Mastering the Wine List

by winenews on Oct.23, 2008, under Tips & Terms

Ordering wine is a responsibility, but it can be fun as well. Any good establishment will have someone — a sommelier or wine captain — to help you choose an appropriate wine. A good sommelier (or waiter) will act neither overbearingly stuffy nor overly friendly. That experienced person’s help, plus a few simple tips and tricks, will help you make the right choice (or at least one that is not embarrassing).

The List

First, look at the way the wine list is prepared. If it’s bound in leather, decorated with gold leaf, and sports a four-pound tassel, you know you’re in big trouble. The management is trying to impress you, and the hidden message is: “You’re going to have to pay through the nose for every wine we sell.” Any wine list the size of a telephone book is needlessly pretentious. Wasting 20 minutes or more selecting a wine does not qualify as entertainment for most people.

On the other hand, if the list is a small, laminated card that offers you the less than a thrilling choice of “Red, White, or Rosé,” it’s probably Miller time.  Unless it happens to be a small café in the south of France, a decent beer would probably be a better choice in such situations. A proper wine list falls between these two extremes, offering a good choice of types, varietals, vintage years, appellations, and prices. An accurate, well-structured wine list, with well-chosen, medium-priced wines geared to the establishment’s menu, benefits both the restaurant and the customer.

Look for thoroughness and accuracy on any wine list. There’s nothing more discouraging to a wine lover than a list with misspelled producers, omitted appellations, absent vintage dates, or other glaring errors. These days, when almost every restaurant has access to a computer, there is no excuse for wine lists with vintages and prices scratched out several times and rewritten by hand. You would have second thoughts about any kitchen that was so sloppy in preparing its menu. Why shouldn’t the wine list be clean and fresh, too? You also have the right to expect that every wine listed will be in stock. Many establishments list “stock” wines and then try to switch you to higher priced wines, or poor vintages of the same one.

The Menu

Except in establishments offering fixed menus, it rarely happens that everyone at a table will order the same dishes, so choosing the wine must take into account a variety of foods. Here again, a sommelier could be helpful. For a table of four, it’s best to have both a white and a red. This offers a choice of which wine to pour with which dish, although, as a rule of thumb, you would move from white wine in the early courses to red wine in the later courses. If you are buying only one bottle for the table, anyone who wants a different wine to match a particular dish can always order by-the-glass. Most good restaurants these days have a selection of choice wines available by the glass.

The Price

How much should you spend for wine in a restaurant? Trying to impress your guests with the price of the wine you order is the sure sign of a wine novice and can backfire miserably. On the other hand, you probably don’t want to look like a cheapskate. One way to avoid this dilemma is to pick out a few wines from the list in the price range with which you’re comfortable, and then ask the sommelier to help you choose among them. This tactic should eliminate any discussion of prices.

Believe it or not, some people refuse to buy wines that are true bargains. One buyer for a prominent restaurant put a wine on his list at $24. It didn’t sell until he marked it up to $32, then it began to move briskly. Most people evidently think you have to spend at least $30 to get a decent bottle. Not true! There are bargains on most wine lists. Avoid the big blockbuster names with three-digit prices and move to a more remote section of the list, where sommeliers will generally put some of their special finds, at very reasonable prices. You won’t find bargains in the Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon list; look at the Syrahs and Pinot Noirs instead, or possibly varieties from other countries.  The wines of Austria, Spain, or Chile can be great values, as can the lovely cru Beaujolais from France. Look for a Cabernet from Argentina instead of a cult label from Napa. Finally, ask the sommelier for a lesser-known wine that he personally likes.

The Bottle

The “ritual” of the opening of the wine is generally a dramatic high-point at a restaurant meal. It can occasion cold sweats from both the waiter and the customer. A good restaurant will train its waiters to open wines efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. The wine should be uncorked in front of you (to ensure that they are not substituting a $5 Bulgarian wine for the $40 Burgundy you ordered). When the waiter shows the label, verify quickly that it is the wine and vintage chosen, especially the vintage. The waiter should also present the cork for examination, and you should sniff it briefly to make sure the wine is not musty. Make sure the cork is intact and moist at the end that was next to the wine. If it isn’t, this may indicate that the restaurant stores its wine standing up, which can cause corks to dry out and wines to oxidize (spoil).

The waiter should proceed to pour a small portion (an ounce or less) of the wine, so that the person who chose it can taste. What should you look for at this point?  Make sure the wine is clear and has a vibrant color. Sniff it to ascertain that it doesn’t have any funky, off smells or tastes. The most common problem encountered at this point is that the wine is termed “corked,” or ruined by contact with a cork that has transmitted bacterial spoilage to the wine. A corked wine smells moldy, like a damp cellar. If you have any doubts, ask the sommelier to try the wine and offer his or her opinion. Most sommeliers will be honest if they detect flaws in the wine.

Be aware that the aroma and taste of most wines will open over the course of a meal, revealing more character and charm than when first uncorked. Give the wine a chance! Refusing an uncorked bottle should be a very rare occurrence, justified only if the wine is flawed in some way — the result of a bad cork or improper storage. Wine should never be sent back simply because you don’t happen to like it. Reach an understanding in advance with the sommelier about what type of wine you want, and then stick with your choice.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that ordering wine in a restaurant should be fun, not a tedious chore. Loosen up. Experiment. Try wines you’ve never heard of. Enjoy!

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