VinePair is ringing in the Holiday Cheers with a spotlight on the bottles we’re gifting (and hoping to receive) and a look inside some of our favorite holiday traditions and recipes — from elevated eggnog to all things bubbly. Plus, we’ll be reflecting on the past year in the beverage industry and shifting our focus to the drinks trends we expect to see in 2022.
Entering the world of wine can be overwhelming and, at times, intimidating. From the thousands of varieties to choose from, to wine’s often confusing terminology, the language and practices employed by oenophiles can come with steep learning curves (like, what should you do when your server gives you the cork?). But there is one formality that consistently confounds wine newbies: bottle presentation. To help make sense of the perplexing tradition, VinePair talked to Alexis Percival, co-owner and sommelier of NYC’s Ruffian and Kindred.
After taking your wine order, it’s typical for a server or sommelier to return to your table with your bottle of wine in hand to “present” it to you before they uncork and pour it. But what is this practice meant to accomplish, and what should you do when a bottle is put in front of you?
Percival says there are two different cases when you might be presented wine, each with a unique purpose. For wines by the glass, the presentation process is composed of a server bringing over the bottle and pouring a small amount of wine in your glass. Don’t fret: Your somm isn’t trying to stiff you with an extra-light pour. “If you’re ordering by the glass and it’s the policy of the restaurant for it to be tasted first, what they’re really asking is, ‘Do you like this wine?’” At both Kindred and Ruffian, Percival’s policy is to offer customers a small taste of these wines before filling their glasses. “That way, people don’t have to drink something that they don’t care for.” In this instance, the bottle is being brought to your table so you can identify the wine and make an informed decision on whether you’d like the full glass or would prefer to try something else.
However, when you’re ordering wine by the bottle, the procedure is a bit different. In this case, typically servers present bottles so that diners can simply confirm it’s the one they ordered. “So if you ordered a single-vineyard and they also carry the entry-level wine, you want to make sure that you’re getting the correct one — especially if it’s something that’s more expensive,” says Percival. “Or, if a particular vintage is good, you want to make sure that they didn’t change vintages and serve you an inferior one.”
This is a common issue faced by consumers, but it’s rarely, if ever, intentional trickery on the part of the restaurant. Typically, Percival says, the confusion comes from menus that aren’t updated, or simple human error. “I will admit — and I think that all wine professionals have probably done this at one point or another — I have definitely sold people the wrong wine,” she says. “Mix-ups happen, but certainly no one was getting duped into something that was bad.”
Somms will also pour tastes of wines by the bottle, but in this case — unlike for wines by the glass — they’re doing so to ensure that the wine is free of faults. Since the bottle is already open in this case, if you don’t like the wine you bought but it’s not corked, it’s up to the restaurant to decide how to handle the situation.
Like anything, wine presentations will look different depending on what restaurant you’re in. While establishments with extensive wine lists or fine-dining allure may take wine presentation seriously, other spots may speed through the process or not partake at all. At more casual restaurants, servers may simply open your bottle behind the bar for added ease. So if you’re enjoying a Chianti alongside a slice at your neighborhood pizza joint, don’t expect all the bells and whistles. “For more upscale dining, presentation and atmosphere and knowledge are part of what you’re paying for,” Percival says. “That’s all part of the package.”