- Q & A
Chapter 8: Wine Service and Accessories
WINE SERVICE IN RESTAURANTS
Although it might appear ritualistic to the uneducated, there are some good reasons for the wine service ritual.
After you're ordered a wine and it has been presented, inspect the label to make certain it is the correct producer, type, vintage, etc. When the cork is drawn, it should be squeezed to be certain it is resilient and, therefore, has provided a good seal for the wine. A hard, brittle cork is a sign (although not a guarantee) that air might have been introduced into the wine. Some consumers also smell the end of the cork that has been in contact with the wine. Most corks, however, smell like, well, cork.
With the emergence of synthetic corks, this ritual is not needed. A good synthetic cork, or even screwcap, will not give you any indication of the quality of the wine. It will offer no aroma nor will it give you a clue as to its resiliency since most are harder than natural cork. Synthetic cork will, however, provide insurance against the "corky" component inherent in far too many corks produced today. This corkiness is the result of a bacteria that is rampantly affecting cork trees and spoils wine with just a few weeks of contact. It is discussed in more detail at a later point in this chapter.
A small amount of wine, an ounce or two, is poured into the host's glass for evaluation. If he or she considers the wine good and without fault, then wine is poured for the guests. The host's glass is poured last. The best wineglasses are clear and have about a 12-ounce capacity. They should never be filled more than 1/3 to 1/2 full. The clear glass allows the wine's color to be observed the low fill allows the wine to be gently swirled so that its aroma and bouquet can be fully enjoyed.
If the wine is correct, then tell the server to pour for the rest of the guests. If you believe that there is something chemically wrong, you should bring this to the attention of the server by saying, "I believe this wine is flawed. Would you mind trying it?" There is a delicate balance here. Rejecting a wine because it is flawed is quite different from rejecting it because you don't like it. If you are familiar with a wine and it tastes much differently than you remember, you are justified in returning it with an explanation. If you order a wine you are not familiar with, I suggest you ask your server for some counsel. If the wine does not taste like what your server describes, then you should reject it. The key to not making this a chore is to be sure of what you are ordering. If not, then ask the person who is selling it to you.
Careful attention should be given to pairing wine with food to create a "marriage" wherein the wine accents the food, and the food accents the wine, thus increasing the pleasure of both. Only by trial and error can this be honed down to an art. Generally, good wine matches good food. Color or country are secondary.
HOW TO READ AN AMERICAN WINE LABEL
Today's wine labels are a blend of legalities, design and occasionally an indication of quality. In addition to the brand, the label must carry either a national (Product of France), regional (California), generic (Rosé), or varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon) designation. Usually, the finer the designation the better the wine quality.
One might see a label stating "California Cabernet Sauvignon." This means that the grapes could have come from anyplace within the state and the wine probably was a blend from several regions. Another label might state, "Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon," which means that at least 95% of the grapes came from this region (in practice usually 100%). Another label might read, Chardonnay, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County." In this case, the vintner has isolated a specific microclimate within a region obviously considered to be of superior quality. Some wineries are cutting this even finer by including the name of a single vineyard. These wines are at least 95% from the area stated, but usually 100%.
"Grown, Produced and Bottled" means that the winery grew the grapes, made the wine and bottled it. Another term meaning the same thing, is "Estate Bottled." "Produced and Bottled" means that the winery did not necessarily grow the grapes, but they did make at least 75% of the wine in the bottle (in practice 100%), and bottled it at the winery. Other terms like "Made and Bottled", "Vinted and Cellared", "Cellared and Bottled" and similar ones signify that none of the wine was made by the brand winery, but purchased elsewhere and probably only aged and bottled at the brand winery. This could occur if a there is no actual winery, just a business name which contracts with wineries to make and bottle wine and put the company name (called a negociant) on the label.
By law, the stated alcohol level may vary by up to 1.5%, plus or minus. Thus, a wine labeled 12% might be either 13.5% or 10.5% by actual measurement. Finally, there is the vintage date or lack thereof. To carry a vintage date, a wine must be 95% from the year stated on the label. Since the quality of vintages varies from year to year in every wine-growing region, this can be important information to knowledgeable consumers. Often, however, the vintner might feel a superior wine can be created by blending, say, 50% of a varietal wine from one year, and 50% of the same varietal wine from another year. In such a case, the wine would be "non-vintage" (NV) but that does not necessarily mean it is inferior to a vintage-dated wine. The vintage date refers only to the year the grapes were harvested, and has nothing to do with when it was bottled or released.
The first wine "bottle" was probably goatskin, followed by the clay Greek amphorae from about 1,500 BC, and was used to store and transport wine until the invention of the barrel. The history of glass as a container for wine dates from the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. However, glassblowing did not reach a point of any significance until the first century BC.
The first wine bottles were hand-blown, straw wrapped and round in shape and similar to the Italian fiasco still used today in Chianti. But the art of glassblowing for bottles was completely lost in the Dark Ages and, therefore, between about 500 BC and the early 1700s, wine bottles did not exist. The idea of putting wine in bottles, fortunately, was rediscovered and bottles became fairly commonplace in the mid-eighteenth century. Thus, they are a relatively recent invention.
Today, bottles are machine made by the billions and there are nearly as many distinct wine bottle shapes as there are wine-producing countries. The German "box beutel," the tapered "flute d'Alsace," Italy's "fiasco" and the familiar soft and square-shouldered bottles for wines of the Burgundy and Bordeaux types reflect the style of wine they contain. The heavy Champagne bottle features an indentation at the bottom called a "punt." The punt substantially strengthens the bottle, an important feature when housing Champagne where bottle pressure is 6 to 7 times greater than normal. The punt is also useful in collecting sediment in older wines, especially reds. The wine should be stood upright for a day or so to allow the sediment to fall to the bottom and collect around the base of the punt. The wine can then be slowly decanted into another container. Most of the sediment will be left at the bottom of the first bottle, assuming careful handling.
The "flute d'Alsace," also called a "hock" bottle, is generally used for Rosé wines, as well as some of the lighter white wines such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and, occasionally, Chenin Blanc. The soft-shouldered Burgundy bottle type is used primarily for Chardonnay, Gamay Beaujolais and Pinot Noir, reflecting the tradition of the French region called "Burgundy," the area where these wines are originally from. The square-shouldered Bordeaux bottle type usually contains wine types from that region of France, i.e., Sauvignon Blanc in white wines, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in reds.
CORKS AND CORKSCREWS
For wine lovers, the bottle screw, or corkscrew, as it is called today, ranks as one of the world's greatest inventions. The first corks were tapered, thus easily withdrawn and meant only as temporary closures. However, concurrent with the development and widespread use of bottles for wine in the 1700s, it was discovered that wine would age to its advantage if sealed tightly with a cork as long as the cork could be kept moist by the wine. This led to the cylindrical straight-necked bottle we know today. But this type of bottle required some means to get out the cork, and it had to be a more substantial device than the finely wrought silver corkscrew previously invented for removal of perfume corks.
The first patent for a corkscrew was issued for the Henshall screw in 1795. This simple device remains today and basically is an inclined plane wrapped around a post. An improvement was made in 1802 with the Thomason screw, a double-acting corkscrew still popular today. The so-called "waiter's corkscrew," generally considered the best today, was designed in 1883. Yet another type of corkscrew commonly used, and of rather recent invention, is the "ah-so" type. Rather than using an augur or helix to penetrate the cork, this device grasps the cork by its sides and works on the ancient Chinese finger torture principle in that the harder one pulls, the tighter the parallel prongs grasp the cork.
Corks are made from the outer bark of the cork tree. The best cork comes from Spain and Portugal where these trees grow very near the Mediterranean Sea. Only the finest quality cork is used for wine, the remainder going to insulation, shoes and other uses. From the time it is harvested, by hand-stripping the bark from the trees, done every 9 years during the approximate 200 year life span of these trees, the cork requires nearly 2 years of processing and aging before it can be used. Corks are slightly larger in diameter (about 1/8 inch) than the standard bottleneck, and most range from 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 inches in length. For a cork to furnish a tight seal against the entry of air to the wine, which can ruin the wine, the cork must be kept damp. For this reason, bottles, when stored, must be on their sides, or upside down as they are shipped from the winery. This prevents the cork from drying out and shrinking, allowing the possible entry of air.
The worldwide demand for corks has put a strain on the cork trade. As a result, corks have slipped in quality and incidences of a "corky" problem have increased tenfold. "Corkiness" is produced by a very small, yet incredibly powerful, bacteria who's presence can be detected in doses as small as 1 part per million! If a wine is left on a defective cork for 6 months or longer, it picks up a damp cardboard smell and taste and is virtually ruined. It gets worse as the wine stays in the bottle and it cannot be removed. Estimates run from 3% to 6% of the wines being affected, making the demand for synthetic corks and screwcaps more vigorous than ever.
The following are wine names, which seem to give people the most trouble in pronunciation, with Gewürztraminer leading the pack by far. In fact, the inability of many people to pronounce this varietal may well be the prime reason it has never achieved wide acceptance. This is a pity, because it is one of the most interesting of all wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon: (Cah-bear-NAY. So-veen-YONH)
Chenin Blanc: (Chey-NAHN Blonk)
Fumé Blanc: (FU-may Blonk)
Gamay Beaujolais: (Ga-MAY Boo-jo-LAY)
Gewürztraminer: (Geh-VIRTZ trah-meen-err)
Pinot Noir: (Peen-no N'wahr)
Sauvignon Blanc: (So-veen-YONH Blonh)