So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Daily Archives: August 1, 2009

On wine Pt. 1

Wine. The ultimate expression of the synergy between food and alcohol. Wine. A product designed to appeal to the noblest and the basest natures of humankind. Wine. Can mean the difference between you eking out a living and prospering. Wine. Can be the cause of elation and frustration for a server. Wine. It’s that important.

Some of you might be tempted to skip this post because you work in a restaurant in which wine is either non-existent or unimportant. Well, don’t. No, seriously. Don’t.

Remember what I said about one of the great pros of waiting tables – that it’s a portable skill? Well, the fact that you work in a restaurant that doesn’t offer wine or have a great wine list now doesn’t mean that in the coming years you might find yourself working in a restaurant where you might be able to offer a $300 bottle of Sassacaia to a willing victi…I mean guest.

You can never start too early to develop your wine knowledge. The wine world is so broad that you will never learn everything there is to know about wine. Even Masters of Wine, the highest level of certification that one can receive in the wine profession, are constantly refining their knowledge. So why shouldn’t you?

Before we talk about the generalities of wine that every server should know, let’s set up some guidelines. I’m not going to attempt to go into depth about wine. That’s your homework assignment for the next 20 years. There are many great books on wine, some of which I have already reviewed (and there are more coming). There’s enough to cover just in the basics of wine to fill volumes. What I’d like to communicate to you is the necessity of a good basic and practical wine knowledge. Why you need it, when you need it, how you need to employ it – the basic things that will set you apart from your slacker competitors who only want to know when they can get cut and go party.

First of all, let’s cover wine service itself. Wine service can be as simple as grabbing a bottle and pouring it at the table to the most intricate, fussy and arcane wine service imaginable. I’m going to assume that since you are letting me train you, that you aren’t going to even consider the simplest and easiest wine service as something that you are personally going to settle for.

Basically I’m going to describe a reasonably upscale wine service that can be applied to just about any restaurant situation. However, you should always follow any guidelines and policies that your particular restaurant demands. Don’t go telling your manager, “But, my Sensei told me to do it this way”. Guess what? I’m not going to be there to bail you out. As with any advice that I give you in this blog, my advice is superceded by any house policies. Got it?

When the guest orders a specific bottle of wine, you will order it from your bar/wine cellar. In a few instances, you might actually get to pull it yourself. While this is rare, I have actually worked for such a restaurant, so it’s not as unlikely as you might think. As you order, you should immediately note the vintner (“brand name”), the varietal (type of grape), the proprietary name (such as Franciscan’s “Magnificat’), the region (for instance, Silver Oak sells a Napa and an Alexander Valley cabernet with the Napa selling at a substantial premium)  and the year. All five things are important because your list might offer different wines from the same vintner and the prices might vary considerably (you’d hate to open a $300 bottle of wine when the guest only wanted a $75 bottle, wouldn’t you?). Some vintners have specific names for the same type of grape as well. Examples of this would be single vineyard bottlings, some of which with exotic names, or marketing names like Meritage (pronounced mer’-i-tige, not mer-i-tazge’ as some people pronounce it). A single vineyard wine might be a 20% more than the “normal” bottle, so you want to make sure you get what the guest orders. Also, distributors are notorious for shipping new vintage years without notification, and restaurants are notorious for not upgrading their wine lists in a timely fashion. So, while the guest might have ordered an ’04 chardonnay, you might only have ’05’s in stock because your wine manager didn’t notice that the vintage has changed. It’s a bit embarrassing to you for a guest to notice that you are offering a different year, partially because there can be significant differences in prices and quality between different vintages. Some guests are acutely aware of those quality issues, so you want to avoid that particular situation if you can help it.

So, what’s a poor server to do? Memorize the whole damn list? Well, no. Unless you are Super Waiter. Then, feel free to know all of the bin numbers, review the wine list everyday as you start your shift, taste every bottle on the list, even if you have to buy them.

For the rest of us, there are strategies that you can employ. First of all, unless you restaurant has a bug up its ass about this, don’t worry about bin numbers. What’s a bin number, you ask? It’s a specific number used for categorizing and organizing bottles of wine in a wine cellar. Some restaurants use bin numbers but many probably don’t. If the guest orders by the bin number, then it’s incumbent on you to be particularly careful when you present the bottle. Make sure you point out each element of the label because, chances are, the guest didn’t bother to confirm the name with you when he or she ordered. So you want to give them every opportunity to say, “No, that’s not the wine I wanted”. It’s possible that they might not have gotten the bin number correct.

Ok, in Part 2, we’ll discuss the way to deliver the bottle to the guest.


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