Restaurant wine service is more than opening a bottle and pouring wine without ruining your guest's silk dress. A server needs knowledge of basic grapes, regions, and of course, knowledge of their restaurant's wine list. Serving wine in a fine dining restaurant is an art, and the knowledge discussed here can make the difference between a just a server and a knowledgeable fine dining server.
Wine knowledge starts with grapes. The most common grapes you'll need to know about in most American restaurants are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris is the same grape), Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz (Syrah is the same grape), Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir. There are many, many more to learn, but those are the basic ones. The best advice is to get a book, and read it. Keep it with you. Read it and consult it every time you're asked a question. The Wine Lover's Companion is a great small sized book to consult with questions. A great behind-the-bar book (or on your coffee table at home) is The World Atlas of Wine. It is big, expensive and pretty, but it is extremely informative and comprehensive. Another great piece of advice is if you're asked a question that you don't know the answer to, don't hesitate to say, "I don't know, but if you'd give me one minute I'll find out for you." Your guests will appreciate your honesty, and they'll be impressed when you come right back with an answer.
Chardonnay can range from buttery and full bodied to crisp, acidic and fruit forward. Sauvignon Blanc can range from green grass and grapefruit in New Zealand to peaches and pears with minerality from California, to blended smooth flavors from France. Rieslings in Germany range from bone dry to super sweet. They can have flavors that range from honeysuckle and orange peel to pear and mineral. Pinot Grigios from Italy are often very dry and crisp, but Pinot Gris from Oregon can be very spunky and fruit forward. Region, style, and process can affect the flavors, as can the blending. Often grapes are blended with other grapes to balance one characteristic with another.
Cabernet is a very full bodied, often tannic wine with a high level of dryness and dark fruits such as black raspberry and plum. Tannins are chemical components found in the skins of grapes and they are responsible for the effect in the mouth of literally drying out the saliva on the palate. Tannins are also found in tea, coffee, and nuts, as well as many other foods. Cabernet is known for its tannins, and is often blended to soften them. Merlot is a very popular, easy-to-drink wine. It can be very full bodied as well, but often has chocolate, blackberry, and jam on the palate. Shiraz can be found anywhere in the world, from France to South Africa, to Australia. It is often blended with Cabernet as it is not usually tannic. It has a bit of spiciness to it, and is full bodied with rich fruit-forward tendencies. Zinfandel is known for its spicy palate, and can be dry or fruit forward. Some Zinfandels are very full bodied, but they can range down to medium bodied depending on style. Pinot Noir is a very widely used grape, and is typically a lighter bodied wine. It can be very dry and earthy, or very juicy and fruit forward. Pinot may be the most versatile of the major red grapes.
The best way to describe wine is to try it. Any restaurant worth its salt will have a wine training for its servers and winemaker tasting notes for each wine. Ask your manager or bartender to try wines you haven't had so you can describe them and sell them with confidence.
The wine regions of the world you'll encounter are very varied in style, regulation, classification and ideologies. Australia, for example, uses varietal labeling, which means that the label of the wine will tell you the grape. France, however, will use regions and names of the villages to tell you about the wine. You can know the grapes in French wine by studying where they're allowed to grow them. France, Italy and sometimes Spain are very heavily regulated in where grapes can be grown, how they can be grown, and how they can be blended. American wines are often varietally labeled, but not very heavily regulated. South Africa, South America, New Zealand, and Australia are similar.
Knowing your wine list can increase sales exponentially. You should be able to take the guest to their perfect bottle by asking these questions:
White or red? Full bodied or a bit lighter? White: Chardonnay or something a little different? Red: Dry, spicy, or jammy and fruit forward? White: Do you prefer crisp and dry or something a bit more spunky and fruity?
Study your grapes and your wine list so that you can classify the wines you offer into these categories and you will have happy guests. As for budget, always try to offer a bottle starting in the high 30s or low 40s, a bottle about 50 and a bottle about 60. That will give your guest a chance to find the bottle that meets their needs. If they want something a bit more cellar-ish, they'll ask about it directly.
It is, of course, imperative that a server properly open a bottle of wine. You fold a cloth restaurant napkin over your arm (in half, then in half again... corners under... seams under). This serves as a presentation cloth to show the guest who ordered the wine the label. It also serves to catch any tiny drips that may form when you pour. Present the label to the guest who ordered it, and then using the knife on your wine key (corkscrew), remove the foil from the top of the bottle, below the ridge on the neck of the bottle. This prevents the wine from touching the metal and picking up any flavors from it. Close your knife. Open your corkscrew to a 'T' position, and place the tip of the screw in the center of the cork. Make sure the bottle never touches your body at any point, and it is also very important that the label faces the table at all times. Turn the screw, not the bottle. When your key is one half turn away from all the way in, fold your key so the catch can latch on to the bottle. Do not touch your body with the bottle here either. Hold it 8 inches or so away from you as you use the screw to pull the cork. The cork should not make noise coming free of the bottle. Then present the cork, wine side up, by placing it on the table. The best way to get good at this is to practice. Ask the bartender if you can open bottles for him/her. Drinking wine at home, use your waiter corkscrew, and do it like you would at a table. Use every opportunity to practice that you can get your hands on.
To serve sparkling wine, present the label in the same way, and remove the foil and the cage (place the foil and cage in your apron pocket). Place your serviette (folded napkin) over the cork. The bottle should be at 45 degrees, bottle in your left hand, cork in the right. Turn the bottle, not the cork. Once you feel the cork coming out, remove it slowly. A perfect opening would have a very small hiss sound, not a pop. You should press the cork immediately to the top of the bottle, in case of any wine escaping. Present the cork to the host.
Pour a small taste (about an ounce) for the host to taste. After the host gives you the ok, pour for the rest of the guests. Some restaurants serve ladies first, some serve clockwise. Always serve the host last. Do not fill the glasses. Give each guest about 4oz. Each time you pour, the bottle should be in your right hand, and have your serviette in your left. As you pull the bottle from the glass, twist it just a bit to prevent drips. Have your serviette ready in case a drip forms. It is very bad form to drip on a white tablecloth. Some restaurants want you to return to the table to pour wine, some say place it in front of the host, and after you put it on the table the first time, leave it alone until it is empty. That is definitely the most unobtrusive choice. Always offer another bottle to the host if the bottle nears empty.