“I'm not sure how I should be drinking it (types of glasses, food, cork smelling, etc) So maybe a bit of explanation of the wine customs would help me so when I'm on a business dinner or something I can look like I know what I'm doing.”
This is a comment from Chris (btw, I want to eat EVERYTHING on your blog!), but it’s certainly not an uncommon feeling. I like this word “customs,” it suggests the cultural aspects of wine. For some reason, I think folks are scared of making “mistakes” in the service of wine, when they’re perfectly comfortable exploring the culture of music or movies. Just like movies and music, there are some expectations and common practices, equally there are no hard and fast rules, and no real “mistakes” to be made.
So, here’s the deal…
Glasses – preferably made of glass, something sort of cup shape with no holes in the side or bottom. Seriously, I’m gonna go on record here as saying that it’s not that big a deal. Do good glasses make a difference? Yes. Are thin glasses with a stem ideal? Sure. But if you’ve got a bottle of nice chilled white wine, and a plastic tumbler, and you’re thirsty – that wine should taste pretty darn good. Get the best glasses you can afford, and use those – don’t worry about it too much. I use the fairly inexpensive Riedel Ouverture Red Wine glasses at home, as well as the Riedel "O" series Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling glasses. (Riedel is doing a line for Target now that is very affordable, and look to be of fine quality.)
Food – “Wine is Food.” I think wine tastes best with food, and food tastes best with wine. This should be a post unto itself, another time.
Corks – Cork comes from the bark of a type of oak tree that only grow in Portugal and parts of Spain. Sometimes a chemical called TCA can contaminate the cork, and in turn ruin the wine. “Corked” wine will smell musty and stale (a lot like the old porno mags that me and my neighbor found under his mom’s bed) or like wet cardboard - the taste will be muted and musty as well.
This is the sole reason waiters go through the ritual of presenting to cork, and having someone taste the wine. All one needs to do is quickly smell and taste the wine, looking for those musty, corky notes – if the wine is corked, you can send it back. This practice is not an invitation for you to decide if you like the wine or not. While there are other things that could damage a bottle of wine, they are few and fairly rare (especially for young wines). Wine does not commonly turn to “vinegar” in the bottle, if that were the happen the wine would be fizzy – if you get a bottle of wine that you don’t think should be fizzy (i.e. a dry red) ask the server if that’s normal, if not send the bottle back.
The truth of the matter is, lots of servers don’t know why they do this ritual, nor are they familiar with corked wine. It’s not uncommon for servers to present a synthetic cork (which can not carry TCA). My best suggestion is to become familiar with what corked wine smells and tastes like – go to your friendly neighborhood wine shop and ask them if they have a corked bottle of wine that you could smell (a worthwhile retailer will honor the return of a corked wine no questions asked). At a restaurant, if you’re unsure, have someone else taste the wine, ask the server to taste, ask if there’s a wine director who can advise. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to ask for a new bottle of a wine that is flawed (not simply something you don’t like).
As to the “business dinner,” I think the smartest thing to do is use the restaurant. Ask the server for suggestions. Ask to speak to the wine director. Have the staff recommend wines that will pair well with your meal. Don’t be afraid to order wine by the glass if one person in your party has ordered whitefish and another has ordered lamb. Decide how much you’re comfortable spending, and ask for help. The staff of a restaurant should be trained in how to use their wine list (unfortunately, manner are not), when you’re spending your good money on a fine meal, good wine service should be expected. If you’re not happy with the staff knowledge of the wine list at a certain restaurant – let the management know, tell your friends, don’t go back.
This does not apply simply to high-end restaurants – sure you should give your local bistro a bit of a break, but good wine service (a familiarity with the list, suggested pairings with the food, etc) should be something that you expect from your overall dining experience. Restaurants make huge margin on wine and liquor, and far too often cut corners by not training the staff (which quite simply entails letting servers taste the wines, and talk with the wine buyer about the choices she/he makes).
All you have to do is treat wine like you would records, books, or DVD’s – find a place where there’s someone to talk to, tell them what you like and don’t like, take their recommendations, and let them know what you responded to. This works in shops and restaurants, and the places that make you feel the most comfortable and understand your tastes (at the same time opening your horizons) are the places that you should frequent.
"The tools of the trade are the head and the heart."