Thursday, August 6, 2009

Navigating the Wine List Jungle

Since you are reading this, you hopefully have a small interest in wine. This also means that, when you go out to eat, your friends probably hand you the wine list to make the decision. Your palms get sweaty...Red or White? How much should I spend? What if I've never heard of anything on here? What the heck is that word?

Here are just a couple of helpful tips on what to do in this situation-

First of all, decide what the wine is for. Are you going to share a bottle before dinner? If so, then something bubbly or a lighter style white wine is usually a good way to start. Are you just going to have wine with your main courses? Then pay attention to what people are going to order- you want to get something that matches well with the food that will be on the table (more on food and wine pairing in the next couple of days).

Most wine lists are divided into reds and whites, then broken up either by varietal, country, or style, with a separate section for their wines by the glass. I tend to avoid the by-the-glass selections, simply because they are usually the worst "deal" on the list. Most restaurants will try to recoup their bottle price on the first glass of wine (a bottle they paid $9 for will be listed at $9/glass). Assuming they are pouring 4 glasses per bottle, this means they have marked that bottle up 400 percent. The wines on the list are usually marked up anywhere between 100 and 300 percent. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, it just seems to be the norm. By ordering a bottle, you are usually getting better wine for the same amount of money (and you don't have to worry about how long the bottle of Merlot behind the bar has been open, when ordering a glass).

I like to ask the waiter or sommelier (fancy word for the guy that runs the wine program) for recomendations. A lot of times, there are wines that they are excited about or that aren't on the list yet that you can find out about. The group you are with will determine how wacky you want your choice to be. Don't be afraid to say "we are looking for a mid-weight red that will pair well with his seared tuna, and my burger. Do you have any suggestions?" Any server worth their paygrade should know the wine list, and have a few suggestions for you.

One way to get past the "how much do you want to spend" question is to find a wine that you are comfortable with, point to it on the list, and ask the server "what do you think of this one?" This will allow the server to add any input, and also give them an idea of what kind of price range you are wanting to be in. Restaurant folks hate it when they ask "what kind of range do you want to be in", and get the answer "the mid-range". Middle of what? One person might think that $30 is mid range, while another thinks that $300 is mid range!

If you can't pronounce something, just make light of it and ask the server how to say it. There's no reason to be embarassed- you will look more foolish by acting like you know how to say something, and pronouncing it incorrectly.

Once a decision has been made, the wine-service ritual will begin. In most places, the server will bring the bottle to you, so you can verify that the right wine was pulled. Then they will uncork the bottle, giving you the cork. Don't smell the cork- it will smell like cork. They hand it to you so you can see if it has been soaked through, moldy or stored incorrectly. Then they will pour you a small sample to try. This is your opportunity to see if the wine is "off" in any way. If you think it is, have the server or manager try it. There's no reason to be embarassed about a wine that is "corked" (has TCA- a compound that makes it smell like a moldy basement), and sending it back- It happens probably once in every 20 or so bottles. If the wine is bad, the restaurant should bring out another bottle to open. It is generally in bad form to send a bottle back, just because you don't like it. Too bad- you made the decision to open that bottle, you need to stick with that decision. They will then pour the wine out for the people drinking it at the table, filling your glass last. See, that was easy!

Now, drink up and enjoy!

Today's suggestion will be a bit tougher to find. Fisher winery from Napa makes a Cabernet called "Unity" that goes for about 1/3 of the price of the rest of their bottlings. the 2006 has bright cherry notes, a bit of smokiness, and velvety tannins. I know that Eclipse pours it by the glass (this is one of the exceptions to my point above- they sell it for much less than they should), and you can get it at Niche and Veritas.

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