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Restaurant Wine Etiquette: Order Like a Pro

Updated: May 19, 2020

Sommelier presenting wine bottle to restaurant guest.

What is the proper restaurant wine etiquette? Ever feel a bit like a caveman person when ordering wine at a restaurant? Never quite understood the real reason for tasting the wine before it’s served? Or maybe you just want to feel more polished in this whole ritual. First, it’s helpful to understand the purpose behind each step along with a few tips to make it all go smoothly.

The Sommelier

Say it with me… “the sommelier is my friend.” We know this is the wine expert, but we often don’t take advantage of this person’s knowledge.

The Sommelier is the one who crafts the wine list to go specifically with the food offered at the restaurant. They know intimately which wines pair best and can describe the taste characteristics of any of the wines offered. The only thing they don’t know is your taste preferences which lead us to the next step in our restaurant wine etiquette.

Ordering a Bottle of Wine

Woman ordering wine showing restaurant wine etiquette.

When ordering, find out from your tablemates what type of food each person is planning to order. This will give you an idea whether everyone is having red meat, fish or a combination. This information will help to determine which type of wine will work best for the table. Survey the table to find out if they prefer red or white wine. Identify a couple of bottles in your target price range.

When the Sommelier or server arrives, give them some information first and then ask for their opinion.

  • Share the food options being considered. You can say, “we are planning on having a couple of steaks and a couple of seafood options.” The sommelier will ask for more specifics on the food if needed.

  • Explain the type of wine you and your tablemates usually enjoy. We like bold Cabernet Sauvignon, light Pinot Noir, crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a fruity red, a crisp dry white, or whatever characteristics will help describe the type of wine you are interested in.

  • Point out the one or two wines you are considering and point to the cost of the wine. This will queue the sommelier to your price point. Or you can tell them the maximum you want to spend. Ask which they recommend or if they recommend something else.

The Sommelier will either recommend one of your selections or they’ll make another suggestion. Then they’ll describe the wine for you so that you can decide if that meets your tastes.

Once the decision is made, they will bring the bottle of wine.

Tip: Order by the glass or bottle? There are 5 glasses of wine per bottle. It is often less expensive to purchase a bottle of wine than to purchase wine by the glass. A good rule of thumb is to assume ½ bottle per person.

Tip: Remember you can always go online to check the menu and wine list ahead of time to become familiar with what is offered. This can help you arrive at your selections more quickly and with less pressure.

The Serving Ritual

Sommelier presenting wine showing restaurant wine etiquette.

Now we’ve arrived at the serving ritual. The Sommelier will present the bottle to the person who ordered the wine.

The Label

The purpose of presenting the bottle before opening it is to make sure the bottle is what you ordered. Take a look at the label and make sure it is the same wine: brand, vintage (year), style (pinot noir, Bordeaux, etc).

If this is the correct bottle, you can nod in approval. Next, they will begin to uncork the bottle.

The Cork

Once the bottle is uncorked, the cork is placed in front of the taster. The condition of the cork can tell you if the bottle was stored correctly. If the cork is moist on one end from the wine, this means it was stored properly on its side. If it is dry and brittle, then this may indicate the bottle has been exposed to oxygen and could be oxidized which you don’t want.

Oh, and by the way, no need to smell the cork. Just visually inspect it and lay it on the table.

The Taste

The Sommelier will pour just a small amount into your glass. The purpose of this step is to ensure the bottle has no faults. It is not to ensure you actually like the wine. Restaurant wine etiquette dictates that if you’ve already selected the wine that means you’ve accepted it. Unless it’s faulty.

To check for faults, you will smell and taste the wine. You are looking for any moldy, musty, damp cardboard, or vinegar taste or smell, or general flatness. Keep in mind, wine faults are very uncommon these days.

Some real-life examples of wine faults: Once you’ve experienced these faults for yourself, it makes it easier to know what you are looking for, of course. Here are a couple of examples.

  • I’ve had a wine that oxidized and started turning into red wine vinegar. It really did smell like that. So, smell your red wine vinegar dressing and you’ll get a good idea of what to look for with that fault.

  • I was with friends doing our own wine tasting and we came to a wine that none of us liked. I kept thinking this just doesn’t taste good. It’s not that it wasn’t my preference, something wasn’t right. It wasn’t drinkable. That was a corked wine.

  • One last example is a wine that my husband and I had from our favorite winery. We have a membership and are very familiar with their wines. Normally, when we smell the wine our eyes roll back in our heads with delight. We had one that just didn’t seem the same. It didn’t have the depth of flavor, richness, or aroma that we expected. All of those elements were muted, neutralized. It was flat. We contacted the winery and they sent us a replacement bottle.

To check for faults, swirl the wine first. You can swirl the wine by holding the glass in the air or you can swirl the glass on the table. Then put your nose in the glass to smell it. It’s okay to do this a couple of times to get those aromas to your nose.

Then taste the wine by swirling it in your mouth. If you notice anything is off, then tell the sommelier. You can even have them taste the wine to be sure.

If something is off, they will bring another bottle and you’ll go through this tasting ritual again. If you do not detect any faults, you can nod your head indicating approval or say “Thanks. That’s fine.” The server will fill the wine glasses of your tablemates, returning to fill yours last.

The wine glasses will be filled with about 5 ounces of wine (about half a glass). This will give you plenty of room to swirl and to allow oxygen to work its magic opening the aromas and flavors of the wine.

Summary Restaurant Wine Etiquette

Like most things in life, there is a rhythm to the interaction. Ordering wine at a restaurant is no different. Be sure to leverage the knowledge of your Sommelier. To have a productive interaction, share the type of food your table is ordering, your wine preference, and the target price. When the wine is served, double-check the label for accuracy, don’t smell the cork, smell, and taste the wine for faults only. The more you practice the better you’ll become. Cheers! Salute!


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