The service standards are a vital part of the Court’s curriculum. These standards were derived from traditional, formal European wine service used at the very top restaurants around the globe. The standards have existed in some form or another for decades. While a majority of the standards only apply to the very finest restaurants there are a handful of common denominators that apply to wine service in any restaurant regardless of style or level of service. Want a peek at the service standards? They can be found at the following page:
Success at the Advanced service exam to a great degree is a matter of candidates having experience working the floor as well as knowing the MS service standards cold to the extent that they don’t have to think about them during the exam. Some of the standards have to with the mise-en-place, or the service set up that includes glassware, decanters, Champagne buckets/stands, and more. Other standards have to do with how the sommelier serves the guest and moves around the table. Still others describe a very specific set of steps to elegantly—and safely—open a bottle of sparkling wine or further, how to decant an older bottle of red wine for the purposes of removing the sediment.
Back to this past week’s exam. I was on one of the decanting tables with good friend Craig Collins, MS, from Austin. We had 12 candidates at our table during the day and only a handful did well enough to pass. Why such a low success rate? It all comes back to the service standards. As mentioned above, those who had floor experience and knew the standards did well. The others—not so much. With that, here is some advice about the service standards for those preparing for the exam.
All service is from the right side of the guest. This simply because food service is from the left and one of the universal laws has to do with avoiding occupied space. Further, if you serve a guest from the left you will be reaching across them which is a huge faux pas. More on that below.
Always move around the table clockwise because you will be serving from the right side. Moving around the table counterclockwise—even momentarily—is totally out of place in formal service.
Nothing touches the table except glassware. Everything else—corks, bottles, and decanters—is placed on an underliner. No exceptions.
Everything comes to the table on a tray lined with a cloth napkin. Period. That includes glassware, underliners, and any other equipment needed. Often in a Certified Sommelier Exam where students tend not to have as much floor experience, someone will bring glasses to my table or clear them with their hands. It’s like suddenly being transported to a Denny’s.
The tray is always lined with a cloth napkin. Forget to line the tray with a napkin and you’ll discover how NASCAR was invented as the Champagne flutes on your tray go flying off as you round the corner too fast. Gravity; it’s the law. Respect it.
Don’t reach across a guest’s space! This is a biggie. There’s a reason we have cardinal rules of service like “serve from the left, clear from the right,” and why beverage service is from the right side. The last thing you should ever do in serving is to reach across in front of a guest. It’s rude and a personal pet peeve. Avoid at all costs.
Place and remove glasses elegantly! Place glassware from a lined tray gently and elegantly on the table and slide into position. In terms of position, when in doubt, place glasses at the point of the knife. Above all make sure the glasses are placed consistently from cover to cover.
What if I’m left handed? Last week one of the candidates at the exam placed glassware at our table left-handed then cleared with their right hand. Thoughts of Igor (as in Eye-gor) from Young Frankenstein quickly came to mind. In an exam you need to be able to place and clear glassware right-handed even if you’re left-handed. Otherwise, you’ll be turning your back or elbow/arm to the guest you’re serving.
Learning to place glassware right-handed was a big deal for me. I personally throw a baseball left-handed and play basketball left-handed but do everything else including writing right-handed. It took me many long months to break the habit of wanting to carry a tray in my right hand and place glassware with my left. But eventually I could do it automatically.
It’s critical—that is CRITICAL—to know exactly what equipment is needed for any phase of service. This part of the standards absolutely has to be automatic for exam purposes. For Champagne service you’ll need a Champagne bucket and stand (with the bucket filled with half ice and half water), two underliners (one for presenting the cork and one for the bottle in case the host asks for it to be kept on the table), a cocktail tray lined with cloth napkin, and polished Champagne flutes. For decanting you’ll need a decanter, a decanting basket lined with a folded cloth napkin candle and candle holder, odorless lighter, three underliners (for cork, decanter, and bottle), a cocktail tray lined with a napkin, and appropriate prepared (polished) glassware.
Here’s the deal: there is not enough time during the exam for you to stop and think about what equipment is required for Champagne service or decanting. If you don’t have the “mise” aspect of the service standards down the odds of committing any number off egregious errors increases exponentially. You’ll suddenly discover that there’s no glassware on the table when you’re ready to pour the wine. Or perhaps you’ve forgotten to place the underliners on the table when you go to present the cork to the host.
Mise—it’s the law.
Safety First! Proper Champagne service is safety über alles. The average bottle of sparkling wine has over 120 pounds per square inch—more than the average auto tire. That means the following:
Make sure the bottle you’re opening is thoroughly—and evenly—chilled. When you go to retrieve the bottle feel the neck and the bottom of the bottle. If the neck is warmer than the bottom of the bottle be forewarned lest you momentarily reenact the end of a Formula One race.
Never point the bottle at someone at the table. Do I need to explain this? During an exam be hyper aware at all times where the bottle is pointed when opening it.
Never take the cage off the bottle when opening. Along with not pointing the bottle at anyone this is one of two epic fails in Champagne service. Taking the cage off a bottle when opening is beyond stupid and dangerous. It’s like chasing parked cars. Safe standards mean placing a serviette over the top of the bottle then keeping your hand on top of the serviette/bottle while you loosen and remove the cage and cork at the SAME time. No exceptions.
Never take your hand off the top of the bottle when opening. This should be self-explanatory. If the cage is loosened and you take your hand off the top of the bottle even for a moment the cork/cage could easily come blasting out much to the surprise, consternation, and embarrassment of all concerned. The same goes for switching hands when opening the bottle. Don’t do it—it’s dangerous.
Cut the capsule under the cage with the blade of your corkscrew. While most bottles of sparkling wine and Champagne have pull-tabs they rarely work. The more expensive the wine the more useless they are; Dom Perignon case in point.
Use a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening. The serviette will add an extra surface to grip the top of the bottle when opening; it will also catch any bubbly that may somehow leave the bottle just after the cork is removed.
Pouring: serve one glass at a time with a maximum of two pours. Going around the table pouring half glasses then making another lap to fill them up is ludicrous—it’s Holiday Inn banquet service.
Use a still wine grip when pouring: when serving the bottle, hold it as you would a bottle of still wine. You may be tempted to use the “thumb in the punt” grip but it’s not safe and frankly it’s precious. However, holding the entire bottom of the bottle is acceptable and at times necessary (refilling glasses at a reception).
No drips! Make sure your serviette is always at the ready to catch any drips.
Pouring order: the host—as in the he or she who ordered the wine—is poured a 1.5-ounce taste of wine for approval. After the host approves the bottle the wine is served in the following order: guest of honor first (they will be seated to the right of the host), followed by lady guests, then gentlemen, with the host being served last regardless of gender. In formal service one usually has to make two trips around the table to serve the bottle. In an exam setting, remember to serve the ladies first and don’t forget to pour wine for the host. In real life they’re usually the ones picking up the check—and tipping you.
Decanting baskets are NOT for decanting; odd as it may sound, decanting baskets only have two purposes and neither has to do with actually pouring wine into the decanter: the basket is used to gently transport the bottle from the cellar to the table or the gueridon and also to hold and steady the bottle while opening it. Unless the basket is specifically designed to securely hold the bottle in place while actually pouring wine into the decanter, the bottle must be removed prior to decanting. Otherwise the bottle will slide slowly and majestically out of the basket on to the surface of the gueridon bouncing at least once and creating an epic mess. Last week two students actually tried to decant with the bottle still in the basket. I stopped them both and in doing so prevented a tragic life memory.
Placing and removing the bottle from thee decanting basket. Theoretically the bottle you’re decanting has slept away quietly for months/years/eons and deposited sediment over time. After all, that’s why you’re decanting the bottle. It also means that the bottle has been stored horizontally and cannot be stood up lest the sediment get mixed up into the wine instantly rendering it undrinkable. To place and remove the bottle gently from the decanting basket, hold the bottle stationary by the neck and place or remove the basket from around it slowly and gently.
Never look up! While actually decanting the wine NEVER look up if you’re asked a question; in an exam you will be asked multiple questions. Also, don’t leave a quarter of the wine in the bottle when you’re finished decanting. Bad form.
At the Table
In getting back to our opening theme of proxemics, here are two closing thoughts about being tableside with examiners or guests.
Side out: when at table stand to the side—not directly in front—of someone you’re speaking to if possible. Why? Simply because if you’re using effective language the person you’re speaking to will be making pictures in their head in response to what you’re saying. If you’re standing directly in front of them you will be, in a manner of speaking, right in the middle of their internal Imax theater. Standing just to the side also really helps in terms of indirect communication as far as establishing rapport with the guest not to mention sales.
Don’t stand so close to me. As mentioned above, everyone has a different comfort zone as far as having someone physically near them. When speaking to your friendly examiners or guests, pay attention to how close you are to the table. If you spot someone sitting slightly back or moving their head back and/or slightly up, move slowly back from the table. Conversely, if someone at the table leans in closer you can also move a BIT closer to the table. Above all, avoid being too close to people at the table lest you become a close-talker. Everyone will be glad you did. I know I will.