Wine Hunter

Wine Etiquette From A Corporate Waiter

I work in corporate hospitality, and you’d be surprised how many people I’ve served pretending to know their wine etiquette. 

It’s a cringe-worthy moment. When they ask, “can I have a glass of champagne?” and you know none of the sparkling wine products at your bar were made using grapes grown in Champagne, France. Or when they hold a white wine glass like a cricket ball. Or when they – god forbid – do the whole sniff test for a bottle of wine that costs $18 at Dan Murphys. It happens more than you think… And so, I’ve made it my responsibility to share with you a list of lessons on wine etiquette.

Without further ado, here is a list of ten pieces of pertinent information for those drinking wine in a public setting.

Wine glass shapes. Image: Mariyana M

Wine glass shapes. Image: Mariyana M

White wine goes in a white wine glass

If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone at a three-course function dinner pour a white wine into a red wine glass… well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d definitely be able to afford a weekend holiday to Melbourne. But seriously, white wine goes in a white wine glass, just like red wine goes in a red wine glass. Their sizes are designed purposefully: White wine requires to be more compact to keep its coldness, while red wine requires a larger bowl surface with a higher rim to best showcase its flavours and aromas. In short: Red wine for the bigger glass and white wine for the smaller glass. Unless you’re at home by yourself, then, in that case, either wine goes in a big glass.

As for sparkling wine and champagne glasses, it seems etiquette has yet to catch up with science. The custom is drinking them out of flutes (or flat bowl-shaped ones if you’re doing a theme party of 1930s aristocratic England), but science tells us the normal white wine-shaped glass is best.

It’s okay if you don’t know – Just ask

I remember serving this one lady who was out with her friends. I was standing by the table with a pen and notepad as she perused the menu, and then she leaned over to her friend pointing at the mid-priced sauvignon blanc from Tasmania saying “this one sounds rather sweet”. No… no, it’s not. While it might seem lavish and empowering to know your wines, be aware that us waiters (and perhaps some of your friends) can easily tell when you don’t. We’ll probably giggle in the cleanup area about your silly misconceptions about sweetness and acidity of particular wines, and that’s because we have a whole day of work and this is our downtime. But a lot of us waiters will respect you more if you ask us rather than fabricate assumptions.

Sniff tests are not for all occasions

Nothing is as both entertaining and embarrassing as a man conducting a sniff test for a $30 bottle of wine at an average restaurant. Mainly because that $30 bottle of wine likely costs around $15 at the local bottle shop, but also because the waiter likely poured a full glass and not a small splash that is best for sniffing. Of course, taste testing is a necessity at all restaurants, to ascertain whether the wine is off or has become tainted by the cork. But sniffing should only be left for vineyards and high-end restaurants, or else you’ll be seen as pompous.

A girl holding a glass of red wine at a party with friends. Image: Roman Samborskyi

A girl holding a glass of red wine at a party with friends. Image: Roman Samborskyi

Hold your glass the right way

Hands generate warmth and give it off just as easily, which is why you should hold your wine glass the right way. While it might seem nice to cup your white wine glass with both hands because it’s rather warm at the bar, it’ll only warm up your white wine. A white wine glass and a champagne glass should be held at the top of the stem, while a red wine glass should be held like a tennis ball or as if you are cupping a bull’s manhood with the stem falling between fingers.

Tilt your champagne flute

As a corporate waiter who has worked in many lavish functions, one particular thing that irritates me is when I’m topping up people’s glasses of bubbly and they hold it straight up. This is actually quite awkward because as I pour the glass I will have to stop for a 10-second intermission while the inch of bubbles slowly fizzles down so I can finish topping it up properly and fully. If you tilted it, we wouldn’t be standing here with our awkward pause. That being said, if etiquette kept up with science, this issue may not be apparent.

The white wine differences

White wines are differentiated by the grapes they use, with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay using green-coloured grapes, while pinot gris and pinot grigio use greyish blue-coloured grapes. The name of the wine is the name of the grape (ie, sauvignon blanc uses sauvignon blanc grape), and it’s acidity, sweetness and flavour depends on the climate and the environment where the wines are made, and the added flavours mixed in. Sauvignon blancs are usually more acidic and crisp with a lighter feel and taste, while chardonnay is often fuller in feel and taste and can be sweeter. As for pinot gris and pinot grigio, they both use the pinot gris grape, so a lot of their differences depend on climate, environment and production. Crisper and drier wines are usually labelled pinot grigio, while sweeter wines are labelled pinot gris.

The red wine differences

So now we know that differences in wine varieties depend on which grapes are used, which means this section will be easier. Shiraz is made from the syrah grape and generally this wine falls between medium to full-bodied with high levels of tannins – a textural element that makes wine taste dry and which originates from flora. Cabernet sauvignon is full-bodied and also showcases high tannins, with noticeable acidity. Shiraz and cabernet differ in flavours, with shiraz being more peppery and smokey, while cabernet reveals tones of blackberry and cassis. Merlots are also medium to full-bodied but hold fewer tannins than shiraz and cabernet, and differs depending on the time of harvesting. Early harvest bring forth acidity and a more medium bodied finish, while late harvesting creates a full-bodied wine, that’s higher in alcohol and purpler in colour. The last of the popular red wines is pinot noir, which is harder to cultivate due to the grape growing in tight clusters, allowing the prevalence of grape disease to be more likely. Pinot noirs are medium-bodied with low tannins and can differ in flavours as it ages.

Sometimes your waiter won’t know either

If you are at a function at a non-restaurant venue then chances are the waiters there are not going to be familiar with the wines that are served, simply because they are likely to be outsourced staff from temp agencies. While these staff members are trained in understanding the different types of wines and wine etiquette, they may not be able to tell you if the wine they are serving is sweet or acidic or if it even tastes great. They could grab the manager, but they may also hold the same amount of knowledge. Your best bet in these circumstances is to consult the wonders of the internet. If you are in a permanent restaurant and the waiter cannot tell you, then I’d politely tell them to get their managers to teach them. Whatever you do, do not ever be rude to them. They are humans, after all.

A hand holding a wine bottle like he would a newborn baby. Image: Astroette

A hand holding a wine bottle like it would a newborn baby. Image: Astroette

Treat a bottle of wine like a newborn baby

Whenever you handle a bottle, please handle it as if it’s a newborn baby. Do not hold it by the neck. And that especially goes for pouring wine, too. Further, unless you are at a high-end restaurant with specific customs, you do not need to pour a bottle of wine with your thumb up the bottom. That is, in my opinion, so tragically upper class that it’s pompous. A nice way to pour a bottle is by holding the lower end of the bottle – like you would with your smartphone – and pour with the label facing the person whom the pouring is intended for. For red wine, it is wise to carry a cloth to wipe the lip of the bottle after each pour. For white wine, you should hold the bottle with a cloth so as to not transfer the warmth from your hands to the bottle.

When things go wrong

Lastly, on this passive-aggressive journey of wine etiquette, we must constantly remember that things can go wrong. And we must remember that when these things happen, we must keep our cool. This goes for patrons and waiters. Sometimes the cork breaks up in the wine as the waiter tries to coax it out. Sometimes the wine is off. And sometimes waiters can drop their tray of glassware (with or without the help of a slightly intoxicated patron). In these circumstances, we must remember the famous French phrase: c’est la vie. Because that truly is life.

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