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The Art of Decanting

If you own a decent wine collection, or have ever brought a decent bottle with some age on it to a restaurant, you have likely experienced what I call ‘The Gallo Pour’.  Here you are, in a seemingly upscale restaurant reputed for its gourmet offerings – all the standard clichés are here.  ‘Farm to table’, ‘Picked from the virginal forests of wherever’, ‘Cheese direct from the udder of ‘insert animal’s name here‘, and on and on…  Don’t get me wrong – I’m never one to turn away an Amish chicken raised on a family owned farm Oregon and served in a neighborhood restaurant in Seattle.  Or a fine wedge of aged chevre from Shirley the Goat who summers at a farm in Mendocino.

That said, in spite of the ludicrous menu trend to identify the actual being that produced the meal you are about to eat – many of these same restaurants rise above the pretense and serve very fine food.  But one thing they categorically fail at 95% of the time is this – they don’t know how to decant a f***ing bottle of wine!

Most servers seem to think that decanting wine simply means to pour it out of one vessel into another to give it air.  Yes, this is one of the purposes of this delicate task to be sure.  But after witnessing servers, time and time again, taking a fine bottle and quickly turning it ¡upside down! I’ve begin to lose faith.  These are the same people who are reciting the delicate details of the menu, the origin of its ingredients, and of Chef’s vision for the dish.  Here’s the news – if you can do all that but can’t understand the process of decanting a bottle of wine, then you have something to learn.

You pretend to be in the know about the food and the love of the ‘Art of the Table’ – but I’m on to you.  I’ve brought wines to restaurants that anyone with any experience in fine dining service should recognize.  I’m talking First Growth Bordeaux’s and 20+ year old Barolos here – and the result is almost always the same.  The wine is transferred from one vessel to another – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly – and almost always with the sediment poured in for good measure.



Decanting Wine – A Local Problem?

To be fair, this has happened to me in multiple countries around the world.  Old world and new world.  So, there’s no bias or ill will be me towards American restaurants and their staff.  I remember being in Sorrento, Italy in 2007 and ordering a lovely bottle of Chianti – easily over $100.  And the head waiter came by and dumped it into a captain’s decanter in about 20 seconds.  Sediment and all. When I asked why he had done it he said ‘because it enhances the flavor of the wine.’  In a state of shock, I couldn’t muster an adequate response and then went about drinking the bottle until I got to the last glass and chewed through the mud.  All that being said, it seems like this is an issue endemic to Seattle dining.

I can count on one hand the number of times a server has decanted my wine properly in this town over the last 8+ years.  And two of those times were on separate occasions at Canlis.  They sure do know their stuff there but you pay for it!  I get the whole Pacific Northwest/live off the land/pioneer/hippie thing but seriously – I’m not drinking from a bota bag every day.

Bota Bag from Ernie's World

Bota bags are not hip

How to Decant a Bottle of Wine

Learn first, then have patience.  If you work at an establishment with a sommelier – ask them.  Surely he or she has experience doing this properly.  You will be rewarded and even complimented by wine dorks like me around the globe.  And, you’ll be doing your chef and owner a favor by playing a supporting role that lives up to the reputation they have worked so hard to get for their establishment.

Decanting Wine

Decanting Wine the right way


There are some easy to follow guides out there:

A downright simple video from How Cast: How to Decant a Bottle of Wine

Two well written articles on the subject from New York Magazine and the New York Times

Now I don’t want to get all uppity and on my soapbox about something so benign as decanting wine but listen – if you are going to charge me $32 for an entrée, and anywhere from $15-40 (+tip) just to pour my wine for me; you better damned well know how to decant a bottle of wine from one vessel into another and leave the sediment behind.  And while I’m at it – don’t shake my bottle up while fondling the corkscrew mid-air and fumbling the whole mess around.  Chances are, I’ve had that baby laying down on its side for several years so as not to disturb the crust.  I probably even had it standing on my kitchen counter since last night so the sediment would settle at the bottom around the punt.  To top it off, I usually make my wife hold it gently and upright in the car on the way to the restaurant.

After carefully protecting my delicious, delicate bottle – I don’t need some goofball in a hurry to spoil all that good work of nature.  Take your time, get out a candle or some low level light you can put under the neck, and do a good job.  Or just take your time.  Have a steady hand and keep an eye out for the sediment as it starts to reach the decanter.


An Impassioned Plea

Please friend – don’t shake up my fine bottle of wine and give me a glass full of dirt.  Ask any chef or restaurateur – they’ll tell you that the devil’s in the details.  So learn how to judge the quality and age of a bottle on sight.  Be knowledgeable and don’t be afraid to ask questions – either of the customer or your co-workers.  And pretty please, learn to decant a bottle of wine properly.  It’ll make me happy and won’t start my meal off on the wrong foot.  I’ve had wonderful meals tarnished by the fact that you screwed the pooch from the start by dumping dirt in my wine.   Trust me – if you mess this up you’ll be playing catch up the rest of the night.

If you enjoyed this story then read more about food, farming and eating locally in Seattle by Jason Price at!