By the Glass or Buy the Bottle

February 6, 2020

By Jaclyn Stuart

In Elkhart Lake we are lucky to have several wonderful dining establishments with great wine lists, but ordering wine in a restaurant can sometimes be a little intimidating. With a few simple tricks, you can navigate the wine list, pick a perfect bottle, and impress your dining companions.

The Wine List

Wine lists are typically organized by either grape type or region. If you are trying to find a selection on your own, it is important to acclimate yourself with the layout in order to get to the section that you are interested in. If just figuring out the layout sends you into a panic, asking the server for assistance is a great way to get the ball rolling. Something simple like, “Can you assist me with picking out a bottle?” will allow the server to reply with “Absolutely what style are you looking for?” or “I would be happy to get our manager/sommelier/steward/owner” if they are less comfortable with the wine list, too.  

Narrow Down Your Options

At this point, narrowing down your options is key. Whether you prefer Cabernet Sauvignon or simply a ‘hearty red’ will give the person assisting you a lot to work with. A helpful suggestion to make sure you don’t end up with the most expensive bottle on the list, is to simply set a limit. You don’t have to vocalize this as a dollar amount if you are trying to hide cost from your dining companions, but instead can point at the price column at a couple options that are in your comfort zone. Once you have decided on a bottle, the restaurant staff will seek out that bottle and the server will come to your table to present it.

Present and Pop Open

The ceremony of opening a bottle can seem stuffy, but it is a routine with several important steps that do serve a purpose. As a customer, it is really important to take a moment to verify that the bottle they have is indeed the correct one. Check the name, grape, vintage, and region to be sure that they don’t start opening the wrong bottle. It is easier to send them back to the cellar at this point than to realize there’s a white wine in your glass instead of red when they pulled the Chardonnay instead of the Cabernet that you wanted.

Once the details of the label have been confirmed, the server will proceed with opening the bottle. Once the cork is out, they will often present it. I’ve seen people do anything from stare at it awkwardly to sniff and even lick it. The only thing you should do with the cork is check it for storage quality. To do this, you simply grasp it between your thumb and index finger and make sure it has a little sponginess. Too dry and it will be hard and can indicate poor, upright storage. Too gooey with wine staining all the way up the side can indicate that the bottle has leaked. This just helps to put you on alert for a possible flaw when you smell the wine and taste the first sip.

A Little Tasting

Once the server pours you a little taste, you want to check the wine for any issues. Simply not liking it isn’t a valid issue, though. If the wine smells like wet cardboard, nail polish, or mold; then you should alert your server and see if they can get another bottle. I kindly and simply say, “I think this wine is off. Would you care to smell it?” Now, I have had friends do this only to be met with a server saying, “that’s just how it smells,” but typically restaurants won’t hesitate to get another bottle. If you simply don’t like it, you can mention that to your server and see if they’ll offer any options. Sometimes restaurants will offer to pour the bottle by the glass as a special, but don’t rely on this. If there is nothing technically wrong with the wine, then it is yours to consume or take home. It’s the same as if you went out on a limb to try the steak, knowing you don’t care much for beef, but then asked to send it back simply because the beef is too beefy. Restaurants typically want to do what’s necessary to please their customers, so just being open and friendly about it can go a long way.

A standard bottle of wine has 25.4oz in it. This equates to roughly 4-5 standard glasses. If you can’t finish the entire bottle at dinner, Wisconsin law allows you to recork the bottle and take it home, so long as you ordered food with it. The restaurant just needs to recork the bottle to a point where it requires a corkscrew to remove the cork. Some will bag up the wine and attach your dining receipt just to be safe. To make sure you don’t appear to have an open container in your car on your way home, I recommend putting the bottle in your trunk, just to be safe.

If you experience great restaurant wine service, I encourage you to let them know. It seems that people are more inclined to vocalize complaints than praise, so if you have a stellar server that led you to your new favorite wine or an extraordinary wine pairing, be sure to share that with the management or owners. While it isn’t always customary to tip the full 20% on a bottle of wine, that can go a long way, too. Servers are often underappreciated, so when you encounter a great one, be sure to let them know.


Jaclyn Stuart

Jaclyn Stuart, owner of Vintage Elkhart Lake, is the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Wine & Food Pairing and a certified sommelier with accreditations from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and the French Wine Society. In 2011 she won the title of TopNewSomm in the Great Lakes Region from the Guild of Sommeliers. Known for her down-to-earth style of explaining wine, Stuart has appeared on several television and radio news programs to discuss food and wine pairings and is an annual presenter at Kohler Food & Wine. A California native, Stuart has a Bachelor’s in business & hospitality management from San Jose State University.

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