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- cork etiquette while dining out


You'd think the task of ordering a bottle off a restaurant`s wine list would be reasonably straightforward and uneventful: pick something interesting or familiar, get the dude in the bow tie to pour it for you, and sit back and enjoy. Yet this one exercise will cause more undue stress in the minds of restaurant patrons than any other related task that evening.  And judging by the number of questions I receive expressing concern over this activity, the topic is in need of some clarification.

The issue at hand is that depending on the formality of the establishment in question, the waiter - or sommelier appears to require some form of acknowledgement and permission-to-proceed before pouring said bottle. With that, I'd like to instil a degree of confidence in those who typically order their wine with a side of doubt.

Common sense should prevail in these situations and a quick glance at the bottle will confirm that it was not opened (or worse, refilled) prior to arriving at your table. Additionally, the label should match what you have asked for.  Your nod of approval will then initiate the serving process.

With the entire dinner party sitting in a state of unnecessary paralysis, the sommelier will remove the cork from the bottle and place it on a saucer or side-plate before the host of the dinner party - you. But here lies the question and source of discomfort for many diners: what are you expected you to do with the cork? Should you smell it? That seems to be the common practice. I actually know of a person who licks it - and another who once threw it across the table in rebuttal to the ensuing laughter created by the exercise. So what then, is the etiquette involved with the presentation of the cork?

An acceptable response would be to do nothing at all. That's easy; don't even acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation and simply let the server pour the sample to taste. The unfortunate truth is that 9 out of 10 waiters who serve wine on a daily basis don't know why they present the cork either.  It’s just been done that way for as long as anyone can remember.

If you do decide to take the bait, here's what you need to know about cork etiquette:

Don't smell the cork; save that technique for the wine instead. It makes no difference whatsoever how aromatically complex or offensive the cork is when you are likely to give the wine a swirl and sniff anyway. Remember, older bottles display older characteristics: dried fruit, leather, solvent/petrol, and numerous other creative forest floor-type adjectives. Barolo and Bordeaux do not exhibit the same popular spunk as the big reds from California, Argentina, and Australia. Old-world wines tend to show a more earth-driven complexity while the product of modern wine regions and winemaking typically display a greater degree of fruit-forward character.

If you plan to purchase luxury wine at some point in the future, it is worth developing a habit of matching the cork to the bottle - and we're talking very high end wine now, not a $12 label from Gallo marked up to an alarming $36. The top bottles from the best producers usually have the vintage date stamped on the cork.  One would assume that the date on the cork and the date on the bottle will coincide, yet at the uppermost end of the drinking spectrum, counterfeiting, while by no means rampant, is an unfortunate truth.  There is no need to fret over the idea of being cheated, but a moment spent matching names and numbers is not a bad practice.

Observe the staining on the cork created be the wine itself. The base of the stopper is always discoloured by the colour pigment of the wine - but does the wine stain appear on the side of the cork as well? If so, how far up does it travel? Due to the gradual breakdown of the cork’s elasticity over time, some degree of staining on the side of a stopper drawn from an older bottle is expected. If the full length of the cork is discoloured by the wine, I'd be suspicious of storage conditions and the potential for an oxidized (flawed) bottle.  Evidence of wine seepage from the bottle during storage is indicated by any amount of residue on the top of the cork.  Better wine service will assure that a bottle of this nature is not served - but that also cuts into profits and therefore as a consumer, you must be aware of the telltale signs of a defective bottle.

The entire bottle acceptance process takes less that 30 seconds and will become effortless with a few dinners under your belt. Ordering wine with a meal is not meant to be complicated; we create that perception ourselves – but these tips will help you maximize your dining experience.

Oh, by the way, if the bottle comes topped with a screw cap closure, the airtight seal must crack when the top is twisted off. If so, there is no additional concern - unless of course they start labelling the rubber gasket thingy inside the cap with contest rewards. In that case, make sure it says 'Try Again' before buddy with the bow tie takes off with your winning sweepstakes cap!

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Tyler Philp is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada
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