Waiters Refilling Wineglasses

Paul Blow

Who should pour the wine in a restaurant has been a hotly debated topic of late. Helena Echlin, CHOW’s Table Manners columnist, addressed it last fall. It came up again in December in a blog written by Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, sparking a healthy discussion. And in May Christopher Hitchens took some time off from flogging the Iraq surge in Slate to pen a pouring rant that was emailed around the wine world.

Like most people, I’m often annoyed by waiters pouring my wine in a restaurant. On occasion it’s even driven me to roiling distraction. However, I’m also married to a sommelier who makes good points in defense of the practice.

One angle not touched on by Hitchens or Echlin is the kind of wine being poured. To me, this makes a difference. If it’s an inexpensive table wine, I couldn’t care less. Waiter, pour away. If a disproportionate amount goes down one person’s throat, we’ll order a second bottle. But if the bottle in question is rare and expensive, it’s another matter.

A wealthy potential business associate recently took me and another acquaintance—I’ll call the latter Deep Throat—out to dinner. Our wealthy host ordered a very nice bottle of wine, a 1996 Bourgogne Blanc, from Coche-Dury, arguably the finest producer of white Burgundy. Bourgogne Blanc is the lowest, most pedestrian tier of white Burgundy. But, in the hands of someone like Coche and in a great vintage like 1996, even a so-called humble wine can be spectacular. This one proved no exception, and the price ($240, which for that wine is actually a bargain) reflected it.

The problem was that Deep Throat drank at twice the pace of my host and me. I’ve noticed this before. He doesn’t do it intentionally; it’s just his tendency. Throat’s glass was empty while mine and the host’s were still three-quarters full. The waiter dutifully came over and refilled Throat’s glass, dropping a symbolic dollop into mine and our host’s. Before long, my friend’s glass was empty again … and, after the waiter returned, so was the bottle. Throat had absorbed at least half of it, while our host had had only one glass. Luckily, the host was apparently too engaged in conversation to notice that he had gotten short shrift. But I was worried that the man with the credit card would feel slighted.

After our next bottle of wine (a red) had been opened and poured, I subtly shifted it to the back of our booth’s table, against the wall and out of the waiter’s reach. This prompted the sommelier, whom I know casually, to sardonically remark the next time he came around, “So, you don’t want me to pour your wine.” I squirmed.

Of course, this is only one example of the issues that can arise when waiters pour the wine. Just a few days ago, a waiter practically filled my wineglass to the brim with rosé de Provence in order to finish the bottle and get it off the table. Something else that comes up: If you’re into swirling your wine, you want not a full glass, but a half-full one, to minimize the risk of spilling. It can be annoying to make this point to every waiter who tries to fill your glass.

Hitchens fulminates that the act of a waiter pouring wine for guests is “a vile practice,” “a breathtaking act of rudeness,” and the “very height of the second kind of bad manners” (obtrusiveness).

In fine-dining service and to my sommelier wife, pouring wine for a guest is considered a fundament. She teaches the wine service course at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. When I asked her what she teaches to young servers, she answered, “We heavily emphasize not overpouring. The glass should never be too full. But, even more, it should also never be empty. That’s a cardinal rule.” And that’s not, she said, because the restaurant is trying to get you to finish your wine faster, but “because you shouldn’t have to interrupt conversation to ask someone to pour it for you or find yourself wanting while food is on the table. It’s also often awkward and inelegant to pour from a seated position and easy to spill on the tablecloth.”

But, I asked, what if it’s a rare or expensive wine and one person at the table’s drinking too fast? “We hope people will be sophisticated enough not to drink more than their share,” she said. “Our job is to satisfy every guest at the table.”

While that’s a good rejoinder, I can’t agree that it’s good policy. We all have our drinking rhythms, and in the middle of a dinner the whole point of having the wine poured for you is to not have to be conscious about such things.

I’ve been told that the best way to deal with this issue is to tell the server upfront that you wish to pour your own wine. That’s not always satisfactory. When dining with people you don’t know well, might it not seem aggressive and rude to seize control of the bottle? Not to mention that the person commanding the bottle might not be any better at distributing the wine than the hapless server.

Rather, I think the most graceful solution would be for waiters and sommeliers to ask the person who ordered the wine whether he would like it poured for him or if he would prefer to pour it himself. Then it is clear to all at the table who is responsible for that empty glass or that expensive bottle that seemed to just disappear.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.