Wine Etiquette in a Restaurant: How to Look Like a Polished Host When Ordering Wine

By: Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick

When entertaining clients at a business meal or trying to impress a date, being able to order a bottle of wine with confidence is a must if you want to be viewed as a polished host; but wine etiquette in a upscale restaurant can be an unnecessarily difficult ordeal. Do not let what you don’t know about wine, however, intimidate you. The restaurant staff is there to help you; and the following tips will allow you to follow the customs of wine service with ease and confidence.

Illustration by Mr Vincent Mahé

When choosing a wine from a restaurant’s wine list, the main goal is to accomplish a suitable pairing with the entrees of your party. If the food orders are too different to generalize with one wine, consider purchasing splits or ordering by the glass. Waiters and sommeliers are there to answer your questions, so don’t hesitate to ask for their advice. No one knows the wine list or the food menu as well as the people who work in the restaurant, and their insights can steer people to the best wine-and-food fit.

The Sommelier’s Job

A sommelier is the person whose job it is to design the wine list and help people find their way through it. And, it is their job to ensure that all of the items on the menu have wines that can be paired with them.

Your Job as Host

The greatest sommelier in the world will be completely useless to you unless you can call on him to help, so your first job is to ask him.

Be prepared to tell him:

  • What you are having to eat.

  • How much you want to spend.

  • What you have in mind, if anything.

  • What sorts of wine you typically enjoy—red, white, a little sweet, bone-dry, etc.

Check the Label

After ordering, the waiter/sommelier will retrieve your selection, and then present it, label forward, to the host of the party. It is your job to ensure that he has pulled the right bottle from the cellar.

Look to see:

  • It’s the right label.

  • It’s the right vintage.

  • It’s the right bottling. (If you’ve ordered Blanc de Blanc and it’s Blanc de Noir, it’s not the same wine.)

The Cork

When you have verified that the wine the waiter or sommelier is about to open is indeed the one you ordered, he will open it and place the cork on the table. What are you supposed to do with it? Nothing, unless it is clearly tainted, and the waiter/sommelier should notice this. Winemakers may smell the cork, but most of us will only smell nothing but wet, winey cork.

Take a Taste

The wine person will pour a little into the host’s glass and then stand there waiting for his or her approval. Just give the glass a little swirl, smell the wine, then taste it. You’ll know it’s spoiled if it’s corked—smells and tastes like wet cardboard; vinegared—smells like vinegar; or bubbling—sparkling or bubbling, and you’ve ordered a wine that isn’t sparkling. If the wine is any of these things, tell the wine person. Don’t be embarrassed. It is your duty as the host to make sure your guests enjoy their meal. If, on the other hand, a wine has been recommended to you and you don’t like it, it is not acceptable to send it back.

After you, the host, have taken a sip and given your approval, the waiter will move onto the next person and fill everyone’s glasses, coming back to you last. He will fill the glasses only half full, depending upon the size of the glass to allow you room to swirl the wine without getting it on you or the tablecloth. Guests should wait to take a drink until their host has lifted his or her glass.

Holding a Wine Glass

Generally-speaking, one should hold a champagne glass or white wine glass by the stem, and a red wine glass by the bowl. When you hold a glass by the bowl, your hand warms the wine, which is okay for a red wine, but not a white wine or champagne that has been properly chilled.

Refusing to Have Wine

If wine is being served, and you do not want any, place your fingertips lightly on the rim of the glass when the server approaches to pour. Do not turn your glass upside down. You may say, “I’m not having any today or this evening. The “today” or “this evening” sends a message that you don’t disapprove of wine, and others should feel no compunction about enjoying the wine.


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