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Basic Wine Etiquette

Whether you are celebrating with friends over a meal or selecting a wine as a gift, it is important to know the basics of wine etiquette. While some occasions may be more formal than others, there are some unspoken rules that you should adhere to if you care to impress, and not offend, your companions. The following tips will help prepare you for your next wine occasion and will make your experience more enjoyable.

Wine Tasting

A winery is an excellent place to go to learn about wine. Wineries have staff on hand to explain the different wine styles and to help you find what your wine preferences are. There are some rules that wine lovers adhere to as guests at a winery.

When tasting different wines at a winery, it is perfectly acceptable to discard wine that you do not like into a receptacle. Typically, water and crackers will be offered so you can cleanse your palate between each wine. Help yourself, but remember that these are offered to enhance your tasting experience and are, unless the winery says otherwise, not offered as an appetizer.

While it is not acceptable to ask for a second taste of every single wine you try, it is acceptable for you to request a second taste of a wine that you are uncertain about.  Beyond the second taste, if you want to experience more of a particular type of wine, purchase a glass to enjoy.

Purchase only wines that you enjoy, however; if you are visiting a small winery, it is in good taste to make a purchase before leaving.

(Follow this link for more information on wine tasting.)

Dining Out

If you are having difficulty selecting a wine, ask your server (fine dining restaurants specializing in wine service may have a trained expert called a “sommelier”) for suggestion based on your budget and your meal. A trained server/sommelier should be experienced in pairing your meal with your wine.  When you are sharing a bottle with friends, be sure that your wine selection compliments everyone’s meal, or order individual glasses.

When your server brings your wine to your table, follow these steps:

  • Observe the label and be sure that it is the bottle and vintage that you ordered.
  • Taste the small amount that the server pours into your glass (see wine tasting)
  • Observe the cork (the server should place it next to your place setting) to be sure there is no mold, that it is not too dry and that it has consistent color.

If the wine meets your expectations give your server a smile and a nod of acceptance. Do not be afraid to reject the wine if it truly does not come close to your expectations, especially if it is an expensive wine.

It is generally acceptable to bring your own wine to a restaurant (although more so on the West Coast than on the East Coast) If you do so, it is important to know proper corkage etiquette. Call the restaurant in advance to verify that corkage is allowed and be prepared to pay the corkage fee (typically around $20). Bring a wine that is relatively unique (certainly not something that is on the restaurant’s wine list). It is also good etiquette to offer your server or sommelier a taste after the wine is opened.

If a sommelier has assisted you, it’s good etiquette to tip them 10% - 20% of the wine price.

Serving Wine At Home

When you invite guests into your home for a dinner party or wine tasting, proper etiquette ensures that your guests can comfortably enjoy themselves and the wine you are serving.

Take care in selecting a wine that “pairs” well with the food that you are serving. (See the sidebar for a guide to pairing.)

Prior to dinner, a lighter white wine is appropriate.

Serve your wine at the correct temperature.

The temperature that the wine is stored and served at can alter the chemistry of the wine.

In general, red wines should be served at between 62-65F (16-18C) and white wine should be between 58-62F (14-16C). If you need to cool your wine, stick it in the refrigerator, but remember that the temperature will drop 2 degrees for every ten minutes. For wines that have been in the refrigerator, the temperature will raise by 2 degrees for every ten minutes that it is at room temperature.

Let your wine breathe.

Once your wine is at the correct temperature, give your bottle a chance to breathe before serving.  Allowing your wine to breathe oxidizes the wine, bringing out the potential of the flavor. There are several ways that you can do this. More experienced wine drinkers may own a decanter for decanting and serving wine. Another, simpler, option is to let it sit in the glass. If you are more anxious or pressed for time, swirling the wine in your glass can also oxidize it.

Select the right glass.

In addition to adding elegance to your dinner party, the glass that you select can complement the drink it is intended to serve. The type of glass depends on what you are serving; red wine is served in a large glass with a bowl-shaped bottom, while white wine is served in a small egg shaped glass.

Always serve your wine in clean, spotless glasses. Also, when serving an aged red, be sure that the last glass poured from a bottle does not contain sediment.

Pour Sparkling wines should be poured gently, so that the bubbles are preserved. Also, take care to pour the wine in the center of the glass to enable the aroma to float upwards.

When you pour wine for the your guests, leave the glass at least ½ empty. Filling a glass to the rim it makes it difficult to drink without spilling

Wine As A Gift

When you are invited to someone’s home for dinner, a bottle of wine is an appropriate and thoughtful gift for your host/hostess.

Most hosts/hostesses will have their wine planned out ahead of time to pair with their meal, so do not expect that your gifted bottle will be served with dinner. For this reason, do not bring a bottle of white wine already chilled. This assumes you expect the host/hostess to open it.

If you are gifting wine to a good friend, choose a bottle you know they will enjoy. For example, if your host or hostess enjoys desserts, go with champagne or a sparkling wine. If you know that they are fond of a certain vintage, choose a price point and look for a featured wine of that vintage.

If you are not as familiar with their wine tastes, a general rule is to choose red in winter and white in summer. Also, stay neutral by selecting a medium priced wine of medium body.

Consider presentation. Tissue paper with a ribbon or a wine specific gift bag are always a great way to gift your bottle. As an added bonus, consider an accessory to go along with your bottle, such as a cork screw or a wine stopper.

Wine Pairing

  • Cabernet Sauvignon – red meats, barbequed steak, grilled and smoked foods.
  • Chardonnay – grilled chicken, salmon, shellfish, and grilled fish
  • Merlot – pasta, red meat, duck, smoked or grilled foods
  • Pinot Noir – light meats, chicken, grilled anything, salmon
  • Sauvignon Blanc – white or light fish, mild cheese, fruit
  • Syrah – red meats, spicy pizzas, herbed sauces on red meat, turkey
  • Zinfandel – tomato pasta dishes, pesto, red meats, chicken with heavy sauce

The most important rule is to use your knowledge of wine etiquette to further your, and your companions, appreciation and enjoyment for wine.

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