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Wine Tip: Serving Wine Is Not Brain Surgery

Chinon_wine,_bottle,_cork,_foil_and_corkscrewThe other night, at what passes for a reasonably good restaurant, my wife and I ordered a simple bottle of white wine.  The waitress, when confronted with opening it, stammered and admitted she had never opened a bottle of wine before, it being her first night on the job. Bypassing the chance to berate the owner for not training her in such obvious skill, we opened it for her.
Talking to friends later, it became apparent that even those who have enjoyed wine for years are still apprehensive about opening wine in restaurants –in front of everybody and all. Are you really supposed to sniff the cork? What if there is something floating in your wine? Should you ask for an ice bucket? How do you check the label if it’s covered by a white napkin?
It is apparently time to reassure people that opening a bottle of wine is not that complicated. Despite the aura of ritual, all you’re doing is getting a piece of oak bark (the cork) out of the neck of a glass bottle.  If necessary, you could cut the neck of the bottle with a sword like one French expert does, or snap the neck off using red-hot port tongs.  But those are extreme measures. With most bottles all you need is a good corkscrew with a lever. The simplest and handiest, called a waiter’s corkscrew, has a small knife blade encased in the handle.  You use it first to cut off the outer covering called the capsule, which protects the cork. You cut the capsule off parallel to the table with a circular motion right around the little lip just below the top.
After you have nearly removed the capsule you wipe the top off with a clean napkin or paper towel so no mold or other foreign goop living under the rim falls into the wine after you pull the cork. Then you stick the point of the screw (or gimlet) into the center of the cork. With a twist the wrist you broke right in, straight down, till the screw has just about disappeared.
Next you place the lever on the top edge of the bottle and holding it on with one hand so it won’t slip off (so embarrassing if you drop the bottle), you pull the cork out. A slight pop sill gives me a cheap thrill, even more mature onlookers scorn me for doing it.
Then you pour out a couple of tablespoonfuls into your own glass, never anyone else’s –that way you get any pieces of cork. Defiantly dipping out any pieces of cork which have fallen in, you swirl the wine slightly, sniff it without showing off, and taste it. So much has been made of cork-sniffers that I try to do it as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.  If it’s bad, you’ll usually smell it from a foot away anyway. If the wine is OK, as it most always is, pour for your tablemates next filling your own glass last. You should fill the glasses no more than 2/3 full.
When deciding on an ice bucket, it is useful to consider the fact that in America, most white wines are drunk too cold and most red wines too warm. The “room” temperature long accepted as proper for reds comes from English rooms, which are usually 65 degrees or cooler, as compared to our 70 plus, which is too warm for wine. Although it grosses out even experienced waiters, many whites need to sit out on the table for a few minutes to get less icy, while many reds could stand a quick dash in the ice bucket to drop their temperature 5 or 10 degrees. Which ever course you choose, don’t let the waiter intimidate you. You paid for the wine and should drink it at the temperature you like. He works for you, and not the other way around.
September 13, 1991

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