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I'd prefer to choose how much wine I drink at dinner, but how to say so?

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Had an unexpected problem at dinner last night. We ordered a carafe of wine (which was advertised as being only a glass and a half, which the server reminded us) for the two of us - we didn't want much, and we figured we could always order another. The server brought it, poured a third in each glass, and went on her way. My husband drank some of his with his first course, but I didn't because it matched my main course better. On her way past, the server quick as a flash picked up the carafe and emptied it into my husband's glass, then whisked it away. I blinked; he growled, and when she returned he asked her how she knew that we wanted to give him all the rest of the wine. She countered that some people like that kind of service/attention. He told her that we would prefer to be the ones to decide who gets the most. She was apologetic and brought us another glass without charge, but I don't think she ever got the point.

In case I haven't made it clear: We had intended to split the wine, and when she originally served us both I assumed she understood that. But it brings up the larger question of how to pace oneself when the server feels a need to top us one's glass. Now that we are so attuned to the perils of driving under the influence, this seems to be increasingly important. Yet "good service" has traditionally included discreetly dispensing the wine as each patron's glass empties, paying attention to how much each has already had (which unfortunately was not the case here - the just dumped the wine into the emptier glass).

My questions: Would it be wise to reposition the carafe/bottle in future so that servers won't keep filling our glasses without asking? Would it be better to mention that we'll take it from there after the first glasses are poured? I don't want to offend the server who is a polished professional (I know several) and can be trusted both to be nonintrusive and to make eye contact before refilling a glass. But I don't want a reprise of last night's issue, and I have no way of knowing if the server has this sensitivity. Your suggestions for ways to politely head off this problem would be welcome

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  1. direct speech always works best.

    5 Replies
    1. re: thew

      I find that merely thinking about something and then later writing about it is not as effective as what you suggest: to SPEAK my preferences.

      1. re: chow_gal

        Point taken! I am now looking for wording that won't offend experienced servers but will protect me from those with less finesse - I'm leaning towards "Thanks, we'll pour the rest" after the first pour. I really want to keep it simple and unobtrusive, for myself as well as the server.

        1. re: Marsha

          Stop worrying. This is beyond small as a dining issue. Any server see true offensive behavior every night, I'm sure.

          1. re: c oliver

            I think I'm liking your suggestion "We'll take care of refilling" - it doesn't seem to contain any implied criticism. Now if I can just remember!

          2. re: Marsha

            Marsha,

            That works perfectly for me. The point is to communicate and nothing more.

            Regarding wine service, there are so many concepts of what a proper pour should be, that no server, regardless of how well-trained, will get it right for all patrons. Help them get it right for you.

            The carafe for B-T-G, or very similar, is a fav. of mine. However, I like very light pours in large, albeit appropriate stemware. I like to "play" with my wine, and my wife is the same.

            For our personal preferences, the ideal serving method would be to bring the carafe, or carafes, and pour a light tasting for each of us to approve, not totally unlike the host tasting a bottle for the table. With approval, I'd then want about 1/3 of the little carafe poured into the glass, and if I even think that the server might dump the whole thing into my glass, will mention, "Thank you. That will do nicely. I will handle it from here."

            This is taking charge, but in a non-threatening way, with praise for whatever has gone into the service to that point.

            I also keep an eye out for roving service personnel, who might try to "help." I do not need that, and let the captain know this - or cut off that helpful server with a "we'll handle this. Thank you so much."

            Most are only trying to be good servers, and mean no harm. If relieved of the duty of filling, or clearing your glasses, most will appreciate it. Just do it with a smile and a kind word.

            We do a ton of chef's tastings, with sommelier pairings. I might well have 10 glasses in front of me. Early on, I will let the bussers know that they are to ONLY remove my glasses, when I hand them off, as I might want to go back to wine #1 with course #6. They smile at me, and I return that. My lovely wife doesn't hold onto all of her wines, as much as I do, so I allow the bussers to clear her glasses.

            Recently at Blackberry Farm, I had 15 glasses in front of me. The servers knew better, than to attempt to take any, until I was ready. Luckily, after our very first night, on our very first visit, the staff knew to seat us at a large 4-top, though we were a party of two. We need the room for all of the wine glasses.

            When I book tables for us, I will usually mention that we plan on doing the sommelier's pairing and will re-enforce that, when being seated, so we do not get a tiny 2-top, as our wine glasses will never fit.

            Only through communication can the servers, or the FOH, possibly know. Who would expect that 2 diners might have 15 wine glasses on the table?

            Smile, be direct and help them help you. You will be rewarded. I've had servers stop by with another 2-3 wines, just for us to taste. They appreciate knowing what one wants and requires.

            As Thew mentioned "direct speech always works best." To that, I agree and hold up a glass on Zinfandel to toast that concept.

            Hunt

      2. I would just mention it after/as the server pours the first glass.

        1. Sometimes when I see the waiter reach for the carafe or bottle, i raise my hand and cover my glass to indicate that I am set. Then, when the server walks away, I can fill (or not) as I like. Also, if it's your husband, couldn't you just pour some from his glass into yours? Obviously that doesn't solve the up front problem, but it would be a solution if you found yourself in that situation again.

          7 Replies
          1. re: jenhen2

            Yes, I could have poured from his glass to mine, but I really didn't want to - the glasses they provided were very large (a "full" glass sort of covers the bottom seventh or eighth of the glass, volume-wise) and the table itself wasn't so big. It really would have been awkward and potentially messy. If it happens again, of course this is an option. There wasn't time for my husband to cover his glass - he was eating, fork in hand, and that girl was quick! I'm thinking a big smile after the first pour and a "Thanks, we'll pour the rest" might head off the problem.

            I was wondering if anyone with serving experience could help out here?

            1. re: Marsha

              You're over-thinking this. I am a veteran server, and I assure you, a server should not be offended by that statement. I would welcome it. It lets me know what you want, rather than guessing. The only other thing I might add is to lose the big smile. It's overkill. Hard to explain, but it implies the server is an idiot. Professional servers just want to be treated like professionals, so a polite "Thanks, we'll pour the rest" shows the server that you understand dining, you understand their job, and you would prefer that the server not do that part. This is FAR preferable to moving the carafe to an inaccessible part of the table.

              1. re: hilltowner

                So now I think I have a good strategy - I appreciate everyone's insights. No big smile, but a pleasant thanks and then probably "We'll take care of refilling" after the first pour.

                1. re: Marsha

                  I think that that should work fine. Now, I do smile, but as mentioned elsewhere, cannot say that it is a "big smile." The tones are very friendly, as is the level of my voice. I want to help the servers to help me.

                  Now, do watch out for the poor bussers, as they might not be aware of what the diner wants, and are only trying to do their jobs too. Here, a quiet comment, can go a very long way.

                  Hunt

                  Enjoy,

                  Hunt

                2. re: hilltowner

                  Thank you for responding from the server's point-of-view. That is important and is appreciated.

                  Now, my "big smile" is pretty subdued, so I seldom have that issue. For me, it's about communicating my wishes, and needs, in a congenial way, so that everyone knows what I want. I have found that whispered instructions, in a pleasant way, will get me what I want, and the server will usually greatly appreciate that communication. How are they to know otherwise?

                  So often, I overhear diners comment, "you call that a GLASS of wine?" Had they asked me, I would have have told them "yes, that is a glass of wine."

                  Again, I personally appreciate your take on things, as you offer a perspective, that I do not know.

                  Thanks,

                  Hunt

                3. re: Marsha

                  Marsha,

                  In my "book," those large bowl glasses are a good thing. Savor those, providing that the stemware is good. My "pour" is about 1/6 of my normal stems, Riedel Vinums. A decent wine benefits from a bit of room. Too many servers have been taught to pour as much, as is possible, in hopes of selling another carafe. They usually do not know better, until helped.

                  Hunt

                4. re: jenhen2

                  I have to admit that I do the same, though "the hand" is frowned upon. I like to explain our needs and desires early on, so that I do not need "the hand." Still, it works, and I use it, when pressed - just don't tell my director of protocol, as she'd think that she'd failed. I have to admit that I might have been her worst "student." [Grin]

                  Hunt

                5. This has been discussed before but my searching skill this morning is clearly impaired. But the best advice was simply to speak up. Also moving the carafe to a place on the table where you can run interference is fine. But, really, when the carafe or bottle arrives and the first pour is made, just say "we'll take care of refilling." Very simple.

                  1. Thanks for this posting--and to all who have replied. I agree completely that an upfront "we'll do it ourselves" is the best policy. I have never ever--even in the very best restaurants--seen servers who are sensitive to the different rates at which people may consume wine. This whole issue of servers pouring your wine is really ridiculous, if you think about it. I recall a big flap in the Chicago dailies in the late 70's about a customer who walked out of Le Perroquet (which to my mind had the best service of any restaurant in Chicago then or now) because a waiter didn't pour the wine to his liking. I suppose there might be instances of old sedimented wines in which this might be a problem, but these should be decanted in any case. Otherwise, the only conceivable reason for having someone pour your wine belongs in the "peel me a grape" territory. It's a ridiculous custom that should be gotten rid of. It's a pretension, like royalty, that we can well do without.

                    1. Wine service can be a hanging point, and even at some restaurants, that should know better. If it is just my wife and me, I will observe the servers, and direct them, as is necessary. We often do the carafe servings for B-T-G, and I like for my pours to open up. I instruct them that I will take over the pours, and will usually do this, before they empty the carafe into my glass. Same for my wife.

                      If we are hosting at a restaurant, I will meet with the servers beforehand and give them instructions as to the order, the volume of the pours, etc. If this is not possible, I will pull the head server aside and do so as the meal begins.

                      What, to some, would seem to be ideal service, is likely to not be what I want. Unless I express this, how are they to know?

                      Too often (mid-level restaurants more often), the poor servers are urged to pour heavily and sell-up. They do not know better, until a patron explains things to them. A few whispered comments will go a long way. Quickly, the service team knows to ask me for any directions, whether it's to point out that we're out of Montrachet, or that guest 6 changed the order from steak to tuna.

                      If they do not know, they cannot serve you efficiently. Make your preferences clear, and in hushed, private tones. No one else needs to know. Be direct, but friendly. You are not so much correcting them, as you are expressing your personal needs and desires. Help them to help you and any guests.

                      Enjoy,

                      Hunt

                      1. Bill has covered this very nicely, as has thew in his simple directive, so I am merely piling on. However, this is a frequent issue for me, as I live in wine country, always dine out with wine, and encounter servers with varying degrees of expertise and familiarity with what I prefer.

                        This began many years ago -- my pet peeve about this -- when white wines would be served too cold. Just at the time when my glass of wine had warmed up and its fruit and aromatics had bloomed to where I liked them, the server would come along and "top off" my wine with cold wine, thereby killing the fruit and aromatics that had developed. In the interests of enjoying my wine, I began to speak up, and say variations on what you've already read here.

                        When I do speak up, I attempt to do in the most charming way I can muster, with that smile Bill that speaks of, that "We'll pour the wine for each other -- thanks!"

                        The other reason for saying this is that I've always loved the ritual of sake -- that one guest always pours for the other. I can recall numerous occasions, even winery dinner parties, when our table made a game out of this ritual -- none of us could pour for ourselves, we all poured for each other. Made the evening more fun. For a table of two people, pouring for each other creates a mood of sharing and intimacy, and as such enhances the experience.

                        1. there are a few reasons why I don't like wine poured for me, it interrupts the flow of conversation at the table, one person may want more than the other, and if I am watching myself with regard to having one or maybe 2 glasses then driving I do not like my wine poured because I don't know how much I have had to drink if they keep topping up.

                          I also say thanks but we'll do it ourselves after the initial fill.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: smartie

                            If it's just my wife and me, or another couple dining, I will do the duties. Where it gets a bit tougher is when hosting a table of diners, especially if there is more than one wine being served at the time. This is where I find some gentle instruction to be golden, as if I have to keep hopping up and administering to my guests, there is little time for that conversation.

                            If the dining is more to the formal side, I will always arrive early and have a "chalk talk" with my service team. For less formal dining, I will watch closely, and if necessary pull a server (or the captain) aside and give instructions for my table.

                            I have only had issue once, but so much was going wrong that night, that I doubt that anything could have salvaged the evening.

                            Just my personal observations,

                            Hunt

                            PS - I agree with ML. Little urks me more than to have let a glass open up nicely (whether red, or white), only to have fresh wine (especially off-temp wine) poured atop it. It is the same with the little carafes, which I generally like, and the server who wishes to dump the entire contents into my glass - please give me about 1/3 and I will do the rest per my timing. If you need the carafe, then tell the GM that you need a few more... ?

                          2. I'm so glad I read this column- I'm too routinely struck at a loss for words when something happens and if I say anything at all I'm afraid it will end up sounding inappropriate-to-rude. People who abuse waitstaff disgust me and it horrifies me to be in a position to have to call a waiter back or head them off at the pass for fear of what I say will come out sounding like.

                            There were some great phrases to use here, and excellent advice in general. Thank you all.

                            I will bank thi

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: EWSflash

                              As a server, I want to say thank you for considering this issue with our feelings in mind. Very kind of you. I don't have much that would add to the conversation, except to say that personally, I would take absolute no offense to someone saying they'll handle the pouring for themselves.

                              I have avoided this sort of issue when I am serving simply by asking 'may I?' before acttualy pouring any wine. Works really well when clearing plates too.

                              1. re: wonderflosity

                                With regards to the wine "pouring," and maybe other aspects of the service, I never hesitate to comment to our server, our intentions and desires.

                                Recently, we had a nice service, and the wines were served en carafe, as they were by the glass. Initially, the server poured the entire carafe into a glass, and I quietly instructed that maybe only 1/3 of that would be appropriate to start, and that I'd handle it from there.

                                We did 3 B-T-G selections, and the server did, just as I had asked. That server got a nicer tip for the efforts and for listening.

                                It is a two-way street. If the patron never says anything, how can the server possibly know what the desires are?

                                Some patrons consider a "glass of wine" to be a Riedel Sommelier's Bdx. stem filled to the top to constitute that. I do not, and would caution any server, who filled such a glass over about 1/3, albeit quietly, as no one else need know. That is why I do like the carafe for the B-T-G, but the server needs to be informed as to what the patron wishes. In our case, it is not the full pour, all at once.

                                The only real complaint that I have, regarding wine service, is the server who fills all guests' glasses to the top, in apparent hopes of selling me more wine. If the whispers do not correct this, then a motion to the sommelier should.

                                Unlike many, when I am hosting a group, I do not wish to be responsible for the entire wine service. I have other things to consider, but whispers do wonders, or they should.

                                Hunt

                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                  bill, your posts and obvious manners are one of my primary inspirations here. Thanks to you and all the other polite people here.

                                  1. re: EWSflash

                                    Maybe it was having been "reared" in the Deep South, in a simpler time, and obviously "place."

                                    Thank you for the kind words,

                                    Hunt

                                2. re: wonderflosity

                                  wf, you sound like the kind of server that I like :-). I've had too many plates/glasses nabbed by a seemingly efficient staffer when I was saving a last bite or slurp.

                              2. This is a perennial issue when my wife and I dine out, as we'll usually order a bottle of wine for the two of us, but I drink about 2/3 of it and she 1/3. I've found that it's best to simply say, when the server comes round and starts to pick up the bottle after the initial glasses have been poured, that "we'll take care of that ourselves, thanks."

                                There is also quite a gamut of server behavior in this regard - some are truly trying to be helpful, while others are blatantly and obviously just trying to get as much wine poured as quickly as possible in hopes of getting another bottle ordered. I see this all too frequently at business dinners in "fancy" expense-account restaurants.

                                There is also the phenomenon - which I've seen only in Europe, but may be done in some places in the States - where the server brings the wine to the table, displays the bottle for approval and pours an initial round, then takes it away and puts it on a nearby shelf or cabinet. It's then up to the server to keep track of when we need more (which in such places they're usually good at). There too I usually request that they just leave it at the table and let us deal with it, but I always wonder whether I'm treading on some cultural toes by doing so.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: BobB

                                  Bob

                                  No - you wouldnt be treading on toes. It is one of those irritating affectations that some restaurants have. I hate it - even when the place is efficient in spotting that you need a top-up. Much better to leave the bottle along with the jug or bottle of water - where they belong - on your table.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    I do agree completely. I know what pours from a 0.75ltr. bottle should look like in commonly sized glasses, and have had instances, where my wife and I get our pours, and then the server whispers, "should be do another bottle of the CH. Xxxx?" My answer is, not until we have finished the first.? The server then returns with an empty bottle. Well, two 3 oz pours does NOT empty a 0.75ltr. btl. I can get 8 similar pours, within about 0.33 oz. What happened to my bottle, while it was way across the room. Did other diners get some of my Corton-Charlemagne? I've also had servers start to pour from a Bdx. btl. into my glass of red Burg. What happened to my La Tache?

                                    It's not that I feel that I am always being cheated, when the wine disappears from my table, but I have encountered too many errors, that I want my wine on my table, in front of me. If there might be drips, then bring a "coaster."

                                    For the two of us, I have zero problem doing ALL of the pourings, after the initial ones. With guests, things do get more involved, and then it's time to go to "school."

                                    Hunt

                                  2. re: BobB

                                    I believe that you have hit on one element, that is too often missing - communication. A good server will adhere to your wishes. In the end, it is less "work," though might not result in as many bottles sold. I find that concept, the "number of bottles sold," to be passing from business, or at least I hope that it's so.

                                    In years past, I have had to pull servers aside and instruct them on what constitutes a "perfect pour," after they filled Riedel Sommelier Bdx. stems to the very top, requiring 4 bottles for our table. That is not how it's done, and fortunately, I seldom see such any more. Should I, then it's time for a quiet, friendly little "lesson." All servers cannot be trained sommeliers, so it's often up to the diners to help them along a bit - friendly, quite, and no one but the server, and me, will ever know.

                                    Communication, and a soft tone with a smile, and all *should* go as planned.

                                    Good call,

                                    Hunt