Tips from a Sommelier on Ordering Wine in Restaurants – Part 3

BY Montana Rae


Danjean-Bethoux ‘Meix au Roi’ Givry at Sunday Vinyl

Our three-part series on Tips from a Sommelier for Ordering Wine in Restaurants comes to a close this week with part three. Thus far, I’ve covered basic tips and tricks to keep in mind when dining out plus cues you can take when it comes to pairing food and wine. In this section, we tackle the ceremonial tableside presentation of the wine and a few final suggestions to help elevate your next night on the town. If you missed them, be sure to go back and check out parts one and two of this series as well!

Embrace the presentation

Ahh the presentation of the wine. This ritual can be an awkward moment that sends some people into an immediate pressure spiral. When you understand the actual purpose of the presentation, your perspective on the process may shift.

As you probably know, the typical method involves the sommelier or server approaching the table, bottle and corkscrew in hand, presenting the label to the person who ordered it, and pouring a tiny sample. From there, you taste. You’re cool, calm, and collected on the outside. Inside, chances are you’re in an internal panic praying the wine is “good” and wondering what the heck you’re supposed to even think at that moment. You nod your approval and the server pours for the rest of your party, then fills your glass. You pray silently in the background.

Jolie-Laide Halcon Vineyard Syrah at A5 Steakhouse

Let’s break it down. The step that often seems to be overlooked is the bit where the server presents the label to you. You may have never seen the bottle before, but it’s important that you pause for a moment and look it over to make sure they brought what you actually ordered. Wine labels, particularly European ones, can have easily missed indications of major differences between bottles. If you’re in a restaurant with a huge selection, this is even more important. If you thought you ordered a bottle that costs $100 and the bottle the server brings is actually the single-vineyard option that’s $550, you may find yourself in an awkward situation. Best to verify before the cork is pulled!

The Sniff Test

Next is the sniff and taste portion. Again, you may feel unsure of what you’re supposed to be smelling or tasting. Don’t worry about analyzing the wine, that’s not your job. Focus instead on observing the pleasant aromas in the glass. You’re not necessarily trying to decide whether you like the wine in that split second. It’s more about trying to determine whether the wine is flawed. If you haven’t had a flawed, or “corked” wine before, you may not be sure what it smells like. It’s sort of like a cross between moldy cardboard and a wet dog. Lovely, right?

If you’re noticing any aromas that are offputting, don’t be afraid to pause for a moment. Some wines have a funky aroma reminiscent of a barnyard. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with the wine and it may just be the style of the bottle you chose. If that’s the case, these aromas will often “blow off” or mellow out once the wine has a chance to breathe a little. If the aromas are really off, you can ask your sommelier to smell the wine. If you’re on the fence, take a small sip. Even if the wine is flawed, a small sip isn’t going to hurt you apart from having a nasty taste in your mouth for a little while.

If you’re unsure after you taste, ask for help! A sommelier or experienced server will know the aroma of a flawed wine. Ask them to pour a sample and offer their opinion. If the bottle is off, they should offer to bring a new bottle.

Don’t be afraid to send a bottle back, within reason

At the end of the day, the money you spend dining out is yours and just as you have the right to send a plate of food back that doesn’t meet your expectations, you also have the right to return a bottle of wine. With that being said, you’re hopefully focusing on the quality and condition of the wine, not the fact that you may have chosen something you just don’t particularly like.

Learning about wine is all about experimentation. You’re not going to love every single bottle you try. While a discussion with your server about your usual preferences can usually set you on the right track, it’s helpful to keep an open mind. Also, a wine will evolve and change as it sits on the table! Give it a chance.

If you do decide to send a bottle back, be courteous but also stick to your guns. In almost all cases, the restaurant isn’t going to be stuck with the bill for the bottle. They will typically return it to their distributor for a credit who will in turn invoice the winery. So, while you’re not necessarily costing the restaurant dollars, you are activating a chain of events that requires quite a few people to take steps, complete paperwork, and resolve it. If the bottle is bad, the steps are warranted. If you’re being unreasonable, you might consider dining at home instead.

Offer the server a taste

My final tip may be a bit of an industry thing, but I’ll throw it out here. I always like to offer my server or sommelier a taste of the wine when I order a bottle. They have likely tasted the wines available by the glass, but they may not have had the wine you ordered recently or ever. Offering them an ounce or two from your bottle is a great way to show your appreciation for their service (assuming their manager is ok with it). It also helps improve the restaurant’s guest experience as the staff will be better informed of what’s available. Of course, it’s not your responsibility to help train the staff. Think of this more like a gratuity. If your server accepts, I can guarantee you’ll be their favorite table of the night!

Hopefully, this series has you inspired to get out there and experience the wonderful food and wine options available in our city. I wish you lots of great meals with good company and that you never have to taste a corked wine to get there!


Montana Rae

Montana Rae is a CMS Certified Sommelier and WSET Level III residing in Denver, Colorado. She offers private wine tastings, classes, and dinners at clients’ homes and businesses around Colorado, as well as product recommendations, tips, recipes, and more through her company, The Wine Ship. Montana is also a commercial real estate broker specializing in sales and leasing of restaurant and retail spaces in Denver. Contact Montana at and follow her on Instagram @montana.rae.sommelier

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