Aside from eating, sharing wine is one of our oldest social customs. It probably started soon after wine was invented. It’s almost like wine was made specifically to be shared with family and friends. There are few other beverages that have evolved an entire ecosystem around themselves like wine has. There are professions that have been created simply to ensure that a wine is a good representative of it’s type, and to ‘suggest’ proper wine and food pairings to customers (sommeliers). A complete set of behavioral guidelines involving the care, and use of wine has also matured, known as wine etiquette.
Any time you consume, or serve, or even order wine in public, it is expected that you be aware of all the ‘rules’. People who are well-versed in wineology are considered very sophisticated, and are at the top of the social food-chain. It can take some time to learn, and can involve many social faux pas during the learning process, but with a little prior study, you can appear to ‘belong’ the next time you are in a situation where a knowledge of ‘all things wine’ is needed.. Here are some tips that you may find useful:
When you are a guest in someone’s home:
- It is proper for a dinner guest to bring a bottle of wine, but the host is under no obligation to serve it. It’s their choice. The gift is for them, not the guests.
- The wine should not be chilled because it might pressure the host to feel like they have to serve it. The host may have already selected wine to go with the meal. Pressuring a host to serve wine you brought could be considered an insult. It’s like saying “Your wine is not good enough”, or “I don’t trust your judgment”.
- If you’re buying a gift bottle of wine for someone you don’t know well, play it safe, and stay to the middle of the road. A medium-priced Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe a Merlot, or Zinfandel is a good bet for anyone.
- Unless you are an accomplished aficionado, don’t try to select gift wine from a grocery store. Go to a specialty shop, and let them assist you in selecting a good bottle.
When you are the host:
- Make sure you select wine that compliments your main course. There are many websites and books that cover matching food and wine, and it takes a long time to become proficient, but there are generalities. As a rule, you want to select a wine with flavors, aromas, and body that will match the characteristics of your main course. Of course, you can serve other wines with appetizers, and desserts, but the main course is the climax of the occasion, and it’s what everyone will most likely remember.
- Select a wine that compliments the sauce, rather than the meat in the main course. For example, Blackened Redfish will match up much better with a good Shiraz, rather than a Chardonnay. Make sure you have plenty of extra bottles. Always buy more wine than you think you may need. Unused wine can be enjoyed later, or stored for the next get-together.
- Matching the body of a wine to the food is more important than the flavors. A light-bodied wine is not going to support a hearty, spicy entree. Conversely, a robust Burgundy will stomp all over light, delicate flavors such as broiled trout.
- Be sure you are storing and serving wine at the correct temperatures. Wines that get too warm will age prematurely, and wines that are too cold will lose character. Wine should be stored in a dark, cool place (50°-55°F for reds, and down to 45°F for whites). Be sure to store wine bottle on their sides, in order to keep the corks moist. A dry cork can crack, let in air, and ruin a good wine very quickly. Wines need to be served at the temperature that allows them to showcase their characteristics to the optimum level:
– Spicy reds such as Cabernet, Syrah, and Burgundy, etc…63°F-65°F.
– Light to medium reds like Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, etc …55°F-61°F
– Fruity reds like Beaujolais….54°F
– Full-bodied/oaked wine like White Burgundy….52°F
– Light to medium whites, such as Chardonnay, Semillion, Chablis, etc…48°F-50°F
– Sweet/Sparking wines and Champagne….43°F-47°F.
- Make sure you provide spotless, appropriate glasses for the wine you are serving. Have separate glasses for reds and white. Serving in plastic, or Styrofoam is the epitome of being gauche, and extremely bad wine etiquette (in very large gatherings, it may be unavoidable, but this is the exception).
- This may sound silly, but pouring wine correctly is actually an art-form. It is a good idea to use an old wine bottle full of water, and practice serving well before your get-together, if you really want to impress your guests. Even the way you hold the bottle is important. How the wine was served can be the most memorable part of an evening. Think of it as a relative of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
- It is customary for the host, or someone they have designated, to serve the wine, unless they have given permission to ‘help yourself’. The correct procedure is to open the bottle in the room where it is to be served, then hold the bottle by the bottom and the neck, with the label facing outwards so all can see. Go to the most senior guest (this is a gesture of respect, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be age. Any distinguished guest you may want to honor is OK), and allow them to examine the cork. Then, pour a small amount of wine in their glass and allow them to taste it. If they pronounce it good, (and they usually will), you may serve each guest, going clockwise, serving all the ladies first. Then make a second round and serve the men. When pouring, hold the bottle by the bottom, and tip the neck down towards the glass. After each pouring, wipe the lip of the bottle with a cloth napkin so you will not drip wine on any guests.
- If your senior guest has rejected the wine, do not be offended. Rarely, a bottle of wine is ‘corked’, meaning the cork did not go in properly, or was contaminated with bacteria, making the wine taste like it was filtered through your unwashed gym socks. It can’t be helped. Simply apologize, and get another bottle (that’s why you always buy more than you think you will need).
At Wine Tastings:
- You don’t have to know a lot about wine to attend Tastings. In fact, it is a great place to learn all about wine and it’s customs. Here, you can freely ask questions from staff members, without being regarded as sub-human. They are there specifically to assist you.
- It is perfectly acceptable to discard any wine you don’t like. And, it is acceptable to ask for another taste of a previous wine you did not fully comprehend.
- It is considered poor form to ask for a second taste of wines you really liked. Instead, you should purchase a full glass, or a bottle.
At a restaurant:
- Wines at restaurants can be very expensive (300% mark-up on average). It is usually permissible to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant that is licensed to serve wine.
- When making reservations, be sure to ask how much the fee for opening the bottle (known as a ‘corkage’ fee) is. In higher-end restaurants this can be as much as $20.00-$30.00.
- If you are unsure about what wine to order, ask to speak with the sommelier, or Wine Steward. They are more than happy to assist you in selecting a proper wine. It’s their job.
It is customary to tip them 10% to 20% of the wine price for their expertise (and it is worth it).
- Restaurants are aware that their wines are pricey, and it is perfectly acceptable to ask your server for suggestions within a certain price range.
- When tasting the wine, don’t be afraid to reject any wine you don’t like. After all, you are paying for it.
- Some wines need time to ‘open up’ a bit, and mix with a little air to get the full character. This is especially true of a lot of reds. It is OK to ask your server to decant the wine for you.
- One of the biggest mistakes a restaurant can do is to put white wines in buckets of ice. Do not let them do this. Wines should be served at the correct temperature for that particular wine, and should be chilled before serving. Placing them in ice buckets will make them too cold, and ruin an otherwise good wine.
These tips will get you through most situations with your dignity intact. There is a lot to learn about wine etiquette, so do your homework. With a little work, you will have no trouble impressing your friends and relatives with your impeccable social graces.