Wine Savvy Tips
Wine 101 and beyond: Responses to frequently asked questions
Cork and the Waiter
When a waiter opens the wine and offers you the cork, ignore it and smell the wine instead. If it’s corked (smelling of wet cardboard or dirty dishwater you’ll know!), then return the bottle. Otherwise, the wine is fine and you own it.
Once opened, swirl the wine in a glass a few times by the base of the stem, and let it rest and open up. Most professionals ignore the stem and use the base of the glass to swirl.
Swirling and Glassware
We swirl at the stem because fingerprints are unattractive on the glass, and holding it by the cup adds unnecessary heat to the wine. Wines red or white like it cool and at room temperature at the least.
Wine’s Aroma: Take A Good Sniff
What you think you’re tasting when you drink wine, you’re actually smelling. So give wine several good swirls to release the aroma (bouquet), and take a good sniff. What aromas you here get is reflected in the flavors as it hits your palate.
It is safer to order younger wines that need no decanting. You never know how older wines have been treated or stored before the restaurant got them.
Young wines need no decanting because they have no sediment. However, some like to decant young wines, and it’s best to do so by splashing the wine right into the decanter. Since there’s no sediment to worry about, splashing will aerate the wine faster, making it drinkable quicker.
You and Your Wine
Pour your own wine. Inform the waiter that you’ll take care of the wine. Pour just an ounce or two. Don’t add wine to what’s already in your glass because the wine has changed this way you can experience the wine at its evolving stages.
You and the Waiter
You pour your own wine because wait staff are trained to over-pour wine to get you to buy a second bottle.
When pouring wine, offer about 3 ounces at a time. Refills should be the same. Generally, a total of about 10 to 12 ounces throughout a meal can be safely consumed. When wine bottles were created to hold 24 ounces, the thinking was that half a bottle per person with a meal was about the right amount. Larger pours are what waitstaff are trained to do so you’ll order a second bottle, which may lead to impairment.
Wine and Your Meal
Remember to drink wine with your meal. Most people eat, wash it away with water, and then drink their wine. Wine is meant to be married with your meal.
On the Sommelier
If the restaurant has a sommelier, it’s unnecessary to tip the person. Sommeliers usually receive a percentage of the wine you bought, and most sommeliers earn a professional wage.
Get used to screwcaps as you’ll be seeing more of them. It may hurt the romance of a popping cork and ruin the server’s panache, but you’ll have untainted wine.
Speaking of tipping: Look your bill over and don’t tip on any state and local taxes. Subtract the tax, and tip on just the meal, wine, and service received. Tipping ranges from 15 to 20%.
Make sure the restaurant has not already added 17.5%, which is what many European restaurants do. This occurs in the U.S. as well: otherwise, you’ll be tipping somewhere from 32.5 to 37.5%.
You and the Maître D’
Unless a maître d’ has offered you service (reserving a table, or giving you a special table, e.g.), there is no reason to tip.
Wines by the Glass
Unless a restaurant features wines by the glass, don’t order wine by the glass at the bar or at table: it’s often lacking in quality, and you overpay for what little quality there is.
Another reason to be hesitant about ordering wines by the glass at bars is that they offer larger pours, which means they charge you more. It also means there may be danger of impairment, more than most people think. Drink responsibly.
Cost of Wine at Restaurants
Most wines at many restaurants are grossly overpriced between 200 and 300%. The $90 wine you bought cost the restaurant about $30. Also beware of wines on most hotel lists, where a 300%+ markup is normal.
Pairing wine and food: the question of sauces keeps returning: Do you pair wine with the sauce or with the actual subject of the meal? Most chefs will pair a wine with the sauce accompanying the meal, like veal, not the other way around.
On Pairing Again
Not sure about pairing wine and food? Then do the safe thing: order Champagne, sparkling wines or Pinot Noir to carry you through a meal. And beware of Pinot Noir prices: since the popularity of the movie Sideways, prices have become exorbitant, and we have discovered a lot of average even mediocre California Pinot Noir these days priced much too high. Pinot Noir is a most difficult wine to produce. When it is fine, it’s like nothing else in the wine world; when it isn’t, it is just overpriced Pinot Noir.
Think that Champagne is just for special occasions? Get over it and be good to yourself. You deserve it. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial.”
No Champagne Swirl
Speaking of Champagne, there’s no need to swirl it in your glass; the CO2 in the bubbly takes care of opening and expanding its character and flavors.
Wines by Mail
Unless you are sure of the quality you are getting and are happy with whom you are dealing, don’t buy wines or send gift orders from mail order houses. Most of the various package options offered to consumers consist of mediocre wines. Instead, find a good wine retailer, many of whom have the capability of sending wines for you.
Your Wine Cellar
Cellaring wine: If you don’t have a temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar, place fine young red wine capable of aging at the bottom of your wine rack, nearest the floor where it is cooler, which prevents premature aging. Wines ready to drink should be placed at the top part of your wine rack.
Wine serving temperature: questions continue about this. When wine rules were made about serving room temperature, central heating was not a factor, and rooms were often much colder. Arguably, the best serving temperature for a red wine is 60 degrees; somewhat less for white. As for reds, if you don’t have a temperature controlled wine cellar, try putting the bottle in the refrigerator for 10 to 20 minutes before uncorking. For quicker results with reds, get an ice bucket and chill the wine for a few minutes. Purists are appalled by this, but it works.
Wine Cellar Tip
Wines are tougher than you think and while keeping a consistency of temperature and humidity is desirable, it is not always possible for many consumers. Thus, the things to avoid are radical drops in temperature, vibration, and sun.
No Bottle Turning
Some myths die hard: There is absolutely no need to turn your bottles once they’re in the wine rack. Wines need to remain still, not to be needlessly rotated.
Laying Down Bubbly
If you are using your Champagne in the foreseeable future, there is no reason to place it or any sparkling wine on its side. Upright is fine. Otherwise, lay Champagne down as you would any still wine.
Unrefrigerated wine racks in your kitchen are useless. They make a good designer statement but not a good wine one. There’s too much heat and humidity in a kitchen to store your fine wines. If you don’t have a cellar, a cool, dark back hall or closet floor will do.
You don’t have to feel guilty about not consuming that bottle of fine wine you had last night. Screwcaps tightly re-closed and refrigerated can keep wine fresher days longer than any recorked bottle in the same conditions. When removing wine from the refrigerator, let it stand in room temperature for about 10-20 minutes so the wine can regain some of its balance from the shock of cold storage. White wine served too cold is rendered “dumb.” Red wine served cold is nothing short of barbarous, which is frequently the case when you order red wine by the glass in a restaurant or bar.
Unless you’re spending serious dollars on your wine cellar and buying great vintages, like the Bordeaux 2005 or great older vintages from France, California and wherever, don’t fret too much about cellaring because wines today are being made for more immediate consumption, with little aging ahead. The $10 to $50 wine you are buying will generally never be better or fresher than it is when you purchased it.
Will screwcaps assist in aging wine? Thus far, no one knows for sure. Nonetheless, wines in screwcaps should be placed on their side just like any cork closed wine in your rack. It’s best not to take chances. Screwcaps can be damaged via shipping and storage allowing air to enter and spoil the wine.
New wine vocabulary: Garrafeira. With fine wines from Portugal hitting the U.S. market these days, know the word, which in Portuguese parlance means best quality and a wine that will age.
Pairing Sweet with Sweet
Any sweet wine (port for example) being paired should be sweeter than the food or dessert it is paired with; otherwise, you have a conflict of flavors, and nothing is gained.
Leftover Champagne needs to have bubbles preserved, and can be done so with a Champagne stopper, of course, but we find it as effective to closely seal the bottle’s opening with some plastic wrap and secure it tightly with an elastic or a twisty. This should last for 2 to 3 days.
If you’re new to wine, then buy an inexpensive all-purpose balloon glass one that holds at least 12 or more ounces (so the wine can better breathe). They are tougher than fine crystal. Otherwise, buy, as we do, just three kinds fine crystal glasses: Bordeaux (Cabernet), Burgundy, and Champagne. The glassware industry wants you to buy a glass for every varietal, but that is wasteful and unnecessary. We prefer Bottega del Vino Crystal glassware, but any fine glass will do.
Soak the bottle in warm water, add a drop of ammonia, and after 1520 minutes, the label should slide off the bottle.
Many blame sulfites (a natural by-product in all wine), but no one has the answer as to why some people get wine headaches. Sulfites can be dangerous to people with severe allegeries or for people with asthma and other respiratory problems. Headaches may be due to the tannin and histamines in wine. Usually, it is red wine that prompts the headache. White wine is what people with such afflictions need to drink.
Wine at Wineries
When visiting wineries in California, don’t buy bottles of wine from them. The price is higher than you would find at retail wine shops. The reason is that wineries don’t want to anger their importers and distributors by selling their wines for less. Importers, distributors, and retailers are also worried that customers will start buying wines via the internet. Besides, wineries surely don’t mind getting extra profits from their visitors.
You and the Sommelier
Don't be intimidated by sommeliers. When selecting a wine, hold your ground, especially if you know wines, because often the sommelier will try to sell you something "special," which is usually a ploy to increase the check.
Bottle Sizes and Servings (4 oz. per person):
Half Bottle (375 mL): 12 oz, 3 servings
Full Bottle (750 mL): 24 oz, 6 servings
Magnum Bottle (1.5 mL, 2 Bottles): 12 servings
Jeroboam (3 L, 4 bottles): 24 servings