the same producer as the label and to see if there’s any seepage going up the edge of the cork. You’ll expect to see a dampened, stained end. A wine may still be good if it has seepage all the way up the cork, but there is also an increased possibility that the wine could be flawed.

Approve the Wine Sample

Approving the sample is simply to determine if the wine is flawed in any way. There are three common ways a wine can be flawed:


A corked wine smells like wet cardboard and is super musty. It isn’t bad to drink but the aroma is ruined by the off-smell. TCA is the culprit (for you geeks: Trichloroanisole) and can affect anywhere from 1-10% of a winery’s production. It’s caused by mold from unclean corks. It can also be caused in the winery from improperly cleaned barrels and even from some flame retardant paints that cause mold to build up behind the paint on the walls. Our noses are super sensitive to the smell of TCA, so it’ll be obvious when you smell the wine if TCA is afoot!

Cooked (or madeirized)

A wine can get cooked when it’s stored at extended periods over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. When you smell the wine it’ll smell a little like stewed old jam. The smell of jam in a dessert wine may be fine, but it’s not the way most dry red wines smell! The aroma may smell nice but when you taste it, it will be very flat in taste with very little flavor except for a little sourness. The flavors on a cooked wine are completely muted.


A single bottle can be oxidized if that particular bottle was not properly sealed. A wine turns to vinegar when it’s exposed to oxygen. When you are checking the wine to see if it’s oxidized, you’ll be looking for a very zingy high-acid flavor that’s similar to vinegar. The wine will smell sharp and may smell similar to apple cider vinegar.


If you determine that it’s not flawed, tell the server to pour a round!

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Madeline Puckette

Madeline Puckette is the host of, a wine learning website serving up wine courses, videos and articles to inspire wine drinkers everywhere. A certified sommelier through Court of Masters, Madeline Puckette offers an alternative approach to loving wine: learn by drinking. Follow Madeline on Twitter and learn more about wine.

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