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On Wine pt. 2

Ok, let’s backtrack a little, now that I’ve pounded home the idea that you need to deliver the proper wine.

There are a few things that you should do, depending on how your restaurant is set up. If you use a single glass for all wines, and they are preset on the table, then all you have to do is bring the bottle to the table. If the glasses aren’t preset, and you have time, it’s best to bring the glasses to the table first, unless you are only serving 2 people. Normally I preach saving steps, but you want to be as smooth and suave as possible when serving a bottle of wine and it can be awkward to place the glasses while juggling your bottle of wine. So, unless you’re just getting hammered by doubleseats and the like, try to make a separate trip with the glasses. Also, if you’re going to decant the bottle, make sure you bring the decanter with you. You might even bring it when you bring the glasses so that it’s at the ready. And this is the time to make sure you have your winetool handy. It’s awkward to dig around in your pocket while holding a bottle of wine at the table. Have it where you can quickly and seamlessly get to it. You’re shooting for smooth and suave, not bumbling.

When you bring the bottle out, don’t hold it by the neck swinging it like a billy-club. You should cradle the bottle in the crook of your arm with the label facing out. It should be nestled in a folded white napkin, which serves a dual purpose – it frames the bottle nicely and it will allow you to wipe the opening of the bottle after opening (plus, you can place it under the neck as you pour which prevents the random spotting on the tablecloth or table).

waiter1

Don’t carry the bottle by the neck, swinging it in your hand like a billyclub. Don’t carry the bottle by it’s body. Nestle it in the crook of your arm.

You always present the bottle to the person who ordered it, whether they be male or female.  As you show them the label, you will point to and say the name of the winemaker, the vintage, the region and the special name of the wine if applicable. When they give the ok, you’ll proceed to open the bottle. Take your winetool’s knife and the capsule (the name for the foil) cut below the rim. Never just cut just under the top of the foil off horizontally, always go under the bottom of the rim of the bottle. Slip the capsule top in your pocket, don’t leave it on the table.

I’ve already covered the physical act of getting the cork out of the bottle in a previous post. You can find it by searching for it.

When opening the bottle, don’t spin it. Always keep the label facing the guest. You’ll have to twist your corkscrew-holding hand a bit to accomplish this.

When the cork is removed, in most restaurants, you’ll give the cork to the guest. I do it simply by putting it on the table in front of them and let them decide if they want to sniff the cork. In a selected few (somewhat snobby) restaurants, you will have brought a small metal plate for the cork, because some people believe that the cork should never actually touch the table. This “giving the cork to the guest” routine serves little purpose really, but seems to have become an expected part of the ritual. Very few people can tell anything substantial from squeezing the cork or sniffing it that they can’t tell by the ritual of swirling, sniffing and tasting. Here’s a contrary view of that though:

http://tablascreek.typepad.com/tablas/2008/02/please-do-sniff.html

Besides the “judging the wine aspect”, one reason over the years that you presented the cork was to assure the purchaser that the bottle was indeed what it claimed to be. That’s why, other than marketing, the vintner’s name is usually on the cork (and an aside about this in a moment). Obviously, this isn’t very much of an issue these days, unless you’re buying very rare old wines at auction (there have been some high-profile counterfeiting schemes uncovered recently). 

You’ll then proceed to pour a small amount into the glass. When I say small, I mean small. Don’t pour more than a decent sized sip. A little more than a dash of the bottle will do fine. (I’ll talk more about the actual act of pouring in the next thrilling installment).

Stand there patiently while the host studiously studies the glass, making faces as he or she spins the glass, looking for legs, makes comments about his or her extreme level of wine erudition, talks about the wine that they have in the cellar and the vacation that they took to Napa two years ago. Let them close their eyes while they make a pruneface slurping the wine between pursed lips.

After the host approves the bottle, go around the table and serve the wine – but don’t just pour. Always give each person the chance to turn it down. The best etiquette is to serve the ladies first. 

Don’t forget to fill the host’s glass! I’ve seen the host get forgotten, believe it or not.

If the host has ordered wine and red, make sure that each guest has two glasses. When presenting the wine, present the white first. Always present from lightest to heaviest wine. If someone has orders, say, Tempranillo and Cabernet, both of which are reds,  you’d present the Tempranillo first.

I don’t know if there’s specific etiquette on this, but you might want to offer the first bottle to the table before you present the second bottle to the host. It can be a little awkward trying to offer a choice to each person because you’re dealing with two different bottles. And if you do this, don’t just skip people who already have wine when presenting the second bottle. In fact, I like to encourage people to try both wines by asking “Would you like to do a little mini wine tasting”? Not only will you sell more wine, but you help educate people who might not be that familiar with wine or judging the quality of wine. Any kind of side by side comparison of wine helps people learn more about wine.

Unless someone wants to keep it, the cork can be removed at any time after the glasses are poured. I like to leave it until I return the next time (perhaps when I bring the salads). It shouldn’t be on the table by the times the entrees have arrived, that much is certain. However, if you live in a state that allows un-drunk wine to be taken home by the guest, make sure that you either save the cork somewhere or that the bar has some used corks available (most do keep a small stockpile of them).

Also, one little detail that most people probably won’t notice, but unconsciously might absorb, is if you take the time to arrange the cork so that the vintner’s name can be read by the guest. It’s the accumulation of such small and “trivial” details that creates the “perfect” dining experience, even if the guest doesn’t consciously realize that they are there.

In part three, we’ll wrap this topic up with pouring issues, both at the table and at parties.

sniffing the cork

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.

waiter-wine-presentation

Photo from http://wine-tasting-reviews.com/wine-basics-drinking-buying/order-wine-restaurant.html

Tips for free-pouring wine in a large party

First of all, if your host has entrusted you with pouring wine at-will for his or her large party, this is a trust that should not be abused.

Having said that, you want to pour the absolute most wine you can.

So, how do you balance these two imperatives?

Here are a few tips.

Don’t pour more than about 4-5 oz per glass. “Why?”, I can just hear you ask. First of all, it sends the message to the host that you aren’t going to gouge them. But there’s a more insidious purpose. If you pour too much, some people will hoard their wine, just as they would when they dine out.  Old habits die hard. They forget that they aren’t paying, or they are worried about their host thinking that they’re freeloding and being greedheads. So, if you normally pour 6 oz pours in your restaurant, pour 5 oz or less. If you already only pour 5 oz and have those shitty little generic 8oz wine glasses, then pour 4 oz, especially if you’re pouring red wine into such a small glass. What you are trying to do is get some people who are normally fairly fast drinkers to drink down to the bottom quickly. At that point, you can bring them back up to the original level and recharge the other glasses, even if they’ve only drunk an ounce or so. If you wait until someone is almost empty, this gives you license to bring everyone else up as well, unless they wave you off, of course. If you do it this way, and keep your levels at the 4 or 5oz level, you’re almost guaranteed to sell more than if you give everyone a full 6 – 8oz pour up-front. There are few people who really slam their wines, so it will probably be 10-15 minutes before you really have the chance to refill an empty glass. If you pour less, the glass looks emptier quicker. This, of course, means more work and attention, but a little more work can mean that extra 2 or 3 bottles of $75 wine. Who wouldn’t like to build their check by another couple of hundred bucks?

The more small pours you do, the more likely that people will continue to drink rather than hoard. For people drinking white wine, I don’t always wait until the glass is almost empty. I like to give everyone a splash or two when it’s obvious that they’ve drunk some and it’s been a few minutes since you gave them wine. I do this to keep the temperature correct and I tell them that’s why I’m doing it if they seem to need an explanation. But I  am also working my way gradually to another bottle. You never know whether those last two splashes you did 15 minutes ago will be the ones that force you to open another bottle.

The last thing you want to do to a host is to pour so that most people have to leave a half-glass of wine when they leave. Sure, that’s another couple of bottles just in the glass. But you’ve just screwed your host. And, believe me, many of them will take note of this and realize how much wine that they paid for is wasted. This means that they might complain to management and they might not be so trusting the next time they book a party.

So…

…it’s very important that you pretty much stop topping off by the first third of the entree course. Obviously, if someone is almost empty, by all means, pour them some wine. But don’t give them a full pour, and I generally ask them if they’d like more wine before I pour. Let people finish as much of their wine as possible as they finish their entrees. Don’t get greedy. Don’t try to pour more wine so that you have to open another bottle of wine right before dessert. This isn’t really cricket.

Most of the time, there’s going to be a few people who don’t finish their wine. That’s OK. As long as you’ve followed the above guidelines, you’ve done the best you can. What looks bad is when you end up with 20 half-full glasses of wine at the end. You haven’t served the guest very well at all and you’ve left as much as 3 bottles of wine in glasses. 

The position of waiter is one of trust. I guarantee you that you’ll make more money in the long run if you keep the guest’s interest in mind. And never forget the concept of Karma. Karma can be a bitch.

This is a pretty good wine pour for a 22 oz red Bordeaux glass. There’s more there than you think. That’s around 4 – 5 oz.  A 6 oz pour brings the level up to just short of where the glass starts to curve inward for this type of glass. BTW, a 750 ml wine bottle yields four 6 oz pours (give or take a tiny amount).

glass_bordeaux

If you don’t know what 4 or 5 oz looks like in your house glasses, ask the bartender to pour you the amount by measuring it. Throw in a dash of grenadine to give it some color and then practice with a water-filled wine bottle. Get to know what it looks like from the pouring position, which is different than looking at it from the side.

This is a no-no:

toohigh

Photo courtesy of The Wine Enthusiast. Their website is www.wineenthusiast.com. They are a wine accessory website and catalog store.

Wine topic of the day – Super Tuscans

tignanello_super_tuscan_wineThis is a very misunderstood concept (as is Italian wine in general). I recently overheard it said that they were cabernets and cabernet blends, at which point another said, “No they are Italian varietals of very high quality” and the conversation touched on the “fact” that they were anything but sangiovese and that’s what made them “Super Tuscan”. All of this was both right and wrong.

Super Tuscan is a marketing term attributed to Robert Parker back in the 70s after several Tuscan vintners brokered the concept of rule-breaking in the late 60s. Their original idea was to bring a Bordeaux sensibility to Tuscany, using some of the famed Bordeaux blending grapes to add additional body and structure to  sangiovese and other grapes used in famed Tuscan products and to try to expand the rather staid idea of what great Italian wine should be. At the time, the DOC (the Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) laid out the structure of classification of Italy’s better wines, much like the French system of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).

The grandaddy of all Super Tuscans is Tignanello, first bottled by Antinori in 1977. It introduced Cabernet Sauvignon as a blending grape, which excluded it from both of the previously stated categories (it couldn’t be called Chianti or Chianti Classico, for example). Because it didn’t fall into the specified parameters of the upscale classifications, it was relegated to the vino da taviola (table wine) category. Although it had been preceded by his relatives’ famous wine Sassicaia by a full 8 years, the Incisa della Rocchetta family usually doesn’t get the credit for creating the Super Tuscan category with Sassicaia. That seems to fall to Pieto Antinori, whose Tignanello’s addition of approximately 20% Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese seemed to set the Italian world alight. Perhaps Sassicaia, with the 80% Cabernet was just too exotic and pricey to be revolutionary. Tignanello came in at a much lower price point and was closer to what most people thought of as “Tuscan” because it had a much lower percentage of outside grapes.

In any case, this was all fortunate in several ways. First of all, these vino da taviolas that weren’t just “inferior” versions of better wines or “wines that the peasants drank” became a source of interest because they were actually more expensive than the standard “classified” wines and were more full-bodied and exotic. So, Super Tuscan came to be a nickname that separated these from what most people knew as table wines. It also caused a new classification to be created, so that it could be included in a category elevated it past mere “table wine” category (does one really call a $200 bottle of wine “table wine”)? This new category was called IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) and is found as a subset of vino da taviola. It basically allows a previously non-standard wine to be promoted as having the same strict standards found in the other two categories.

You generally don’t find the words Super Tuscan as a branding feature on the label. Sometimes you might find the importer using that term in the English back label. This is a category that you simply have to know about. It’s a fair bet that if the wine is listed as Tuscan or from Tuscany and it isn’t a “Chianti” of some sort or a Brunello or Barolo (the latter of which is actually from Piemonte but is sometimes confused with Tuscan), even if it’s 100% Sangiovese,  it’s a Super Tuscan. This is something that you almost need to know by brand name, or be told by your wine rep or your Keeper of the Wine List person.

Here are some known trade names:

Tignanello, Sassicaia, San Martino, Fontalloro, Il Bosco, Vigorello (sometimes called the very first super Tuscan), Centine and Cortaccio.

This is only a smattering of the great names in Super Tuscans. It’s time to do your due diligence and hit the research road. I do hope that I’ve given you enough to give a concise answer to a guest who either asks, “Do you have any Super Tuscans” or “What does “Super Tuscan” mean”?