So, you’ve put together the perfect wine list. Your selection is well balanced, great value, bang-up-to-date. It matches the dishes on your menu brilliantly and offers a wide range of price points and styles. Good for you. This will, clearly, add huge value to your business.
Except that it won’t, unless your staff serve it correctly. Let’s just say a glass of Chablis, however delicious, served by pompous waiting staff, with no idea what is behind the label, won’t get much repeat custom. Oh, and it shouldn’t be lukewarm either.
But you knew that. Today, it might seem a bit stuffy to lay down guidelines about how wine is served in restaurants. Stuck-up waiters patronising diners with ancient rules about savouring classic claret with steak is clearly not a modern approach. That said, there are certain important basics to get right. These are the timeless factors which make drinking wine a more pleasurable experience. They don’t require a vast amount of knowledge about the subject (no Master of Wine needed here), simply a bit of vinous ‘savvy’ in terms of serving this wonderful but fragile liquid in the best possible way.
So, following my article How to win with wine, featuring the top 10 tips for building a wine list, here are my 10 best ways to get the stuff on to the table. Simple but effective rules which make the most of the great wines you’ve put on the list.
1. Get the knowledge:
Very few restaurants are staffed entirely by wine buffs. However, anyone waiting tables should have a basic knowledge of wine. The main differences between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, or Riesling and Chardonnay should be appreciated. Simple stuff, so make sure novices read a decent wine book, at least, or perhaps sign up to a wine course. Better still, teach them yourself or get someone with good experience to show them the ropes, which ideally includes opening a few bottles to sample from time to time. Your wine merchant/supplier(s) would be a canny place to start.
2. A true marriage:
Make sure everyone involved in the wine side of your business understands the perfect pairing of menu and drinks. They (supplier, waiters, chefs, managers) all need to project the same image: that the wine and food matches brilliantly. That means talking through the menu and the particular partners that work best. Think that Aussie Riesling is a wow with the prawn noodles? Then let all involved know so everyone passes on the same message to the diners. In other words, sing from the same hymn book. Again, opening a few bottles and letting everyone try out the wines and throw ideas around is always an idea. After service, of course.
3. Freshness is all:
Never, never fob off old wines on diners. Light whites (with the exception of mature Riesling and top Loire whites), dry sherries, all pink wines, the less expensive sparklers, should each be super-new, youthful and bright. Make sure your wines are turning over regularly or ditch that bin number for something refreshingly different. Keep a keen eye on opened bottles and chuck anything that shows the slightest sign of oxidation (lack of freshness and zingy fruit). Invest in a wine preservation system if this tends to happen a lot.
4. Cool it down:
Serve all the above styles of wine chilled. Of course. But make sure they are kept cool after opening, too, by providing ice buckets or plastic coolers. If customers linger for two hours over a bottle of chilled white, it won’t be, er, chilled after half an hour, unless precautions are taken! More surprisingly, perhaps: make sure your wines aren’t over-cooled. Ice-cold wines tend to have muted aromas and flavours, and can taste like a tart but bland citrus sorbet. So, chilled, but not popsicle, please.
5. Jammy dodgers:
Just as you shouldn’t serve whites and pinks too cold, ensure you don’t sell red that’s too warm. There’s a horrible tendency for reds to turn jammy when served too hot in restaurants. As a rule, bigger, full-bodied reds should be served at room temperature, or very slightly below, while lighter, soft reds (like Pinot Noir & Beaujolais) taste better for a very light chill, which brings out their succulent, juicy quality. Half an hour in the fridge for them, or longer in hot weather.
6. Checking for essentials:
Bring exactly the wine that was ordered, not one from a new, unlisted vintage, or a different producer from the same region. You should present a wine to the customer that is exactly what they saw on the list. Let them see the label and agree it is the same creature. It’s really irritating to a wine lover when the wrong bottle or simply the wrong vintage pitches up at the table.
7. Don’t patronise:
It shouldn’t need saying as much as it did in the bad old days, but the customer is always right… no, really, even if he/she wants to sip rich Aussie Shiraz with sushi. Guide them as much as you like, but it’s their decision in the end. Ditto if your customer finds a fault in the wine - if they say it’s corked, replace it without argument. Oh, and don’t correct anyone‘s pronounciation. A glass of Polly-Phhoom and a Ree-Odga, sir? Right away. Oh, and on that subject, in a (very) few super-smart establishments it’s the done thing to pour the wine, then leave it way out of arm’s reach of the diner. Annoying! In most normal restaurants, this is not good practice. Let them reach for their own wine, and top themselves up when wanted. It’s their bottle, after all.
8. Pick the right stems:
Ones that show off the wine correctly, but don’t draw attention to themselves. Plain, thin, clear, uncoloured glass, tall stems, elegant bowls. You can save the chunky, bright blue, gold-rimmed tumblers for the water glasses. Serve dry fino sherry, dessert wines, ports and liqueurs from smaller white wine glasses, not stingy, old-fashioned schooners.
9. Up the offer:
It’s still perfectly acceptable to suggest a glass (not necessarily a bottle) of dessert wine, port or fine spirit after dinner. But bear in mind that modern tastes mean someone might enjoy a cold beer or glass of fizz after a big meal, rather than a cognac or liqueur. It`s good to offer lots of alternatives at this point, including decent herbal teas instead of strong coffee.
10. But don’t let them overdo it:
Keep an eye out for anyone drinking too heavily, especially in rowdy groups. Have a plan among staff for what to do if anyone gets out of hand. With more mild-mannered guests, don`t push expensive wines or excessive amounts of alcohol on anyone, especially the younger clients. Quite apart from social responsibility when it comes to selling alcohol (never more important), no one will return to your restaurant if their predominant, if fuzzy, memory was a terrible hangover! Serve great wine in a thoughtful way, and in elegant moderation, and repeat custom should be guaranteed.
Susy Atkins also writes a weekly wine column for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, and appears regularly on BBC1`s Saturday Kitchen. susyatkins.com