When a Guy Walks Into a Bar

The world of wine and cocktails can seem like an etiquette minefield. Here's how to navigate its ins and outs.


Photo by Emery Co. Photo/FlickrCC

Now that New York's Department of Health is investigating raw egg whites in cocktails, do you look like a career criminal if you follow your drink with steak tartare and a Caesar Salad? Is it weird to order a Fairy from Hell cocktail when you're in a gay bar? You're visiting the Bay area and want a Dirty Martini. Would it be just a little more pc to order a Mai Tai instead, since the Mai Tai is now the official drink of Oakland? (Don't ask.)

Will your vegan drinking buddies believe you when you tell them that Bakon Vodka isn't made with real bacon? And speaking of "carnivorous cocktails," do you want the ham and cheese sandwich or the Ham & Cheese cocktail, "an Iberico Pata Negra Ham-infused Hennessy-based cocktail augmented with lime, honey, and cinnamon, and a Manchego cheese tuile?"

Has drinking turned into an ACLU cause, a trend, a food substitute, a statement, an in-joke, a way to divert a drinker's attention away from the skyrocketing local crime rate?

And you think your Mojito is muddled ...

SITUATION: You open a very pricey bottle of vintage Calvados as an after-dinner treat for you and your guests. One of your guests sniffs what you've just poured into her glass. "What do you think?" you ask. She swirls it around and says, "It smells like a dead animal."

"As someone who teaches tasting of wines and beverages (and just received the Luca Maroni Sense of Wine Journalist of the Year 2010), I am very open to people's olfactory responses. We know that some Sauvignon Blanc reminds people of cat pee, and other wines and liqueurs have been described as foxy, skunky, musky, and more. So I would ask my guest 'Which dead animal does it remind you of?' If she gets huffy, I would suggest a series of dead animals (cats, geese, rhinoceri) to help her focus her thoughts and sharpen her perceptions. I would never criticize her sensory abilities, but encourage her to take her observations to their fullest realization. And then taste the damn Calvados already, because it is exquisite and you will have a great experience!"
-Fred Plotkin, the author of nine books. The updated 5th edition of his definitive Italy for the Gourmet Traveler will be published in May.

"'Wow...That's very interesting. You know, that stuff has fatty acids in it. Most people can't smell them. You must be very sensitive. Here, just pour it into my glass, and let me get you a Tía María...'"
-Colman Andrews, a founding editor of Saveur and Gourmet's last restaurant columnist.

SITUATION: Four of you are dining in a lovely restaurant in Savannah. You order a bottle of Sancerre for the table. To your amazement, your waitress pours the entire bottle into four wine glasses—right to the brim, then takes away the empty bottle. You can't even lift your glass it's so full. What to do?

"Filling wine to the top of a glass is unacceptable, and I've seen it done many times to sell an additional bottle of wine. I should be able to stick my nose into the glass to enjoy the aromatics without my nostrils swimming in wine. I would ask the waitress to pour wine from the glasses back into the bottle or bring me another bottle and four clean glasses. If she disagrees, then it is time to talk with a manager."
-Scott Pactor, owner of Appellation Wine & Spirits

"I think the damage is done. If you bring it to the server's attention, they try to move/fix the pour—wine gets spilled, and it's awkward to say the least. I personally would lean in and sip from the top of the glass like a cat! "
-Peter Dodd, head bartender at New York's Five Points restaurant

SITUATION: Dinner with the Wine Snob. Not that you asked, but your dinner companion launches into a lecture on one particular Bordeaux on the wine list. "It's a blend of 75 percent Cab, 25 percent Merlot and aged in 30 percent new oak; best served at 19 degrees, the perfect temperature for such a wine with quite a tannic structure." Do you ask him if it's anything like Two-Buck Chuck? Or tell him how much you love the house red at Olive Garden?

"Absolutely. The best wine gurus love to compare wines and share their knowledge. 'Snobbery' stems from insecurity and a lack of anything intelligent to contribute. Comparing a '61 Chateau Latour to a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 can be a stimulating exercise in the right environment. The snob will steer the conversation toward their comfort zone, while the professional enthusiast will embrace a new experience and incorporate it into their learning. Besides, if you don't like the wine at the Olive Garden, there's always the unlimited breadsticks!"
-Brian Van Flandern, president of Creative Cocktail Consultants and formerly head mixologist, Per Se

"I actually love taking the steam out of people who have, perhaps, overstated their 'perceived' importance in the world, so either response is to be applauded. Now for the caveat: please make sure everyone at the table is in on your mirthful good humor and all know you mean no harm."
-John Fanning, general manager, Accademia di Vino

SITUATION: Your sister-in-law and her husband announce that they will bring three bottles of wine to the family holiday dinner party you are hosting. They arrive with three bottles of plonk, drink the far superior wine you have bought, then ask to take their three bottles home.

"Because I know exactly what I am serving, I always buy the wine that suits my food. My cooking only tastes as good as the wine that goes with it. I tell people that everything for dinner is in place but, if you would like to bring anything, there is no need but it will be kindly accepted. To this specific situation: I would ask them, 'Why do you want to take the wine home? It was so thoughtful of you to give it to me—do you think there is something wrong with it?' If they say 'No, we didn't consume it so we want to take it back,' I will give it back to them and then not proffer any further invitations to my excellent table."
-Fred Plotkin, the author of nine books.

SITUATION: You're entertaining a client at a midtown New York restaurant. They're short of waiters so busboys are pitching in and taking orders. Looking at the day's wine list, you ask your server, "What type of Cabernet do you have?" Without hesitation he replies: "Sauvignon." Your response?

"Excellent. May I see your cocktail list?"
-Brian Van Flandern, president of Creative Cocktail Consultants and formerly head mixologist, Per Se