Restaurant etiquette – tasting wine and sending it back

Do you find tasting the wine in restaurants daunting? What are you meant to be looking for? How do you do it? What if you can’t pronounce the wine you want to drink? And what on earth are you meant to do with the cork?!


The traditional explanation for tasting the wine is to make sure it’s not corked but since wine is not corked all that often and we live in the age of the screwtop and plastic cork it can seem an unnecessary and awkward flourish.  But the ritual is not intended to embarrass the diner or show them up as a non-expert, it’s really all just tradition based on giving you the opportunity to make sure you get the wine you wanted and that it’s good.

I like to decide on what I’m going to eat before I choose what to drink with it. There always seems to be a rush to get a bottle opened as soon as possible but if you’re more interested in the food to start, don’t worry about making the waiter wait to take your wine order.

Tasting wine

If you know what you like and what you want to drink go ahead and order it but if you’re in doubt it’s often a good idea to ask the waiter (or sommelier) for advice – it’s what they’re there for. When it arrives at your table the waiter will show you the label simply to confirm it’s exactly what you asked for.  Look at it – if it’s not what you wanted, this is your chance to say so.


The bottle should never be brought to the table already opened so the waiter will do this at your table. If there’s a cork, you’ll be offered it for inspection. This bit seems a bit weird to most people who feel some action is required; should they sniff it, bite it or see if it crumbles between their fingers? In theory you could get an idea of the wine’s quality; if the cork is crumbly or smells funky the wine is likely to be past its best. If a cork in a younger wine is coloured far up the side it can mean that the wine got hot during storage and probably leaked. But all that will become evident as soon as it’s in the glass.  If you want to pocket it as a souvenir so you can remember what you had to drink that’s fine but otherwise nothing is required of you, just put it to one side.


The waiter will then pour a little soupcon into your glass for you to taste. Swirl it gently to get a little air into it, smell it and have a taste. If you like it that’s all there is to it. In the unlikely event that there’s something wrong with the wine then you can send it back and expect a replacement bottle. If it’s simply a question of you not liking it (rather than faulty wine) then that’s just unfortunate.  If you’re not sure if there’s something wrong with the wine, ask the waiter for their opinion; you can usually tell if a wine is off by smelling it and it will take the sting out of confrontation and turn it into discussion.





Further reading…


One response to “Restaurant etiquette – tasting wine and sending it back

  1. I’m looking at these articles because I had customers order a $100 bottle of wine and then send it back because they didn’t like it. My average bottle on the menu is $38-40. This particular Amarone sells to several of our customers because they like it and I had a bottle two weeks ago to celebrate passing my CSW exam. I wasn’t in this night, but have every reason to believe the bottle was good. I want to educate my waiters about “returns.” Of course, if they are good customers, all bets are off. I will drink it myself later.

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