A lesson in wine etiquette

Whether you’re selecting wine as a gift or celebrating with friends over dinner, it’s important to know a few basic wine rules.

Sommelier Natalie MacLean stopped by the social with tips on how to avoid a few key grape gaffes.  Here are her tips on proper wine etiquette: 

How do I hold a wine glass, by the stem or the bowl?

  • Some wine lovers like to “condition” their wine glass before drinking: they pour about an ounce or two of the wine they’re going to drink into the glass and swirl it around the sides so that it coats the sides. Then they dump it out to get rid of any residual odours. Then they pour the wine they’ll drink into the glass.
  • Pour the wine to no more than one-third level of the glass. This will give you room to swirl your glass in order to appreciate the aromas.
  • Hold your glass by stem—otherwise your hands will warm the bowl and the wine, and leave unsightly fingerprints. Your wine glass should never be poured more than a third full
  • Stemless wine glasses:
    • Are trendy and it's usually not a problem when you're drinking red wine as your hands will warm the wine and make the aromas more airborne
    • Pose a problem with white wines, however, because you don’t want to warm a white

What happens if I bring a beautiful bottle of Burgundy to a house party and the host serves me an $8 bottle of poor-quality wine? Do I say something or keep my mouth shut?

  • If you want to drink your wine, make it obvious by calling ahead to ask your host which wines you can contribute to complement what is being served for dinner.
  • When you arrive, stay alert and agile, ready for the next move. On the doorstep, with corkscrew in hand if necessary, use the assumptive close-of-sale technique: “Here’s the cabernet for dinner. Where would you like me to open it to let it breathe?”  Short of decanting the wine in the car, this should adequately make the point that you want to drink the wine that evening.
  • Of course, if you know that they’re the people who consistently open their own stock, don’t bother bringing a bottle you want to drink.

How do I handle being offered my friend's awful homemade wine? 

  • You could grit your teeth and say it’s unlike anything you’ve tasted. 
  • You could feign an illness that precludes you from drinking (a pill bottle filled with red Smarties is a credible prop). You could accidentally topple the glass with a cheerful “Oops!” (this only works for the first glass and must be followed quickly by the selected illness).
  • As a last resort, you can drink up, recognizing the act as a testament to your friendship.

What if I want to bring my own well-cellared bottle of wine to a restaurant?

  • Call ahead to see if customers can bring their own stock. Some refuse, while others permit it only on special occasions, particularly since much of the meal’s profit may be in the wine’s price.
  • There may be a corkage fee, but that’s usually small change compared to ordering the same wine from the restaurant list.
  • Make sure you tip well, based on the wine you would’ve had to buy.

Let’s say I'm at a restaurant and get a cranky sommelier who pours me a rare bottle of wine to sample. I swirl it in my mouth and realize it has gone bad; it’s probably corked.  What do I say to break the expectant silence?

  • For some sommeliers, a simple explanation of “I think this bottle is a bit off” will suffice; for others you must be ready to do verbal hand-to-hand combat.
  • You’ll recognize this latter type by a number of signals, such as a tendency to finger the Tastevin like a hand gun or slow crouching movements towards your table.
  • Stand firm. Do not lower your eyes. It’s your right to refuse a bottle, and a good restaurateur will take it back without question (mind you, if it’s the second or third refusal you may hear some growling).

If I’m attending a dinner party and I’m enjoying my wine a little faster than the host, can I help myself and refill my glass, or do I need to wait for the host? 

  • If the dinner party is informal and you have a close relationship with your friends, then go for it.
  • If you’re in a more formal setting, wait for the host, though you can make it more obvious that you've run out of wine by lifting your empty glass and almost drinking then saying "Oh my goodness, that was good!"

I know that a wine’s bouquet is nearly as important as its taste. Let’s say I’m in a restaurant and I breathe in deeply to search for the aromas in my glass of Pinot Noir but all I get is the acrid smell of perfume from the woman sitting next to me. What can I do?

  • Short of diluting the woman's essence with your table water, there aren't many options in this situation.
  • You could put up with it, but strong smells ruin a fine wine since most of its nuances are in its bouquet.
  • You could leave, but who wants to cut the evening short? Besides, there might be a wonderful wine snuggled under that blanket of perfume.
  • Your best bet is to ask to be seated elsewhere in the restaurant.

For more great wine tips from Natalie, be sure to follow her on Twitter and visit her website, NatalieMacLean.com.

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