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17. Wine rituals

By Ben Greene

Ever since Noah had one too many and passed out to the embarrassment of all concerned, wine has somehow found a central role in religion and ritual the world over. Something of this tendency seems to have rubbed off on this modern, secular world and the conventions surrounding wine can seem intimidating.

The natural response is to reject all wine ritual as snobbish, but I would urge you not to be so hasty. Not only are most of these rituals harmless, some are bordering on useful, or at least mildly entertaining.

The Restaurant Ritual

Assuming you have negotiated the ordering process, a waiter will appear with a bottle of wine and hold it out to you. Don’t take it from him. This is merely his shy way of asking you to check that the details on the label correspond to what you actually asked for.

He will next remove the cork, sniff it and present it to you. You could sniff it as well, but since this is unlikely to tell you anything instructive, I wouldn’t. Far better to ignore it altogether. The third option is to say, “Oh, thank you very much,” and then eat the cork. This will test the waiter’s professionalism to the limit.

A sample will now be poured. Take a deep breath, checking the wine for cork taint. If all is well, taste it to be sure. Nod wisely and say something like, “Ah yes, the ’67. Unmistakeable.”

The Champagne Ritual

We’ve all been there, I know. You arrive at a party and before you can even remove your jacket, your host presents you with a sabre, a bottle of Champagne and a pyramid of glasses saying “Do the honours will you?”

Fortunately, this simple operation is really nothing to worry about, and after a little bit of trial and error it becomes second nature. The first thing is to check that the pyramid is set up correctly. The glasses on each level should not touch, otherwise the wine will run around the rims and on to the floor. Next, ensure that the bottle is thoroughly chilled all the way through, including the neck (if it isn't, there is a risk it will explode). Remove the capsule and cage from the Champagne and, pointing it in the exact opposite direction of all guests and valuable antique vases, run the back of the sabre sharply up the neck of the bottle so it jars against the lip. The neck will break clean off and Champagne will come gushing forth. Pour into the top glass of the pyramid and soak up the applause.

The Port Ritual

This is a peculiarly British practice. The host starts, pouring a glass of port for the guest to his right. He then passes the decanter to his left (port side), and that guest pours for him. This continues indefinitely. Should the decanter become stuck somewhere, rather than simply asking the offending party to get a move on, the correct phrasing is “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”. If they are familiar with the ritual they will pass the decanter and look suitably contrite. If they answer in the negative, however, the authorised response is, “He’s an awfully nice fellow, but he never remembers to pass the port.” – Zing!

In the unlikely circumstance that the guest concerned actually does know the Bishop of Norwich it is best to abandon the game altogether and just reach over for the decanter.

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