Consider this scenario. You are invited out for a nice dinner, perhaps with your boss or some clients or even prospective clients. The waiter or sommelier comes to the table, and someone looks at you and says: "Why don't you select a wine?"
This can be terrifying if you know little about wines and if there is an opportunity for you to defer to someone else more seasoned, you can do so without regret or concern. If however it is you and your boss taking some clients out for dinner (for example) and she is at the other end of a long table, passing the wine list to your client isn't going to be as well received. So...what does one do?
First of all, ask the table if there is a preference for white or red. Typically, there will be a mixture of people who prefer white or red and you will have to order two bottles, one of each...at least to start.
So what to do next? This is NOT a sommelier recommendation - this is a Gord Aker recommendation - more designed to get you comfortable with ordering something you may know little about.
First the Red. There are two "safe" places to select red wine from with a very low probability of getting a less than satisfying bottle...namely, France and the USA. Often bottles will be presented by country of origin in which case, go to the corresponding list and pick a red wine that is approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up the price list. In other words, you don't want the least expensive bottle on the list, nor do you want to order some $500 bottle of wine to show off. Make a "reasonable" choice from the list from either France or the USA and you will be in pretty safe territory.
When selecting a white wine, you can follow the same approach but I would recommend an Italian or a German wine. Again, there are beautiful wines made all over the world, but that is not the point here. The point is that you are going to feel confident in ordering a reasonably priced bottle of wine from well established wine producing regions with great reputations for consistent quality.
Once you have ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant, the waiter or perhaps the wine steward also known as a sommelier, will bring you out the bottle to examine and approve. Here is what you have to do.
The waiter will typically bring out the bottle and before opening it, show it to you so that you can confirm that the bottle being presented is indeed the one you ordered. Your response is to nod and perhaps say, "Great, I am looking forward to trying this."
If the wine has a true cork, the waiter will remove the cork from the bottle and either put it on the table in front of you or give it to you directly. In general you are only looking for one thing here and that is that the cork is still pliable and that the wine has wet the bottom of the cork. A dried out cork may be indication that the bottle has let air in and this will have caused the wine to go bad. You don't need to sniff the cork!
Some wines these days have plastic corks that never lose their shape or ability to seal. If the wine you have chosen has one of these corks, examining it is pointless and likely the waiter will have just put it front of you as a formality. Note that there is nothing wrong with wines corked with plastic corks because in fact they are better and more reliable than real corks.
Some wines now even come with screw cap tops. Again, this is nothing to look down one's nose at (although some purists might). A vineyard may choose a screw cap so that they lose fewer bottles to spoilage. Less spoilage reduces the cost of production and the wine will be less expensive as a result but no less "good".
The waiter will then pour a small portion of the wine into a glass or depending on the wine he may pour the whole bottle into a decanter to let it breathe. At any rate, eventually you will get a small portion in a glass presented to you.
The first thing you may wish to do is check the color of the wine. Ideally this is done by holding it up slightly and examining the wine with a white background. This is more about appreciating it than requiring some judgment on your part.
The next step is to swirl the small portion in the glass. This helps oxygenate the wine and cause it to taste smoother. Decanting does the same thing. As you swirl the glass, note how quickly the wine slips off the sides of the glass. The more quickly it slips off, the higher the alcohol content. Again this is more trivia than anything but you may hear people refer to this as the wine's "legs". It is often easier and safer to swirl the glass by leaving the stem on the table and just moving the glass in a circular motion.
Now - gently smell the wine by putting your nose over the mouth of the glass. I understand there is no "one way" to do this. My only thinking here is that you are not trying to snort the wine into your face so just gently breathe the wine into your nose. This will be your first indication if the wine has gone bad. If it is bad, it will smell like vinegar.
Once you have smelled the wine - take a sip and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds. Chugging it back is not the way to go here - you want your mouth to light up with the various flavors in the wine. No need to gargle it either - just let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds and then swallow it.
Note the taste on your tongue and also the after taste. Different wines have different combinations of flavor hits. Some come on very strong with the first sip and then mellow as you swallow with little after taste. While others are gentle at first and then finish with a strong taste.
There are all kinds of wines and not all will be to your taste. Not liking a wine is insufficient grounds to return it. However if the wine tastes like vinegar or smells off, then it is expected that you will challenge the wine. In some cases the waiter will take it away and replace it with a new bottle with no questions asked. If it is a really expensive wine, sometimes the sommelier will sample it himself. You should feel comfortable in asking him or her to do this if you are in doubt. It is their job and they will undoubtedly be pleased at your deference.
Once you have approved the wine, the waiter or sommelier will start pouring it, usually to the women first. Don't worry he will get back to you! If there isn't enough for all that want it, he will get another bottle and yes...you need to repeat the performance. But why not? It's kind of fun right?
In the better restaurants the guests will never pour their own wine. The waiter will always fill the glasses when they are empty. In some circles it is rude to refill your own glass but these days I see it done all the time.
One word of caution. It is very easy to drink too much when your glass is never empty. Make sure you are not drinking too much or that your waiter isn't opening bottle after bottle with out checking with you first. A good waiter will always ask if you want another bottle opened and if you would like to try something different.