The process of opening a bottle of wine, be it still or sparkling, is straightforward. However, there’s only one way to do it correctly, with minor variations depending on the style of restaurant. But most of the time it’s done wrong, as in slightly wrong in the form of minor details left out which don’t offend and usually go unnoticed. These are the venial sins of the wine service confessional, if you will. Then there are the tragic errors, the cardinal sins, where even the most clueless diner may sit up and take notice while other, more informed, denizens of the dining room are alarmed, offended, or even possibly maimed. These catastrophic errors are the stuff of legend. This is a story of one dinner where not one, but three, were committed. The name of the restaurant and those involved have been changed to protect the record.
Some years ago I was in England working with the flavor development team of Frito-Lay International, the Willy Wonka division of the world’s largest snack foods company. I had worked with the UK team all afternoon on food and wine pairing combinations with an eye on creating a line of wine-friendly snacks. It had been a productive session and the six of us headed out dinner in the best of spirits. My client had arranged for dinner at a small well-known restaurant on the Thames in the countryside near Reading. He assured me it was the best restaurant in the region and had a great wine list.
I: Champagne service is not weapons training
After being seated, my client—and the host for the evening—suggested we order a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the occasion. A young tall red-haired lad appeared momentarily at the table and handed me a huge leather-bound tome that was the wine list. The list was comprehensive with considerable depth in most major European wine regions. I scanned the Champagne section and chose a bottle of non-vintage rosé from a small grower-producer house. Order taken, the lad returned in a few minutes with the bottle of pink bubbly in tow. After presenting the bottle to me, he started talking non-stop about the weather, the menu, and that evening’s specials. All the while he was undoing the tab and taking off most of the capsule on the bottle, which was accomplished in a single brash tearing motion (dwarf bull fighting came to mind). Without missing a beat, he undid the wire cage and put it in his pocket.
Afterwards, he kept talking with the unprotected and very naked cork pointing at us, at other guests, and then back at then us again. I considered ducking under the table more than once but thought better of it lest my colleagues think it overly dramatic. Finally, after threatening the entire dining room with the primed bottle, he reached for the cork with a grandiose gesture and promptly lost it with a spectacular and deafening BLAM. The cork rocketed out of the bottle and bounced off the ceiling leaving a sizable dent before returning to the terra firma of our table and ricocheting on to the floor out of sight. The explosion was accompanied by the inevitable gusher of pink fizzy wine that splooshed over the lad’s hands and on to the carpeting. A few moments of stunned silence ensued. Then Champagne guy mumbled something like, “uh, happy new year,” before proceeding to pour the bottle around the table without further damage.
The sin: losing control of a Champagne cork
Safety first. A bottle of bubbly is under as much as 120 pounds per square inch pressure, as in more than in car tires. Opening a bottle is not to be taken lightly as people are injured or killed every year from errant Champagne corks. Safety again is the bottom line. Unless you’ve just won a Formula 1 race or you’re launching the Queen Mary, opening the bottle quietly and safely is the prime directive. The overly zealous lad should have placed a folded serviette over the top of the bottle BEFORE removing the cage. Then, with a firm grip over napkin and top of the bottle, he should have loosened—but NOT taken off—the cage, removing the cage and cork at the same time, and as quietly as possible. Spewing wine, wine that we were paying for by the way, is also not an option and yet another reason to open the bottle with a serviette draped over the top of the bottle.
II: Did you want some too?
After Champagne guy left the table we quickly regained our composure and sipped the bubbly. As everyone looked over the menu, I ordered a bottle of Premier Cru Chablis for the starter course from our waitress. Champagne guy was not to be found, so she brought the bottle to the table. She, too, was remarkably chatty but managed to get the cork out without incident. After opening the bottle, she asked if I would like to taste the wine. I said yes and then she then proceeded to cheerfully pour me over half a glass. I grabbed my glass with the sturdy grip used by pirates for a daily ration of grog and rotated it slowly so as not to hose down my fellow diners. I took a sip and it was delicious.
She smiled and then proceeded to over pour for the other guests. But she also ran out of wine before she got to the last person at the table, who also happened to be the host, as in the same host who would be picking up the check. To reiterate, she didn’t make it around a table of six with a full bottle of wine, which is not easy to do. Much to her credit, she smiled and asked if we would like a second bottle. We politely refused and once she left the table several of us chipped in to make sure our host got some Chablis to accompany his appetizer.
The sin: running out of wine before you make it around the table is inexcusable
Other than dropping the bottle on the floor or pouring wine on a guest at the table, nothing is tackier than running out wine before you make it back to the host. It doesn’t matter if the table is a 12-top and the host is so clueless or cheap to only have ordered a single 750 ml bottle for the table. The sommelier or server should easily be able to make it around the table and pour off the bottle when serving the host, who incidentally should always be served last. If in doubt, massively under pour everyone’s glasses but never, EVER, run out of wine.
III: The body was on the floor when I got here
After the appetizers were cleared, I ordered an older vintage of Rioja Gran Reserva to be served with the entrees. Then I excused myself and went to the men’s room. In my absence, the host informed Champagne guy, who had reappeared, that I was a Master Sommelier. Probably not a good idea. After I returned to the table, the lad showed up with the bottle of Rioja. Gone now was the youthful bravado that accompanied the Champagne incident. In its place was a serious case of nerves. The cork was removed without injury, but the dripping began immediately with his pouring a taste for me. After I approved the wine, he went around the table serving the wine but leaving an almost perfect uninterrupted ring of red drips and splashes between place settings. By the time he had made it back to me with the bottle, the table top looked like a crime scene. After an uncomfortable eternity, he finished pouring, set the bottle down firmly, and left the table visibly shaken. Everyone looked at the table top for many long moments and then stared at me. I shrugged and said, “well, I guess I’ll always have a job.”
The sin: not using a serviette when pouring wine
The fix: this one’s a no-brainer. A serviette must be used to prevent drips whenever pouring wine. Always. Otherwise, get out the yellow crime scene tape or a damp mop. Or both.