In this article: A beginners guide to perfect wine service. A must read for servers, bartenders, or anyone working in a restaurant looking to improve their wine knowledge and skills.
For anyone new to the industry, having a guest order a bottle (or bottles) of wine for the table might be the scariest thing you can hear during service. Sure, you’ve opened up plenty of bottles at home, but wine service for your guests is a whole new ball game!
This article is for anyone starting out as a server or bartender who just wants the basics of proper wine service, so that you can keep your cool and not panic when a bottle is ordered.
When I first started serving at a restaurant that offered wine service, I felt like I was the only person who didn’t know what I was doing. Even though the training that this restaurant gave their staff was really thorough, they never taught us how to properly open wine bottles, and seemed to assume everyone knew what they were doing! I definitely did not, but was too embarrassed to ask for help.
The first time I tried to open a bottle in front of a customer, I broke the cork, took the bottle to the back in a panic, and the GM had to help me open the bottle. He was already frustrated with me, and then when the cork came out, red wine flew all over his very fancy shirt and jacket. I was mortified, and knew I never wanted to be in that position again.
What I wish I would have known at the time is that wine service can be difficult, and it takes time to master! Everyone was a beginner at one point, and everyone has been embarrassed by making some kind of mistake. And even master sommeliers break corks sometimes!
Let’s break it down.
There are a whole lot of formalities that are part of wine service. Presenting the bottle is the first one that you won’t want to forget.
Whoever ordered the bottle from you is who you will present it to. Make sure the label is facing the guest, and present the bottle by saying its name. Once the guest nods their head or approves that it is in fact the wine they want, you can begin opening the bottle.
Opening the bottle is the scariest part of wine service. Before you get started, make sure you have the right tool for the job.
Having the proper wine key is essential to correct wine service! Yes, the fancy winged openers that you might keep at home are much easier to use, but they don’t fit in an apron, and your manager won’t be too pleased if you pull one out in front of a guest.
Make sure you have a classic wine key with a foil cutter, like this one.
When I was first learning how to open wine bottles, I learned that you weren’t supposed to touch the neck of the bottle. In fine-dining restaurants or wine bars, this may be true, so check with your manager or sommelier for venue standards.
However, in most restaurants, holding the bottle by the neck is perfectly fine, and it’s way easier than holding the bottle from the bottom when you’re just starting out!
While holding the neck of the bottle (try to keep the label facing forward) use the foil cutter on your wine key to cleanly cut around the bottom lip of the bottle. Once you’ve cut all the way around, use the foil cutter to lift the cut part of the foil up and off of the bottle, then stick it in your apron.
Once the cork is exposed, open your wine key and place the worm (the spiral-y part) in the very center of the cork. This is important because if the worm isn’t centered the cork is likely to break.
Twist the wine key until you can’t see the worm, then place the first bootlever on the lip of the bottle. Pull the handle up and the cork should come with it! Most likely it won’t come all the way out, and you will have to use the second bootlever to get some extra leverage.
That’s it! Hardest part is done.
Once uncorked, place the bottle on the table while you remove the cork from the wine key. Put your wine key back into your apron, and place the cork on the table. Some people like to keep them!
Pick up the bottle, and ask the guest if they would like to taste. If the answer is yes, pour a small amount into their glass.
Note: It’s not a taste test
Just a quick note here, this isn’t a test to see if they like how the wine tastes. The guest is tasting the wine to make sure it hasn’t gone bad, and that it is in fact the wine they ordered.
Once the guest has approved the bottle, you can begin pouring the wine. Start with the women at the table, then the men, and the guest who ordered the bottle will be last.
Pouring the correct amount for each person is crucial. There is nothing worse than pouring too heavy and running out!
Remember that a standard bottle of wine will have about 4 full glasses. If you are pouring for more than 4 people, you will have to pour less-than full glasses. Always pour less than you think you should!
Once you have poured everyone’s glasses, there may be wine left in the bottle. Especially if you are serving a two-top! What do you do with it now?
For red wines, place the bottle either near the person that ordered it, or in the center of the table, with the label facing out.
For white or sparkling wines, ask the guest if they would like the bottle chilled, and if they say yes you will chill it however your venue does that. Some restaurants have wine buckets that can be placed at the table, others have a few shared wine buckets around the venue.
Now, it is your responsibility to keep an eye on wine levels and pour the remaining wine. Many people will be casual about this, not expecting you to pour after the initial pour, but will be pleasantly surprised when you do. If the wine is being chilled somewhere else it is extra important that you bring the bottle over when you see they are getting low!
Hopefully this article gave you a good overview of how to perform a solid wine service for your guests. Remember that like anything else, it will take some time to get comfortable with opening bottles in front of people!
Practice whenever you can, ask the bartender if you can open bottles for them, and use your wine key at home when opening bottles. Trust the process and in no time you’ll be an old pro!