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Restaurant Wine Service Demystified 

When to sniff the cork

There's a hilarious scene in The Muppet Movie where Kermit and Miss Piggy are enjoying their first romantic dinner date together. Kermit is decked out in a red velvet smoking jacket, Piggy is draped in a shimmering pink gown, and expectations are running high. Kermit summons the waiter, played with delicious sarcasm by Steve Martin, and asks him to bring the wine he ordered: a sparkling Muscatel from Idaho. The waiter rudely slams the bottle down on the table and begins ripping the foil from the bottleneck. Rolling his eyes in disgust, he removes the pop-top, and holds it in front of Kermit's nose. "Don't you want to smell the screw cap?" he sneers.

As our Muppet friends found out the hard way, restaurant wine service can range from vaguely intimidating to downright rude, even in the hands of the most polite server. If you're not sure whether to sniff the cork or stuff it up your left nostril, you're not alone.

This sort of confusion is all fine and dandy when dining with Mom, but it may not be so cool when trying to impress a hot date. So in the spirit of demystification and education, here's a crash course in restaurant wine service etiquette.

Ordering the Wine

Don't be afraid to ask questions if you need help deciding on a wine. A good server should be able to offer suggestions without making you feel like an ignorant oaf. (Tip: avoid the sparkling Muscatel from Idaho.)

The Presentation

This is when the server brings the bottle of wine to the table and holds it up for you to gawk at. Check the label to make sure it's the same producer, type and vintage you ordered. If everything looks right, let the server know it's OK to proceed.

To Sniff or Not to Sniff

After he or she removes the foil capsule from the bottle and gracefully extracts the cork, the server will inevitably lay the stopper on the table next to you. There's no reason to sniff the damn thing, unless you like the smell of cork. Merely eyeball it to make sure it's not dry and crumbly, or covered with mold (these signs can indicate a problem with the wine).

Pouring It On

When the server pours the first taste in your glass, give the wine a quick swirl to release its aromas and take a normal sip (and for gawdsakes, no slurping). If the wine tastes weird or corky, speak up. Otherwise, ask your server to go ahead and pour for the rest of the table.

Keeping It Flowing

Technically, it's the sommelier or server's job to keep guests' wine glasses at least half full throughout the meal. But if that person is slow on the draw, it's OK to take matters into your own hands.

Now that you know how to remain suave in the face of bizarre restaurant wine rituals, there's only one thing to do: take your significant other out for a swanky dinner and celebrate with some special wine. And remember, you can bring your own wine to some restaurants.

Pommery Brut Rose

Not for sissies, this pink Champagne has assertive aromas that give way to a fresh strawberry flavor. Nicely tart and dry, with lots of fine bubbles. $45 **** 1/2

Graham's Six Grapes Porto

Chocolate was made for Port. This one has raisin/plum aromas, fresh fruity flavors and a delicious sweetness. $20 ****

Murphy Goode 1999 Chardonnay

Smells and tastes a bit like morning toast sprayed with vanilla, and that's a good thing. It's a heavier than normal Chard, and medium-bodied with a touch of acidity. Great value. $16 *** 1/2

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