Is it still common practice during wine service to pour all the women at the table first, or have we moved beyond that?
– Kim Hebert Simone, Owner, Vinitas Wineworks, Boston
This is a great question, one I’ve heard grappled with before, and the subject of a recent online debate among students and alumni of the Gastronomy Program at Boston University. When I was coming up in the industry, wine service order was strictly prescribed: First, offer a taste to whoever ordered the wine (unless otherwise instructed by the guest: “My colleague here is the real wine expert—have her taste it.”). Next, women are served oldest to youngest, then men are served oldest to youngest, ending with the host who ordered the wine. The only exception to this order would be a very obvious guest of honor (for example, a birthday celebrant, keynote speaker at a business dinner or—really reading the fine print in the etiquette manuals—a member of the clergy), who would be given the first full pour.
These days, especially in contemporary restaurant settings, such formalities are lost, possibly in the interest of efficiency, gender inclusiveness or both. A Boston-based server agrees: “I’ve moved beyond it, as a server. Although I typically pour water ladies first. Whoever orders the wine tastes it, then you pour clockwise around the table, filling the taster’s glass last.”
My advice is to think about the reason for the tradition in the first place and go from there: Is it to make guests feel comfortable? To show off your proper service skills? To make guests feel honored? It is very much a setting-specific service style, in the same way decanting wine might make perfect sense in a white tablecloth restaurant but decanting the same bottle would seem anachronistic and stilted at a hip small plates place at a comparable check average.
My advice goes back to providing exceptional service to your guests. Will they notice or even care whether you are following the traditional protocol? Will they feel more comfortable not to have your service single them out by gender? Will guests of all genders be fine with your service style, or are you in an environment where traditionalists will feel you’ve lost your service excellence? In most cases, I propose that it’s time to change with the times and pour in a way that makes most guests feel comfortable. That style tends to be egalitarian, friendly, and efficient.
More on wine service, with some differing advice, here.