Traditionally in haute cuisine wine service, a waiter refills wine glasses, and the diners never need sully their hands on the bottle.

But traditional haute cuisine service is just about dead. Instead, the main reason servers refill glasses today is to get the bottle off the table and encourage you to buy another one.

I spend many meals in fine restaurants these days trying to play defense against every passing server topping off a glass I don’t want refilled. Let my guard down for a second — laugh at a friend’s joke — and suddenly I have a full glass I didn’t want.

Perhaps I’m unkind to think servers are only looking for a 20% tip on a second bottle. Many are just trying to do a job.

But servers can’t keep track of each diner’s individual needs, nor do I want to give them a rundown of our personal situations each time we sit down.

Example: My wife is a lightweight. She should only drink one glass, but if you repour, she might drink too much, which she will regret. My friends drove here and one of them must drive home. They don’t have an agreement ahead of time, so one of them usually takes the lead after one glass and says, “That’s enough, I’ll drive.” But what if both have a full second glass in front of them? And as for me, I only drink a lot of wine that I love. I usually have either one small glass or most of the bottle. But I don’t want to reduce my companions’ enjoyment by admitting that I don’t love the wine.

Got all that? I didn’t think so. Then why are you refilling our glasses?

As you can see from the examples above, servers shouldn’t refill wine glasses for health and safety reasons. It’s much easier to exercise will power while the wine is still in the bottle. Few people like to leave a glass full of wine on the table, particularly if it’s expensive, even if that’s the best course of action.

In my case, believe it or not, I often would rather have the kitchen staff enjoy half the bottle than see it sit undrunk in our glasses.

Also, a table of wine lovers likes to keep the bottle in sight, to hold and read the label, or just because we’re enjoying it. I can’t stand it when staff at some formal-service restaurant keeps whisking away a bottle I’m paying for.

I don’t want to make your job harder; I want to make it easier. Open the wine and leave it with us. If an ice bucket is needed, leave it beside the table.

But please, you can’t possibly pour for us with the same intimate knowledge of our individual needs as we can. So don’t even try. In this case, inaction may be better rewarded.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO WRITE A REBUTTAL? Send your counter-point to submissions@palatepress.com, along with your website (if you have one) and a short bio. We will publish the best counter-point next week.



Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

  • http://ourtastytravels.com Brett

    Fully agree here. Sometimes even for the other direction…the staff is doing the pouring, but a large party has arrived, the servers are all distracted, and your glass winds up sitting empty…

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  • Karl

    While I agree with you it is also easy to tell the waiter: No thank you! when he tries to refill someone’s glass. A designated driver has that responsibility

  • http://cawinemerchants.com Jennifer

    Hallelujah! This always irks me when I am out to dinner. What drove me even more insane was when I worked at a restaurant that insisted we all keep the wine glasses full. I tried to work around this “rule” but I generally had to surrender to it once I got the sideways “look who’s not doing her job” glance from the manager. I had tables ask me not to pour and had to report that right away so as not to get in trouble for not keeping up with the task. Ridiculous. And this was supposedly a “service” thing. And this was no haute cuisine restaurant either!

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  • http://intheglass.blogspot.com Frank Haddad

    The servers are always on the spot here, if you are not refilling management is unhappy. If you fill sometimes the customer is unhappy. Some customers are also not happy with the service if you do not pour. let your serve know when you want to pour for your table.

  • http://www.wine-flair.com David Gaier

    Blake is right, but in a fine dining restaurant, pouring is expected and should be considered part of the deal. So simply tell the server or sommelier upfront that you’ll handle this chore yourself.

  • http://winetastingguy.com/ WTG

    Here here! I wholeheartedly agree Blake. Well said…so well in fact that I similarly vented, initially here
    http://winetastingguy.com/2008/04/vindicated-pouring-wine-at-barrestaurant/

    and then a follow up here
    http://winetastingguy.com/2008/06/wine-pouring-cont/.

    I look forward to the day that servers learn to simply ask “would you like me to top your glasses or would you prefer doing that yourselves?”

  • http://www.blogyourwine.com/ Kris Chislett

    I don’t even know where to start with this article. Truly I don’t.
    I have worked in restaurants my whole life, and I never fail to be astonished by how much flak Servers attract just by doing their job. I don’t know any other industry where this is so prevalent.
    Let me throw this out there; maybe there isn’t an ulterior motive? Maybe they are just trying to serve your needs.
    I guarantee there’s more people out there who get upset that the waiter isn’t paying them enough attention by refilling their glasses, than people who get upset that their glasses are too full.
    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

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  • http://www.LocalWineEvents.com Eric V. Orange

    Personally, I expect my glass to be filled for me and get upset when it is not.
    To each his own.

    EVO

  • http://www.sedimentblog.com The Sediment Blog

    To say nothing of those meals where you start with a white wine, which some (but not all) diners will be continuing with for their main course. When there are two wines going on a table, the waiters are completely hopeless and really should leave it to the diners.

    I have been at London dinners where diners have actually turned their empty glasses upside down, to prevent a waiter topping them up. Try that one!

  • http://www.verawineclub.com Vera C.

    I agree! To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I would suggest to make that “agreement” up front with your server. “we would prefer to pour for ourselves” can’t possible offend anybody, I believe. Yes, it could be a sensitive issue – since everybody prefer something different. Just like with cleaning the table – do you leave empty plates on the table until everybody of your party finished, or do you star juggling with plates when the rest of the table still eats???
    Nice blog!

  • http://www.thompsonwine.com Dan Thompson

    Excellent topic, however, this service of wine is also subjective…like wine preferences themselves.

    Being an old-school restaurant patron I believe that proper service should not be discarded (you can lose haute cuisine though).

    Good services is simply anticipating needs. I have had more experiences with servers that don’t pay attention to our empty glasses than I do with over zealous servers topping us off.

    Henceforth agreeing with Kris and Eric on this one, although I like Vera’s idea of an “agreement” if one can pull this off without confusing the average server further.

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  • http://www.1winedude.com 1winedude

    I love ya Blake, but this is kind of bunk (or at least, bunk-ish).

    If you tell a server not to pour for you or for someone else, and they’re doing their job properly, then they won’t pour for you and will be happy to leave it up to you – it really is that simple, I think.

  • http://www.njmonthly.com Susan Guerra

    Hi Blake,

    Joe is being kind by saying this post is bunk-ish. It’s total bunk!!! If this were written on April 1st I would actually have thought it was a joke. Especially the part about how the server should be a mind reader to mitigate the guests lack of self control!

    Having worked my way through college waitressing perhaps I have more tolerance than most for server errors but here’s a suggestion: Tell him/her your preference at the beginning. It’s basically the same concept used for ordering your meal. Then provide a gentle reminder if need be during the course of the evening.

    @sueguerra

  • http://wblakegray.blogspot.com W. Blake Gray

    I suppose I should have pointed out that I always tell servers not to pour for our table. The good ones listen — and the majority are good ones. But please see my bit about playing defense; many times it’s not my server who refills the glasses, but another employee passing by. And at least 25% of the time the server fills the glasses even though we’ve asked him/her not to, either through forgetfulness or some other motive I won’t speculate about.

    Thanks for reading and thinking about it, restaurant folks.

  • frigolito

    ” meme to all servers, don’t pour my wines ”
    Well Blake, I have never resd more condescending words as yours.
    “Got all that? I didn’t think so, so why…….
    maybe the problem is that you and your guests either are mutes or have poor communication skills.
    And the specific story of each customer at the table is irrelevant, who is driving, who is lightweight, frankly who cares, these are not information the server needs to have or should have, so if somehow a situation arises, speak up.
    not eveybody is trying to screw you and not everything revolves around you, it’s a big world, you sound so petty and you worry about the little things.
    I would suggest you grow up a bit.
    i very much doubt you’ll reach your target audience.

  • http://www.localvinacular.com Tina

    Good article! I don’t mind when our glasses are refilled, but sometimes I feel rushed: often, when I still have quite a bit of wine left, the waitperson will top it off, even giving more than is usual in the glass. As our meal progresses, it’s almost like it becomes a race to the finish to down that bottle. “Hurry up and drink!” they seem to be saying.