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Wine etiquette for dummies (and snobs) Add to ...

The phone rang. It was late. It had to be her -- or an emergency.

I answered. It was both.

"What should I do?" she said, with gravity in her voice and the din of her favourite cocktail bar in the background.

"About what?" I inquired, setting down the glass of Faiveley Chambertin Clos de Bèze 1993 I'd been nosing.

"My pinot gris!"

"What about your pinot gris?"

"It's corked," she said, referring to the random cork taint that spoils three to five per cent of all wine.

"Send it back," I said.

"But I've already sent it back. This is the second glass. I'm sure they've poured from the same bottle."

Ah, the incredulous-waiter's amusing shell game. And this from the lobby bar of Toronto's fanciest hotel. "All the more reason to send it back," I said. "Teach them a lesson."

Easy for me to say, of course. Had I been in her position instead of on the other end of her cellphone I might have been apprehensive, too. There's something about wine that can bring out vulnerability in even the most confident sorts.

And why not? The one thing that seems in greater supply these days than corked bottles is wine arrogance. No wonder a server will jump to conclusions when a customer turns her nose up at two consecutive $10 glasses of pinot gris. "Must be showing off."

The anecdote underscores not just that well-paid waiters can be ignorant about wine's fragile nature, but that we wine enthusiasts, with our hypersensitive palates and sniff-and-swirl rituals, can seem inscrutable and insufferable to the outside world.

It calls for a little etiquette and restraint, knowing when it's okay to draw attention to wine and when it's not. It calls for rules, and fortunately I have plenty.

Let me say, first, that it is okay make a fuss about wine in a restaurant. If you even remotely suspect a wine is off -- tasting of musty cardboard, vinegar, or sherry (when it's not sherry) -- send it back. The restaurant can always get a refund from the LCBO (remind them, if necessary).

It's not okay, however, to return a wine simply because you don't love it. The point of the waiter's sample-pour ritual at your table is merely to test whether the wine is sound. Once the cork is popped, you've bought the bottle. Which is only fair, if you think about it. You're not offered a flake of monkfish before committing to the bouillabasse.

It is okay to point out at your own dinner party that a wine has turned. If it's a wine brought by a guest, then things can get dicey; it depends on who the guests are and how off the wine tastes.

It's generally not okay to complain about a corked wine when you're merely a guest and the wine isn't yours. A wine aficionado might recoil at this rule, and it certainly depends on the case, but I'm sticking to it as a general principle. The average host -- I stress, average -- will not notice the flaw and, therefore, will likely take offence at your brashness. Nothing brings a rocking dinner party to a screeching halt faster than a wine geek with a quality-control issue. Besides, a few sips of sour wine won't kill anybody. Switch to water if you must, or gracefully wait for the next selection, if there is one.

It is okay -- highly appropriate, in fact -- not to open a guest's gift bottle the night it's offered, unless it's champagne and there's something to celebrate. A host has every right to control the menu, and that includes the drinks.

It is never okay, when you're the host, to open a guest's $200 Bordeaux after the dessert-and-coffee course just because you've run out of other stuff and somebody calls for more vino.

A corollary to the preceding two points is that it's not acceptable to phone the host beforehand to ask what's on the menu so that you can impress everybody with your food-and-wine-pairing skills and the breadth of your cellar, unless you have a prior understanding with the host. Most cooks like their menus to be a surprise, whether they say so or not. If they care about food-and-wine pairing, they'll likely be covering on that front, too.

It is okay to compliment a host on his or her choice of wines.

It is not okay to drone on about malolactic fermentation and the merits of the Scott Henry vine-training system.

It is okay, if you're the host, to tactfully stifle a wine bore who's monopolizing the conversation with infuriating grapespeak, and to steer the discussion toward more common ground -- say, a solution to Mideast peace.

And it's always okay to make a toast. You should use wine to help celebrate togetherness, not the other way around.

TASTINGS

Chantovent Domaine des Fées Merlot 1998 ($8.95) hails from the bargain-rich region of Languedoc-Roussillon in France. It has the classic, velvety texture and plummy flavour of classic merlot, an achievement at this price. Nuances of strawberry, vanilla and spice also come through. The tannic grip makes it suitable for beef, lamb and hard cheeses. Good buy.

 

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