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Wine service in restaurants

One of my biggest problems eating in restaurants is servers who stop at the table to top off glasses of wine each time he or she passes by. First, I don't like the constant interruption. Second, people drink at different paces, and topping off inevitably leads to one person drinking a lot more than the others. Third, sometimes you want the wine in the glass to aerate and topping it off with "new wine" slows this down. Fourth, I have a gut negative reaction to the idea that the restaurant is trying to sell me a second bottle, and so they want me to hurry up and finish the first one.

I'm not saying servers should never refill wine. I'm saying they should do it much less often than most do, or ask me before refilling. However, given pervasiveness of the topoff, I'd prefer to refill my own glass than have the constant interruption.

Yes, I know there are things I can do about this. Sometimes I move the bottle to a place on the table where the server cannot easily reach it. More commonly, when the server tries to refill the first time (or once I notice he or she is taking the topoff-all-the-time approach) I politely tell him or her that we will do it ourselves. But this can be an awkward moment and sometimes get the evening off on the wrong foot. I wish it wasn't necessary.

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  1. When ever I get a bottle of wine, after the first pour, I just tell the server that I will take care of the serving. I do it right off the bat that way I don't have to worry about it. Awkward? Not really. If it is a wine steward, the problem usually doesn't come up. They seem to understand the dynamics of the table.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Wineman

      This is exactly what you should do. No reason to wait until the server has done something you didn't want them to do to inform them that you'd like to handle it yourself. Even a hand over the glass on the server's first trip back can be enough to say you'll take care of it (for those diners who try to avoid explicitly telling their servers what to do).

      In the end, unless the service is incredibly pretentious, we're just trying to please.

    2. I do what Wineman does. It is never a problem.

      3 Replies
      1. re: dinwiddie

        As I said in my OP, I do this also and, while it is never a problem, it does sometimes create awkward moments for a waiter who has been instructed, repeatedly by his manager, to keep wine glasses filled. Obviously this isn't a problem in places that know how to properly serve wine. But most of the time I'm in more casual, less fine establishments.

        1. re: Darren72

          As a former waiter (many, many years ago) if the customer says to leave it alone, the manager will understand when the waiter tells him so. Besides, all you have to do is put you hand over the glass then pour when you are ready. Don't get upset with the waiter in those situations, just tell the manager you prefer to pour your own wine and if they have a problem with it that you can always eat somewhere else.

          1. re: dinwiddie

            I think we are on the same page here, honestly. I don't disagree with anything you've said. I'm not saying there isn't a way to fix the situation. I'm saying I wish I didn't have to deal with this in the first place. A good wine service doesn't refill glasses after every sip.

      2. When I serve wine at a table, I always pour a bit short to begin with. Once I determine the pace at which each diner is drinking, I'll top off lightly to accommodate that (in that way, I'm pouring the most wine to the people that are drinking the most). It's really poor service to over-pour, but so many waiters have been taught to push rather than use a light touch. It's too bad. If a guest would like to pour their own wine, I don't mind. I'll just let the rest of the staff & management know so that no one else tries to pour for them. I understand that they have no way of knowing that I actually know what I'm doing!

        When I'm eating out, if our waiter pours lightly to begin with, I'll let them handle the rest of the bottle. If I'm over-served at first, I'll politely say "we'd like to pour for ourselves, thank you." If I've ever offended someone, I haven't noticed, and that's not really my concern anyway as a diner. It's certainly less passive-aggressive than moving the bottle out of reach!

        5 Replies
        1. re: monday

          But why would you pour more wine to the person who is drinking the most?

          I wouldn't call putting the bottle out of reach passive agressive. Nice.

          1. re: Darren72

            As you move around the table pouring, you try to end up so that everyone has the same level in the glass each time. Those who are drinking little don't look like teetotalers and those who are drinking more don't look like lushes. Inevitably, this means that those who are drinking more will get more, but this should be a good thing. Why would someone not drinking much want the same amount of wine as someone who is drinking? A skillful server or sommelier will make it seem like everyone is on the same level, so to speak. If it's done correctly, everyone finishes each bottle at about the same time, and no one is over-poured or pushed to drink more than they would like to. Also, no precious wine is wasted!

            1. re: monday

              I guess this is just where we disagree. I don't want the waiter presuming how we want to split the bottle between ourselves based on how fast we drink.

              "Why would someone not drinking much want the same amount of wine as someone who is drinking?"

              Maybe I'm drinking slower than my dinner companion because I want to save more until the food comes, for example. The waiter shouldn't infer from that that I don't want to drink as much. Alternatively, if I choose to drink faster than my companion, I shouldn't get more of the bottle, just so we finish the bottle at the same time.

              "A skillful server or sommelier will make it seem like everyone is on the same level, so to speak."

              I would say that a skillful server should either let diners split the bottle 50-50, or just ask if glasses should be filled, etc.

              Anyways, it's nice to see the other point of view on this. I'll definitely be more vocal from now on when waiters pour wine. As I wrote above, I tend to think that giving waiters instructions can set a bad tone. But the more I think about it, I'd rather risk setting a bad tone and get the wine service I want.

              1. re: Darren72

                You should tell your waiter exactly what you want. The service I describe is straight out of sommelier training and all of the books that I've read on service. I work in a very high end restaurant, and so much of our service is based on the idea that there is a host at the table, and our job is to make that person look gracious. I am the first to admit (and recognise in the moment) that this is not always the dining dynamic. A great deal of our (not yours and mine but general) disagreement about how things should be done is really based on our different needs or preferences when dining. I should have also said that this is how I approach serving a bottle or bottles of wine. I happily adjust according to what seems best. When I get the sense that only one bottle will be purchased, I make adjustments. There are a million other factors, too. I just described the standard that we aspire to. A great server or sommelier will notice if a table has a different priority. Part of what I described was pouring lightly and slowly, so that I can continue to make adjustments as the dinner proceeds. Bottom line is that I will ALWAYS respect your preference if you are kind enough to share it with me. I will almost always pick up on it in one way or another and make my own adjustments. I'm not sure the original post was referring to service at the level that I'm usually working at. I was mostly trying to explain how some of us approach serving wine. I'll bet that we don't disagree at all! Cheers again.

                1. re: Darren72

                  I have to agree with "serve more wine to the person drinking the most".

                  Some people just get a glass when a bottle is ordered to look sociable. If we go out w/ my inlaws, everyone gets a glass, but my M-I-L doesn't really like wine, and my husband is just too much of an athelete to drink more than 1/2 a glass. It drives me nuts to see the waiter keep pouring wine into M-I-L's glass when I know it's just going to sit there and go to waste.

                  I know it's tough for a waiter to read our minds, and the M-I-L is too shy to wave him away, but if a waiter is savvy enough to figure out who is not a drinker...I think that's great. More for me.

          2. Reading the posts reminded me of the most horrifying wine experience I had, at a Chinese restaurant (ok, so most of them aren't known for wine service anyway). We ordered a bottle. The waiter brought it out, didn't show it to us, proceeded to use one of those corkscrews with the levers on both sides but didn't bother to take off the foil. He just pulled the cork out through the foil, left the foil on the bottle and then poured the wine all the way to the top of the glass for each person. How's that for service?

            1. In reply to Danna above...doesn't this just show that different people have different preferences, and thus a one-size-fits-all policy of topping off is not optimal? It may be good for you, which is great. But that doesn't mean it's great for everyone!

              4 Replies
              1. re: Darren72

                Danna's example does show that people have different preferences (also mentioned in my response to your last post). It also shows that she appreciates it when someone responds to the different preferences at her table. Did you read my response to you? Maybe I wasn't clear, but what I was trying to explain is that even though I (and thousands of other well trained professionals) have a certain APPROACH to serving wine, we will make any number of adjustments based on your requests, verbal cues, silent cues, etc. This as far from "one size fits all" as you get in the service biz. Again, speaking from a very fine dining background.

                1. re: monday

                  You are certainly an exception, then.

                  1. re: Darren72

                    I get that alot. I wish it weren't so!

                2. re: Darren72

                  It appears I was unclear. I am NOT happy with blind topping- off. That was my point. Honestly, I would prefer to do my own pouring...but I realize I'm a bit of a control-freak. Of course, the best answer is a wine steward who notices the table dynamic and responds appropriately. (thanks, monday)

                3. I heartily agree with you on this little problem. I find that a gentle conversation with the server is the best answer. The more wine-astute the serving staff is, the less often you will encounter this behavior. Same for "filling" the glass to too high a level. Unlike some respondents, I like to be involved in my meal, my guests and my wine, and DO like for the server to pour the wines, but at the proper pace. I've usually invested much of my time into the selection of the wines, and have already missed much of the early conversation at my table. I don't want to miss more, playing sommelier/server.

                  In very general terms, I find the above problem more often in US restaurants. I think that the pervasive concept of "more is better," is at work here. That, and less training in the aspects of wine service.

                  And, like you, I like to experience my wine through several stages, and topping up too quickly breaks that progression. It's the same with decanting. I'll usually ask for a very light pour for myself (and maybe a guest) before the decanting, to study the evolution of the wine closely. For most guests, however, I'll let them sample the wine after the decanting process.

                  I am also a believer in decanting/caraffing wines, both red and white (actually depends heavily on the wine) before serving. Still, I'll get a light pour before and monitor the changes.

                  I think that restaurants that serve wine, especially fine wine, have a responsibility to their patrons to train their staff, and that we, as diners, who enjoy wine, have a responsibility to help the staff know our preferences. We needn't expound on them, just gently instruct them. This holds for ordering a red that is intended for later in the meal, having it opened and a light pour all around before that course arrives - or having it decanted/caraffed early in the meal for later consumption. I usually try to go over these instructions, when the wine order is first placed, and will point out my guests, who may not be having as much wine as I.

                  Last, when many wines are served to accommodate many different courses around the table, I'll instruct the server to give me light pours of everything, though I do sometimes get lost from my guests, behind a curtain of wine glasses. <G> I find that a good time to instruct the server as to which wines I'm matching with which course/main, is when I place the order. This can get a bit confusing, and I stand (or sit) ready to help refresh the server as the wines are being poured.


                  1. don't feel awkward about telling your server how you want to be served. they are there to take care of you and the more information you give them on how you prefer things to be done, the less mind-reading the server has to do to be sure you have a nice experience. as far as the wine pouring, it's actually one less thing the server has to do for you so you're kind of doing them a favor (just don't take it out of their tip!).

                    one thing that always irked me about guests who insisted on pouring their own wine were the people who would overfill their glasses. i would pour their first glass, then come back around few minutes later to see that they poured off whole bottle in to two glasses. it really bothers me to see a bordeaux or balloon pinot noir glass filled to the top making it impossible to swirl, let alone heavy as hell, missing the whole point of having an oversized glass.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: rebs

                      I'm right there with you on being irked.

                      I had a former boss that was known for pulling that overfill-the-glass nonsense. His oft-sounded rally was, "I don't understand why they don't fill the glass! I already know I like it [the characteristics]. I wouldn't have ordered it otherwise."