So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Tag Archives: Wines

The book that you have been waiting for is finally out!

No, not my book.

Sorry to get you all excited.

No, it’s Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips by David Hayden of the Hospitality Formula Network.

Let me be blunt – if you are a waiter/server/bartender and you don’t buy this book, then you really don’t care about how much money you make. This book is a multiplier of skills and bank. It’s written in a clear, concise yet comprehensive style. It’s laid out logically and covers just about every topic that a waiter needs to know in terms of maximizing his or her earning potential.

The book is broken down into 10 sections and 41 chapters. With sections like Before Your Shift, Starting Your Shift, Interacting with Your Guests, and The Mechanics of Serving, the book puts lie to Hayden’s statement that “This book is NOT a training manual. Due to the fact that you picked up this book, it is assumed you know how to wait tables”. Those preliminary sections cover much of what the rank amateur waiter needs to know to make his or her descent into the maelstrom of waiting tables a smooth and unbumpy one. This book should be part of the training package of every restaurant who hires people who have never been waiters.

But it doesn’t stop there – with subsequent sections like Selling and Serving Wine, The Pitch, The Key Times, Selling as a Server, Special Guests, and The Intangibles, the main intent of the book becomes clear – waiter make money, guest get good experience, manager get smooth shift – everybody happy.

My blog covers many of the same points. In fact, you’ll get a sense of déjà vu when you read Mr. Hayden’s book if you’ve spent any time with my posts. The main difference is the clarity of vision and training. I tend to ramble, go off-the-cuff, go off on tangents, and generally get parenthetical (sometimes). You’ll find little of that in this book. What you’ll find is  a book full of practical hints, tips and directives that aren’t just theoretical abstracts; they can be applied on a daily basis.

Do I think it’s complete? Hell no! There are valid points that this very blog have made that are left out. Anyone who has waited tables for a long time has had situations that have given them insight that could be valuable to the waiter-at-large. But, all in all, the book is probably the most practical and valuable resource that a waiter could find on any bookshelf (either real or virtual) in North America. I say North America because other restaurant cultures have different standards and practices that might be at odds with the North American restaurant culture.

In a perfect world, this book would be the core of the book that I had intended when I first considered starting a blog on the subject of waiting tables. I wanted a book that was lavishly illustrated with photographs, filled with sidebars of interesting factoids and footnotes, brimming with information about everything from rapini to Calvados. I envisioned parts of the book that would be considered reference material for the ages – a book with the heft of a wine atlas, the look, feel and knowledge of a Thomas Keller book, the practical and accessible wisdom of a “…for Dummies” book. This book would be part of the curriculum at Cornell, would sit on every restaurant book shelf, would grace the coffee tables of the rich and poor alike, and my name would be whispered with a measured awe in the break rooms of restaurants for years to come.

Well, sorry. The bones are there; the framework sitting in the archives of this very blog. Until the storied day when a literary agent looks at my concept, knows just the perfect graphic designer to create the cheap equivalent of the Nathan Myhrvold “Modern Cuisine” $625 cookbook, my dream of the ultimate book on waiting tables is just that – a dream.

Until then, this book by David Hayden does what I hoped to do – make it possible for a newly-minted waiter to avoid the usual pitfalls of “learning on the job”. This is a dual goal; not only does it mean that waiters can share the knowledge necessary to maximize earnings, it means that fewer restaurant guests will have to suffer the fumbling of such “on-the-fly training”.

It’s lean, it’s mean – it’s the opposite of what I intended. And just what the world needs.

BUY THIS BOOK.

Buy my book or I'll make you look like a fool in front of your date.

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Serving the business dinner pt. 1

I’ve discussed this before, but it seems appropriate to delve into it again.

There are a couple of variations on the business dinner.

The first is the small non-business business dinner. This would be your standard table of business types (up to about 6 – 8 people). This is a gathering of people with shared business dinners just getting together for a social dinner. There will be some business discussed, but mostly in the context of work-related conversation, much like we as waiters do when we gather for post-shift drinks. Lots of shop talk, but little actual business done.

This table is treated just like any other table. while they might all be dressed in Armani suits, they aren’t needing any special consideration. However, it can be helpful to identify the “host” or the alpha male/female. They might be the one to either order the wine or identify the person who’s considered the “wine geek” of the table. However, you shouldn’t play to this person to the exclusion of the others because you’d be surprised how many times someone who you didn’t expect actually pays the check.

This brings up an important point about every table. You should give everyone equal attention. You never know if someone who you don’t suspect ends up paying the check after all. I can’t tell you how many times it’s an administrative assistant or other diner who ends up paying because they have the corporate card and perform the task of paying the bill in lieu of “The Boss”. It’s almost like “The Boss” isn’t bothered with such mundane things like paying the bill.

How do you find out if the event is a social one? Simple. You ask up front. If it appears to be business-related, you ask someone who appears to be in control if it’s a business dinner and if you need to serve them in a particular way. If they say, “We’re just getting together; we don’t have any special needs”,  then it’s full speed ahead with the normal service steps. If they say, “We’re going to discuss some business, so we’re not in any big hurry”, or “Yes, we’re going to need some time before/after the entrée to discuss some things”, then you proceed to:

The small business dinner.

This requires restraint on your part. Interrupting conversations to inquire how everything is is not a good thing. You almost have to throw out the service steps book and rewrite it. the main thing is to make sure that they get cocktails/drinks quickly. Once you do that, take a step back and observe them. If the menus remain untouched and they seem into heavy conversation, simple cruise them periodically to look for signs that they are starting to lose interest in business/cocktail hour behavior and getting interested in food. This could mean a couple of them picking up menus, snatches of conversation about the cuisine, looking around, etc. Many times, business colleagues like to discuss business over cocktails and this is where some important business sometimes gets done,  so it’s not as important to sell apps or script specials. Wait until the time is right.

Hopefully, you got an idea about how they want the pacing of the meal to go when you asked them your initial question. Just remember that you have to be flexible and intuitive. If you notice them shifting from business to hunger, be ready to suggest an appetizer. If they go for it and don’t ask about the specials, the best thing to do is to get an appetizer order, ring it in and then return to the table to talk about the specials. Try not to do it all at once if you can. Reciting the specials gives you the chance to fill some time while you’re waiting for the appetizers to arrive. However, if you tell them about the specials and then ring in the appetizer because they’ve asked about them, you can always fall back on taking the entrée order while you’re waiting.

One optional thing that you can do, which requires an additional step on your part is to suggest that you take the menus away and bring them back after the appetizer. Juggling menus while trying to eat appetizers can be awkward, especially when they’re wearing thousand dollar suits. of course, this holds true for any table, but it’s especially true in this instance.

One key thing to remember is that people talking business can be incredibly focused. We waiters can feel uncomfortable when we are excluded from interacting with the table. Try to repress this by remembering that they don’t need your “entertainment” or “service”. They are focused on themselves. If they spend 20 minutes over drinks, it’s not like a normal table being stuck with drinks for 20 minutes while they’re waiting for you to return to talk about appetizers. However, you do need to continue to monitor them because these sorts of folks can shift quickly from business to dinner.  Just watch for the signs that I mentioned.

You need to give business tables their time and space. If you are in a restaurant where you are concerned about turning tables quickly, you should simply write them off as a candidate for flipping. Normally, business tables spend more money anyway, so don’t begrudge them their time. They usually aren’t concerned with the cost of the meal and some business tables spend a lot of money because a. it’s not their personal money to begin with and b. sometimes they are expected to spend a lot of money to achieve a business goal.

This brings up a good point. Now is not the time to worry about suggesting a big wine or upscale liquors. I wouldn’t pick the most expensive bottle on the list, but I’d definitely start at the upper end. It’s always good to have a go-to pricey wine in the major varietal categories. make it something that you know well and are comfortable in selling, and would be comfortable in buying yourself if money is no object. It’s easier to sell something that you believe in.

Finally, don’t necessarily expect 20% even in the face of flawless service, even if you usually get it. It’s probably not you, it’s probably a company guideline.

In part two, we’ll talk about the large business function (Christmas party, awards dinner, pharmaceutical dinner, etc.).

Wine of the day – Shiraz

Shiraz – named after a city in Iran of all places. It’s also known as Syrah, which is the name of the grape. The name Shiraz is courtesy of our Australian friends and it used to be that they were about the only ones who used the term. But American vintners have seemed to have started riding the Australian coattails because they have been really successful in calling it Shiraz and we Americans certainly will ride any successful marketing coattails. So now you’re seeing such wineries as Beringer, Francis Coppola and Geyser Peak marketing their Syrahs as Shirazes. I predict that the trend will continue to accelerate. In fact, I think that Syrah will eventually be the rarity. The French refuse to budge though because they are known as the premiere bottler of Syrah in their Rhône region (named after the great river which runs through it). No new world marketing trend will change that fact.

The Aussies also pronounce Shiraz a little differently than the rest of the world. They pronounce it Shir- AZZ, whereas we pronounce it Shir-OZ. The latter is the more “correct” pronunciation, if you are trying to pronounce the name of the city. The latter is what you will hear mostly in the US unlike you’re like me, who likes to pronounce an Australian Shiraz the way the vintners pronounce it. I use the American pronunciation for Shiraz produced anywhere else. But that’s just me.

So, what is Syrah/Shiraz?

The grape comes from hardy rootstock which is late budding but doesn’t ripen too late.  According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it is “conveniently late-budding and not too late ripening”. According to the same reference, “Its deep, dark, dense qualities are much reduced once the yield is allowed to rise and it has a tendency to lose aroma and acidity rapidly if left too long on the vine”. This explains the wide price variation between, say, Penfold’s Grange (at hundreds of dollars a bottle) and their Thomas Hyland Vineyard wine (which only costs tens of dollars). Another good example is Hermitage (please pronounce it air-ma-TAHZE, as the French do). This is one of the most expensive bottlings of the great Rhône region. It’s only a 311 acres region in the Northern Rhône and there are a handful of producers who produce it. However, Syrah is the predominate grape in all Rhône regions, from Côtes-du Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You will also obviously find it in the famous “Rhône Rangers” of the West Coast, like Tablas Creek of the Central Coast.

So how would you describe Syrah/Shiraz? Well, to me, it’s similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of body. Full-bodied and dark, it’s more fruit forward” and juicy. It’s usually firm and well-structured and not quite as tannic as Cab Sauv. It’s got lots of dark fruit, especially fruits like blackberry, plum and black cherry, and they tend to be fairly spicy. They can be peppery or chocolatey or both; they can have clove, licorice and vanilla. Leathery notes aren’t uncommon.

Cool climate Syrahs tend to be more “elegant” with a richer flavor profile (read Northern Rhone,  coastal and higher altitude California and the extremely rare Australian boutiquey vintner), while warmer climate-grown Syrahs are generally “bigger”, “jammier” with some “lighter” fruit flavors like blueberries and raspberries. This is the predominate style of Australian producers due to the fact that their growing regions tend to be hotter. 

West Coast producers have generally followed the australian model, since they are the most familiar to the US consumer, but there is an increasing trend to go after the Northern Rhône style. Since California has both types of climates available to it, the vintners there can produce according to their geographic and topographic constraints. Syrah works in both warm and cool environments, and each offers advantages that should be factored into the production. Cool climate Syrahs have been more of a challenge because US consumers have been conditioned by the success of the Aussies as well as the fact that more people can afford to drink wines from the southern Rhône and are more familiar with the style.

Australians probably grow the highest percentage of Shiraz to the rest of their output. It’s ubiquitous. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because there is plenty to choose from. It’s bad because yields are often too high and the varietal loses some of its character and it can be flabby, “underspiced”, overcooked in hot years, etc. Look first to established producers like Penfolds, Wolf Blass and D’Arenberg. This isn’t to say that others aren’t good, but these producers tend to be pretty consistent within their various niches. However, if you want to hit a home run virtually every time, look to Mollydooker (usually one word but even the winemakers make it two words on occasion). The name is Aussie slang for a left hander (and can be used to describe a “left hook”) and that’s what the wine will give you. Big, juicy, spicy and never “flabby” or tired, the various bottlings have never failed to satisfy. They are certainly “in-your-face” but never in a bad way. The winemakers, Sarah and Sparky Phillips, they first became well-known outside of their home country with the famed brand,  Marquis Phillips. The Phillipses are clever marketers, creating memorable names for each of their specific blends, and they tie a cartoon version of the name on the label. Some of their most famous offerings are “The Blue-eyed Boy”, “The Boxer” (there’s that left hook thing working for them), “Two left Feet”, “The Maitre D’ “, and “Carnival of Love”. If you’d like more info on this up-and-comer, here’s their website where you can click on each of their offerings and the labels and bottles.

http://www.mollydookerwines.com.au/web/trade_info.cfm

They have various blends of Shirazes and Cabernets, so you might need to google the specific wine that interests you, since it’s hard to find specifics on some of the wines at the Mollydooker site itself.

So, what should we pair Shiraz/Syrah with?

Think Cabernet Sauvignon. You want to pair the average Shiraz or Syrah with fatty meats, stews, lamb, game, etc. Obviously, if you know your various styles, you can fine tune it even further. For instance, you might not want to pair a big jammy Australian Shiraz with a rare tuna steak, while you might handily recommend an Hermitage or Cornas (a region close to hermitage in the northern Rhône) because the jamminess won’t overwhelm the flavor of the tuna. I’m not saying that you can’t pair a warm climate Syrah with tuna. For instance,  Côtes-du Rhône is blended with at least 40% Grenache, which tends to soften and reduce the body of the wine.  Therefore, it can pair nicely with something like tuna or salmon.

But, in general, you should recommend Syrah/Shiraz as you would for any other full-bodied red. Believe it or not, it’s great “picnic wine”, especially if you’re eating BBQ, ribeyes or juicy burgers. Fat and Syrahs work well in concert with each other.

So go forth and sell Syrah/Shiraz with confidence. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope that I’ve given you the right thumbnail sketch to help you when someone is looking for a good red wine to go with their prime rib.

Featured at How To Be A Better Restaurant Customer

I have participated in the “You Got Served” at the great blog, “How To Be A Better Restaurant Customer”. I’m pitted against Restaurant Gal, a blog that I have long cherished (you’ll find both of these blogs ye ole blogroll). Both of us are asked a few questions and we give a little background biographical information.

Hope you check it out here:

http://www.howrc.com/2010/02/you-got-served.html

My only quibble is that the formatting got skewed, making it a little difficult to read (as if my purple prose isn’t enough of a slog). Oh, and I posted a comment saying that I chose Restaurant Gal, but I guess we don’t get to vote on our own “contest”. I really do cherish her posts, which are warm, funny, insightful and even sometimes tragic and she’s a real mensch.

And when I went to the blog to pull up the You Got Served post, I found that I got a very warm endorsement in the most recent post as well. Wow. I’m really gratified. How cool is that?

http://www.howrc.com/2010/02/my-top-five-favorite-server-blogs.html

I absolutely endorse this blog, not because of the kudos, but because they’ve found an interesting twist on the standard server blog and both diners and servers can benefit from the content there.

Wine topic of the day – Petite Sirah

Neither petite (in terms of body and color) nor syrah (often confused with Petite Syrah which is a small-berried syrah found in the Rhone), this grape was long thought to be a relative or variant of Durif, an almost extinct minor French varietal. According to Jancis Robinson, this has been disproved by modern DNA analysis, although this isn’t held universally. See this site for additional information about the parentage:

http://www.winelabels.org/artsirah.htm

And also see the comment section for a comment by Jo Diaz, founder of P.S. I Love You, an advocacy group for Petite Sirah, where she definitively states that Durif, the original cross between Syrah  and Peloursin done by Dr. Durif to try to eliminate powdery mildew in Syrah, is indeed Petite Sirah.

Petite Sirah has been an important blending grape for years, and recently has come to the forefront as a varietal worth bottling on its own, much as Cabernet Franc has become fashionable. For instance, Petite Sirah is useful for adding color and spine to weaker Cabernet Sauvignon vintages and it’s been used to add body and color to washed out Pinot Noirs. In fact, Petite Sirah has been planted in California since the late 1800s. If you’ve drunk Ridge’s Zinfandels, you have likely experienced Petite Sirah as part of the blend. They use Petite Sirah extensively to augment their excellent Zinfandel program. And, they bottle it independently as well.

However, it’s a very nice grape on its own. At its best, it produces an inky, almost black color and offers a reasonable alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, offering a slightly lighter body and tannic structure. For someone who finds Cabernet Sauvignon too big,  Zinfandel too “earthy” and Pinot Noir too light, Petite Sirah can be a good offering. when I serve a Petite Sirah, I always mention that the color doesn’t betray the body, that its darkness and opacity isn’t a true indicator of its body. Sure, it’s full-bodied, but it’s generally more “drinkable” than a big, sandpapery Cabernet, at least for people who find them just too big. This means that you can pair it with large-flavored dishes, and, an additional advantage is that it’s somewhat obscure to the average wine drinker and it offers a different flavor profile.

The problem? Most wine lists don’t even have a Petite Sirah. And if they do, you’re usually stuck with just one or two choices. If you are interested in this wine, you might lobby your wine buyer to add one or two to the menu. Of course, if you do that, you’ll need to personally try to sell it because it’s not going to sell itself.

What are the general characteristics of Petite Sirah?

As I’ve mentioned, it has an extremely dark, black color. You won’t be seeing through it as you examine it in the glass. Some fairly frequent notes are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon –  pepper, cedar, coffee, plum, blackberries, dark cherry, i.e. “dark fruits”.

Some wine experts find it lacking in distinction, a little lacking in character. But that’s what makes it good as a bridge for the uninitiated. What it lacks in “character” it makes up in “drinkability”.

Bogle and Concannon are probably the best known of the California vintners. They offer low cost versions that are fairly reliable. Ridge, as I have mentioned, is a higher-end brand. Stag’s Leap has another bottling that will set you back some coin (I believe that they spell it with a “y”).

So what would you pair with Petite Sirah? Pretty much anything you’d pair with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Syrah. Big, meaty, fatty meats. Rich stews. Roasted meats. Game. In my opinion, it would be a better match with tuna and salmon than any of the aformentioned varietals.

If you google the name, you’ll find some interesting information that can not only help you navigate the “controversies” swirling around the grape, but you might also get a bit confused, but don’t let that stop you from exporing this nice alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage and, yes, Syrah.

Photo by Jo Diaz, taken at Foppiano Vineyards

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

Cookbook of the day – An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France

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An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France: France’s Top Domains and Their Wines


by Clive Coates MW (Master of Wine)



Publisher Mitchell Beazley; illustrated edition edition (October 1, 2005)


ISBN 10: 1840009926


ISBN 13: 978-1840009927



I have the original edition of this book (2000), which has the above pictured cover. It has been updated and sports a different cover.


If you want the best view of France’s vine world, this is the ticket, albeit somewhat expensive if you buy it new. Coates covers every appellation, including Corsica, and drills down into the important characterizations of each. He highlights the important growers and négociants using a 3-star system of grading.


There are copious maps and charts, but no photographs or other illustrations (at least in the 2000 edition).


Well-written and entertaining in its rather dry and low-key fashion, this book is indispensable for any reasonable wine library. Highly recommended despite the rather high price.

Cookbook of the day – Wine

Christian Callec

Wine: A Comprehensive Look at the World’s Best Wines

by Christian Callec

  • Publisher  (October 7, 2003)
  • ISBN 10: 0517221659
  • ISBN 13: 978-0517221655
  • This book is one of those books that was designed from the outset to be marketed as a “remainder”, those less expensive books that you find on the budget tables of bookstores. It’s a handy source of wine information, but its great virtue, and the reason that I’m specifically recommending it this morning,  is the copious amount of photos of actual bottles that illustrate the various winemaking regions. Using top producers as visual examples, you’ll get a look at the labels of many great  producers and the bottles that hold their product.  There are plenty of labels in lieu of bottles as well as the usual panoply of vineyard and “behind the scenes” shots.

    Visually, this is real blessing for any dedicated wine enthusiast and is worth digging around for. As of this posting, Amazon.com has about 15 copies in both new and used condition, and they range in price from .99 to $21.95.

    If you want a visual tour of the great bottles of the world, this is your round-trip ticket.

    Cookbook of the day – The World Atlas of Wine

    wine_atlas

    The World Atlas of Wine

    by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson

    Publisher –Mitchell Beazley

    ISBN-10: 1840003324

    ISBN-13: 978-1840003321

    A confession – I’m a sucker for a topographic map. Perhaps this is a remnant of my backpacking days or my time in the military.

    So I’m a sucker for this book, especially since I love wine as well.

    Johnson and Robinson are leading wine writers and so, they are perfect for fleshing out the details behind the maps.

    And these maps! Some are detailed non-topographic but coded for vineyards, forests, etc.  Some have terrain features like hills and mountains airbrushed in. And some offer the detail of a USGS topographic map. Regardless of what type of map they use, there’s detail down to some of the smallest settlements and clearly defined vineyard areas.

    You also get detail soil analysis as well as climatic issues that impact the region. You get details on plantings and there are copious photographs that flesh out the life behind the bottle.

    This book should be part of any reasonable wine library, as it’s a valuable research tool.

    Johnson and Robinson