I’ve never been a fan of formal service, however when done well, it is surely a pleasure to watch. I enjoy wine as part of my meal and have no interest in much of the pomp and circumstance. Though there are a few steps of service that are integral, others are merely part of the show.
Presentation comes after the wine has been agreed upon by those ordering. As a guest, the presentation allows you to confirm that what you ordered is indeed what’s being served to you. This is very important, especially when it comes time to settle the check. If the bill is higher than expected, or if, perhaps, you forgot your glasses and truly meant to order the wine one line above the one you pointed to, ordered, and confirmed—whatever it might be—the somm’s defense resides in his or her presentation of the bottle. And as the guest, the gesture allows you to show off to your table what great bottle of wine you chose to enjoy.
There are a range of reasons why we present the cork, but most are no longer relevant. Don’t get me wrong, a guest is welcome to the cork if they want it, and can do whatever they would like with it–sniff it, break it, or keep it as a memory of their evening. While there is some validity to the idea that cork condition reflects a wine’s condition and whether it was stored properly, I cannot tell you how many countless corks have been in terrible shape—falling apart into sawdust—and the wine has been stunning. Traditionally, cork presentation occurred to prevent fraud. The name and year on the cork has to match the bottle of wine on the table. This stems from a time when servers or other individuals would often remove the cork, drink an expensive bottle and replace its contents with something less grand (this is why one of the most trusty somm tools, an “ah so,” was affectionately referred to as a “butler’s friend”—it allowed the cork to be removed without damage and then replaced in the same bottle).
I like a serious pour. The guest should be able to taste and then taste again to confirm that they like the wine—that’s it. Though technically there is no right or wrong, if they pay for it, then they can do as they like with the pour. There is no judgement on my end should a guest choose to put ice in it, dilute it with ginger ale, take a Cabernet and blend a little Pinot—so long as said guest is happy and willing to pay. That being said, my one pet peeve goes back to the ancient practice of looking at the viscosity (some say legs) and the color. I’m not sure what the guest is looking for–clarity? Bricking? Staining? These all are valid evaluations of a wine, but none are relevant to its enjoyment. And quite frankly, if you’re dining in a restaurant, then most likely the lighting is so bad you can’t see anything anyways! I would rather you put your ear in the glass and see what the wine has to say than hold it up and stare at it like some magical life giving potion (though that it might be).
Tasting to the Side
This happens when a bottle is presented and then opened away from the table, usually with the somm tasting the wine before it’s poured. The logic is that the somm will catch any flaws or issues with the wine before it makes its way to the table. Somms taste these wines every day and might catch an “off” bottle that is just not showing well, which prevents the guest from suffering through a bottle that is not up to snuff. The argument against this practice comes from the guest, and goes something like, “it’s my wine, I paid for it, I want to drink it all.” As a somm I find myself supporting the idea that the more we taste, the better we are at our jobs. I also sympathize with someone bothered by this practice, though at its core it’s only meant to improve the experience of the person drinking the wine.
Here is a subject in which I diverge from the typical ideals of formal service. I don’t believe I need a guéridon service cart to properly decant a bottle of wine, nor a candle. Are these items ideal? Yes. Necessary? No. I’ve decanted thousands of bottles without a candle or cart and given excellent service (that being said, I can drive that cart better than Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder). I believe a guest should always be able to reach, or at least see, their wine. Wine being kept out of sight is an issue for me, and taking the bottle off the table before it is empty drives me crazy. Restaurants that keep wine on a central tasting table do so to make service easier for the somm, but often are not able to keep up with the pace of dining. The guest is left with an empty glass, looking forlornly at the bottle that they can’t consume. Perhaps it is me and my alcohol paranoia, but I can’t stand being separated from the bottle I chose to enjoy with my meal. Rare is the somm team that can keep up with my rapid pace of consumption. I would offer that at the end of the day the guest is always right, and should be able to do whatever they would like with their bottle, decanter, and glassware.
We’ve arrived at a sticky wicket. Some don’t tip on wine, or they have a limit; for example “anything over $200,” they don’t tip on. Others think that wine is just like any other luxury item and that if you can afford to buy it you can afford to tip on it. I understand the dilemma, especially when you are at a restaurant with an extensive list where wine sales add up quickly. I’ve seen some crazy things—the first restaurant gig I had I was as a bus boy and there was a party in the back where 20 people ran up over twenty five grand (hey, it was the 90s). The somm that night didn’t get a cash tip; instead, the host gave him his Rolex. I’ve been in other restaurants where servers routinely walk away with a mortgage payment just from one day’s work because someone decided it was a good night to drink a couple bottles of ’82 Petrus. On the flipside, some guests will decide to start crushing unicorn wines and leave only a $50 tip, just enough to cover 10% on the food. There is no right answer here. You just have to accept that in wine service, sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.
All the while, we must keep in mind that we are not saving lives. No one is going to die if you don’t serve from the right and show the face of the label when decanting the bottle. As sommeliers, we do have a responsibility to be able to perform all duties required of us to a certain standard, while knowing that our central responsibility is to take care of our guests. If our guests leave happy then they will return repeatedly. One of the most important things to do in service is to put your ego aside. The more we listen, support, and take care of our guests, the better off we all will be.
By Brahm Callahan, Vinepair