Monday, June 28, 2010

From the Source: Wine Etiquette

Going to a nice restaurant can be intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. At Mastro’s Steakhouse, we pride ourselves on providing great food, service and atmosphere in a warm, inviting and hospitable way. Our goal is to make you feel comfortable and guide you through the process to give you the kind of experience that you and your guests are looking for, which aren’t the same for everyone. Some diners like to celebrate with Cristal Champagne and Caviar, while others like to enjoy the hard-to-find wines that are a great deal, while sharing a steak and some side dishes. No matter what kind of experience you are looking for, we make sure to cater to your needs, and oblige your requests.

When it comes to food, in general, people know what they like and don’t like. When it comes to ordering the right wine, however, it is a mystery to most diners, even the most seasoned ones. The following are some tips that might help you navigate through the wine ordering process, and hopefully assure that you, and your guests, get something that you will enjoy that won’t break your budget, unless of course this is not your concern.

How do I order the right bottle of wine for the table? It can be quite intimidating to be handed a wine list like Mastro’s, with almost 400 selections, and be expected to pick the exact right bottle that will suit not just you, but your guests, and everyones chosen meal. First rule of thumb is to remember that food and wine should be fun. Just ask yourself and your guests some simple questions. What does everyone at the table typically enjoy? What is our budget? At Mastro’s Steakhouse, we have five Certified Sommeliers, including myself, and numerous others that have passed their first level examination with the Court of Master Sommeliers. We are very aggressive in training our staff in wine knowledge and service, so even those that have not been officially tested, are well equipped to assist you with your wine selection for the evening. Of course, you can get really ambitious and look up a restaurant’s wine list online before dining, checking scores and tasting notes, but there is no substitute for talking to the sommelier or server at the restaurant to find out what the really good deals or great finds are.

The waiter presents the cork to me, what do I do? Don’t bother smelling the cork. Unless the wine has gone completely bad, there is not much you are going to smell. Rather look at the cork and feel it. The cork should give a little, when you squeeze it, and not be completely hardened. If it feels like a rock, it is possible that too much air may have been able to reach the wine, causing its flavor profile to become compromised. Also look at the cork and see if the red wine has soaked one side or the whole cork. This can be an indication of a red wine that is ‘corked’ but does not always mean this, and the wine is always still worth a taste. Lastly, if your waiter presents your wine and it has a screw cap, don’t worry; screw caps have been proven to preserve wine as well, if not better than corks, and are being used by some of the leading wine producers all over the world.

I have a nice bottle that I have been saving for a special occasion, and want to enjoy it tonight at Mastro’s, but will the staff there think I am rude for bringing it? No. At Mastro’s we allow guests to bring in their own wine, and we charge a very reasonable corkage: $25 per bottle. If you are really concerned with etiquette, some good rules of thumb are as follows. If you are going to bring in a bottle to a restaurant, bring something that is special or unique, and make sure that it is not a bottle on their list. If you are a big group, then along with the bottle you brought, buy a bottle off of the restaurant’s wine list. You never know, the restaurant may waive the corkage for the bottle you brought.

How do I know which vintage is good for the wine I am selecting? This is tough, especially since there are so many wineries, and their statistics change every year. For a fairly accurate vintage rating reference I recommend Wine Spectator, a food and beverage publication that focuses on the world of wine. They have great vintage charts, and sometimes have one you can tear out of the magazine (or print out from their website ) and keep in your wallet – for that moment you need to know which was a better year in Napa for Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 or 2006?

My guest has very expensive taste in wine, but I don’t drink. If we end up splitting the bill, should I pick up half the wine as well? This of course is up to the particular guests dining together, but I would say not. If you didn’t enjoy an item on the table, then you shouldn’t have to pay for it either. It is very common for guests to ask for a separate alcohol tab, making the bill easier to split.

If my guests and I order drinks at the bar, should we settle our tab before we sit down or add it to our food bill? At Mastro’s we will absolutely allow you to transfer your bill to your table from the bar. However, being a bartender myself at one point in my career, I will tell you that the bartender that took care of you and that you established a rapport with, will always appreciate it when you settle up with him or her and tip them directly. In most restaurants, if you transfer the tab, you never know if some of the final tip is making it back to that nice bartender that spent all that time muddling your Mojito.

Is there a gentle way to cut off a customer who is having one too many? Not really. This is always a sensitive issue because most of the time when a guest has had too much they don’t realize it, so telling them comes as a complete shock. The bottom line is that we do have a responsibility to our patrons to make all efforts to keep them safe, and not to over serve them. So much like our no tolerance policy of not serving minors, or those appearing to be minors that cannot produce identification, we absolutely cannot knowingly serve a guest that we have determined to be overly intoxicated. We can however bring them a cup of freshly brewed coffee to accompany our famous Mastro’s Signature Warm Butter Cake, and make sure to secure a taxi for them to have a safe ride home.

I hope this has helped to demystify the wine ordering process for you, allowed you to spend more time relaxing with your guests, and less time worrying about vintages or screw caps. Just remember that dining out is all about enjoying, so don’t stress. Do your research, if you like, before heading to the restaurant, but always ask the experts that work there. If the restaurant is anything like Mastro’s, they won’t steer you wrong.

Gregory Hammann
General Manager, Certified Sommelier
Mastro’s Steakhouse
246 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA. 90210