As a Wine Steward myself for over 10 years, I assure you with all my heart, that there is no reason for a Wine Steward to be pretentious, elitist, or holier than thou.
Almost without exception this attitude is a cover up for a shameful lack of knowledge. With very little effort you can learn more about a Wine Stewards job than most Stewards have dreamed of. Next time you encounter one of these horrendous beasts, you can smile knowingly, confident that you now posses the ammo to deflate this pompous ass.
What to order
First and foremost order what you like. Don't worry about food and wine pairings and don't be pressured into trying wine if you are not sure you will enjoy it, or it is outside of your comfortable budget.
Here are some suggestions for getting a better value in a restaurant, considering how high their markups tend to be.
In American and Australian wines avoid Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (Merlot almost makes it in this list as well). Zinfandel (the real red stuff) and Syrah are good bets for red American wines. Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc for American whites. The same goes for Australian, except they don't produce Zinfandel, and they call Syrah, Shiraz.
Pinot Noir is my favorite grape, alas it is difficult to grow and produce, so there are to many less than stunning examples available. If you love Pinot (like me) or you want to avail yourself of its fabulous food pairing qualities, look for a Central Coast of California (incl. Santa Maria, Edna and Santa Ynez Valleys as well as Santa Barbara County).
For French wines look towards the Rhone for reds, and Alsace or Loire for whites. Avoid Burgundy unless you are confident of the choices available. If you want a bottle of red Bordeaux but don't want the costly wines of the Medoc, look to St. Emilion and Pomerol. The newest trend in French wines are inexpensive varietals such as Merlot, Syrah and Viognier from the south.
Italian wine is huge in its diversity, and yet an equally huge number of the whites are made from the grape Trebianno. Italian wine is best enjoyed light and young, full of life. If you want to save your pocketbook, avoid the trend of pricey Italian wines. If money is less of an issue for you, I personally prefer the Super-Tuscan and Brunello wines.
Spain is an ocean of well priced wine; however most of it is sold in bulk through out Europe. Rioja, both red and white has been on an upward spiral of quality. When you see one of these wines, chances are you will enjoy both the style and the price. If you see it on a wine list, you may also want to try one of the many Spanish wines made from Tempranillo.
Champagne / Sparkling Wine is an area that the wine steward can easily get carried away, don't let him (or her). Watch out for the famous Dom Perignon and Cristal Champagnes. I will hear about it for saying this, but these 2 prestige wines are made in a quantity that makes it difficult to create a quality product (enough tact?). If you are in a spending mood, try Taittinger's Comte de Champagne instead of Dom Perignon or Cristal. If you really want the real thing, and money is no object, try Krug or Salon.
In the less pricey range Taittinger is again a perennial favorite with La Francaise, but the hands down winner is Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label. In US sparkling Domaine Carneros (from Taittinger, again) and Roderer Estate (from the makers of Cristal) are good bets.
While far from a comprehensive list, this should give you a good direction to steer through any wine list.
What to do when the bottle comes
First make sure that the bottle is still sealed. In Europe and some European restaurants it is not uncommon for the wine to come open. Unless it is a very inexpensive wine, send it back and ask for a corked bottle.
Next check the label to make sure it is what you ordered, pay particular attention to the vintage date and the vineyard if one was specified. If the vintage or vineyard is wrong, ask for the correct bottle. In the event they don't have the bottle you ordered, make sure you are happy with the price and selection before you approve the bottle; otherwise, reorder.
What to do with the cork
After you have gotten through the ordering, your wine is presented, and you are faced with another dilemma... what to do with the cork when it is placed in front of you. The answer is simple, feel free to ignore it. It tells you nothing, the taste of wine tells you everything.
How to taste the wine, and what you are looking for
You survived the cork test, and the wine steward is eying you with expectation as the taste of wine is poured.
To start with look at it. Send it back if it is cloudy or full of particles (not just a few small pieces of cork or crystals from the cork [these crystals in white wine are not glass, and are harmless, and may even be a sign of quality]). If it is an old wine, it should have been (and now should be) decanted. If it was a young wine, it has problems. Even if the wine specifically says unfiltered on the label, this is not a license to make poor wine. Try a different wine, not a different bottle.
If the wine is clear, move on to swirling the wine in the glass. To do this place two fingers on either side of the stem, on the base of the glass, and make small circles while the glass is on the table. Practice this at home with water, and you will slop (less) red wine out of your glass when it counts.
After the swirl, and while the wine is still moving, comes the sniff. Take a good whiff of the wine. Smelling wine is an art form, all you are looking for here is off odors. Watch out for these smells: Wet Cardboard, Vinegar, Wet Dog, Sour Milk, Cooking Cabbage or Rubber. None of these are good. If the smell is slight, swirl the wine a few times and smell again. If the smell persists and is not too bad, taste the wine. If the wine tastes fine but still smells bad, tell the steward that the wine has an off smell, and you would like to either send it back, or if he has time, he can try to decant it (quickly with lots of chugging) in the hopes it gets better. If the smell is strong or it tastes bad, send it back.
Wet Cardboard is the most common off smell. It is a slightly moldy smell as well. It is hard to describe, but it means the wine is "corked." The is the result of a bad cork (due to the finishing process) and it happens to 1 out of 40 bottles or so. If this is the smell, another bottle of the same wine is likely to be fine.
Ok, it has gotten past your eyes and nose, now you can taste the wine. Truthfully if the wine has passed the first 2 tests, it is unlikely to taste bad.
If you don't like the taste of the wine and it:
• Tastes actually bad - send it back
(unless you just brushed your teeth recently, try a bite of bread and retaste).
• Is a wine the steward recommended,
• let the steward know at once before you drink any of the wine.
• If the steward does nothing to make up for it don't go back to the restaurant.
• Is a wine that you chose and it is not off but is not to your taste,
• write it off to experience, and hope it gets better.
Tasting Champagne and Sparkling Wines
Sparkling wines are all about the bubbles. Ensure that the bubbles are lively.
Do your best to not accept a sparkling wine that is served in anything except the classic v shaped flute glass (especially avoid those flat glasses). A fluted glass is the proper way to serve a sparkling wine and it really does make a difference in the overall experience.
Ports, Sherry and Dessert Wines
One of the most common "errors" I see in wine service is when a bar or restaurant serves a sweet wine in a small liqueur glass. A dessert wine is wine, it should be served in a wine glass. I almost always have to ask for it to be poured into a regular glass. These wines have even more aromas than dry wines and really need the benefit of being swirled to be enjoyed to their potential.
What about Breathing?
Breathing is a debatable practice, and one that I don't subscribe to. No matter what side of the fence you fall on this one, few will argue that breathing is more likely to happen in the glass than in the bottle. If the wine has an off odor decanting may help the wine 'blow off' any bad odors, or just improve the wine.
What about Temperature?
Ice cold white wine tastes like nothing. Unless it is a hugely powerful wine (like a Sauternes, dessert wine) keeping it too cold will ruin the wine. If you just really like ice cold wine (you are allowed to like anything at all) do yourself a favor, choose less expensive wines. Sparkling wine should be served cold, but avoid chilled glasses it makes the wine flat faster. Red wines should be no warmer than room temperature. A wine that is stored in too hot of a location can be easily damaged.
Watch out for how much wine is poured in your glass
You need to have room in your glass to swirl and enjoy the wine (except sparkling). Over filling the glass is the most common mistake a wait person or steward will make. Let them know if they go over the half way mark on the glass.