You're out to dinner, and you order a bottle of wine. The waiter brings the bottle and starts going through the motions of formal wine service at the table. For many people, this process can be intimidating and confusing. For others, it's tedious and unnecessary. Not understanding or simply not paying attention during this process could put you in a bit of a stitch if later you realize that the wine is bad or that the wrong wine was brought to the table. Allow me to demystify this very necessary formality.
When the server first arrives at your table with the wine, he/she will present the bottle to the "host," meaning the person who ordered the wine. The wine will then be introduced: "Sir, the 1999 Guigal Hermitage…" Here's where you need to be extra alert, because this is the part where you give the go-ahead to crack that baby open. Make sure that the bottle in front of you is the type of wine and vintage you asked for. Later on if you realize that you meant to order something else, you may be met with a frosty reception from the sommelier.
Once the cork is pulled, the server will place it on the table in front of the host. What the heck do I do with that thing, you ask? A common misconception is that you sniff the cork. All you're gonna smell is cork with wine on it. It's pointless. What you need to do is look at it and feel it. If it's moist on one end, you know that the wine has been properly stored (laying down) and is most likely just fine. If the cork is completely dry, there could be trouble on the horizon. Corks contract when wet, sealing the bottle, and constrict when dry, allowing air to get into the bottle. If the cork is completely saturated, it could mean nothing. It could also mean that the wine is an older vintage, or it could mean trouble.
Make sure you stay alert during the next steps. On occasion you may come across a cork that looks a little moldy on the outside end. Every cork I've seen like that has been from an older vintage French or Spanish wine, and the wine was fine. (Hint: Corks from older vintage wines usually look like hell and very well may fall apart. Do not be alarmed.)
Next, the server will pour the host a small sample of the wine. Swirl it around a bit in the glass and give it a sniff. (Note: swirling wine introduces oxygen into the wine quickly, bringing out the aromas and flavors. Kind of a quickie form of allowing a wine to "breathe.") If the wine smells like fruit, wood, earth, flowers, spice, etc., congratulations! Your wine is not corked. A corked wine will have the very distinct smell of wet, moldy paper or cardboard. If the wine is oxidized, it will have a sharp, astringent smell, not unlike vinegar. A pretty good, basic rule of thumb to use is this: Anything that smells bad probably tastes bad, unless, of course, it's cheese.
Finally, sip the wine. If it pleases the palate, give the server "the nod," letting him/her know that it's OK to pour the wine for the table. Here's where it sometimes gets sticky. If you taste the wine, say it's OK, then on your second glass decide you don't like it, in comes the frosty sommelier. You must let the server know before the wine is poured for the table whether or not you intend to purchase that bottle.
After the wine is poured, unless a roach comes crawling out of the bottle, chances are you won't be allowed to send the bottle back without being charged. (Some restaurants are more lenient about this than others.) Just stay on your toes during the presentation process, and there will be nothing but love and understanding from the likes of the tableside. Conversely, being well-versed in determining the state of a bottle of wine can protect you from uneducated service staff. If a wine is bad, it's bad, and no one should question that. It's the cost of doing business.
Wine enthusiasm has come a long way in the last decade. Wine connoisseurs come in all shapes and sizes, as do their pocketbooks. Take every bottle of wine seriously during presentation. A $20 bottle of wine that is corked or oxidized should be sent away just as immediately as a $120 tainted bottle, without embarrassment and without question. If you're unsure, ask the sommelier to sample it. (If the wine is fantastic, you should also ask the sommelier to sample it. Hint, hint.)
Okay, so now you're all experts. Go out and order something phat. Cheers!