I'll confess: I'm scared of wine. Now, it's not like I'm worried that a bottle of Cabernet will jump me in a dark alley, taking my purse and leaving my shirt fatally stained. Instead, I'm intimidated by wine because ordering it comes with a specific etiquette, an etiquette that doesn't apply to any other form of alcohol.
When ordering a beer or a whiskey and coke, the act of ordering is really just free form and anything - yelling, shouting, slurring, performing an interpretive dance - is acceptable. Anything goes.
With wine, however, a certain poise is demanded. Because of this, people, myself included, often panic: we break under pressure and order a default drink - a light beer, a martini, a vodka on the rocks - a drink that doesn't require know-how. We end up similar to those people who go into a fancy restaurant and, afraid that they don't know how to properly order fillet mignon, panic and order chicken fingers instead. In both instances, we all miss out on trying something new, and we all appear a bit chicken, fingers and all.
But, wine isn't really scary and just knowing a few simple basics of wine etiquette will enable you to put a cork in all of your wine ordering fears.
Step 1: Choosing a Wine
The good thing about wine is that it's relatively easy to avoid bad food pairings; most wine will go with most food. But, there are two main rules of thumb to keep in mind: don't drink dry wine with sweet food and keep your colors consistent (red wine goes well with red meat and white wine goes well with white meat).
If you are a little uncomfortable setting your wine and food up on a blind date, and much prefer an arranged marriage, don't be afraid to ask the waiter for assistance. He should be both helpful and knowledgeable. And, if he comes across as pushy or annoyed, you don't have to sweat it. Just keep in mind the oldest rule of customer service: "He who holds the credit card, also holds the power."
When wanting to go beyond colors and order a specific wine, a house wine is always a good choice: the house wine became the "house wine" for a reason. Other wines that are great choices are New World Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots (for red), and New World Chardonnays, Semillons, and Alsace (for whites).
Step 2: In the Spotlight
Once you have ordered your bottle, the waiter will bring it over. This is where a lot of people tend to panic. They aren't sure of the proper procedure and, to make matters worse, they are certain everyone in the restaurant is staring at them: fellow diners are pointing, teenagers are laughing, the three judges from American Idol are sitting in the shadows waiting to ridicule any wrong move.
But this fear is unwarranted: the whole process is simple. Upon arriving at your table, the waiter will present the bottle and show you the label. This is done merely so you know you are getting the wine you actually ordered. Next, the waiter will uncork the wine and pour a small amount in your glass. Once this happens, you need to follow three simple steps: swirl (move the wine around in your glass, allowing it to mix with air and gain aroma), sniff (but don't sniff too aggressively, wine up the nose can be murder on the sinuses), and taste. These three steps are done to both impress your date and make sure the wine isn't bad. Once they are accomplished, assuming the wine isn't bad, give your waiter the "okay" and he will proceed in filling your glass.
Once the waiter has left, cheating on you with other customers, your glass may become empty. When this happens, it's perfectly fine to pour yourself another glass, but refrain from drinking directly out of the bottle.
Step 3: Walking a Fault Line
If you notice that the wine tastes faulty, it's important not to blame yourself. This kind of thing can happen to anyone. However, what you need to keep in mind is "faulty wine" doesn't mean "wine you don't like." Faulty wine only means wine that is rotten, wine that is out knocking over liquor stores and firing off rounds of shots. Wine that is really bad.
The most obvious way to tell if wine has gone bad is by taste. If it tastes dull, flat, sour, or has a slight almond flavor, chances are the wine has spoiled. The other two things you can use as a guide are odors (wine that has gone bad generally smells like burnt matches, rotten eggs or vinegar) and appearance (wine should be clear and bright in color, and the cork should not be protruding from the bottle).
If the wine is legitimately bad, inform your waiter and he should replace it immediately. If he refuses, request a manager. And, when all else fails, make use of homonyms and whine.
Overall, wine is really not as scary as some people believe, and it doesn't need to be as serious as some people think. Learning basic etiquette will allow you to order a bottle of wine at any restaurant anywhere. Like anything else, once you know a few simple tips, it becomes a piece of cake, or a piece of grape.
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