Navigating with a Wine List
Navigating with a Wine List
Selecting the Best Wine for Your Meal
Remember when ordering a cola wasn't followed by a "Will that be diet, caffeine-free, classic or cherry?" Or when choosing a fish entree didn't present you with more options that the shoe department at Nordstrom's?
Most Americans face this dilemma when they pick up a wine list. Play it safe with a tried-and-true Cabernet Sauvignon? Splurge $30 on an unknown? Where does one begin? Are there any tips for making an intelligent decision?
Picking a dinner wine doesn't have to be a nightmare. Here are some guidelines that have been developed over the years.
Note the organization. Take a few moments to review how the wine list is organized. Often, people become uneasy when they don't see a familiar layout. A page that may appear "wrong" may make sense as you realize it is arranged geographically, not alphabetically.
Study the details. Look for accuracy. Are vintages listed for all the wines? Are shippers specified on imports? If the details are shoddy, you can often expect something similar from the kitchen! A good list should be legible, easy to follow and also creative, matching wines with appetizer and entree items of dessert wines with dessert. This quick inventory can give you a sense of the importance that the restaurant places on wine and if you're likely to have a positive wine experience.
Ask for help. Don't be afraid to enlist the assistance of the staff. And when you do ask questions, be as specific as you can. Waiters and sommeliers are not clairvoyant. You need to let them know that you'd like some help.
Give good guidelines. Share your preferences, your dislikes and how much you want to spend. If possible, name comparable wines to illustrate your choice, especially if you don't see anything familiar on the list. Ask for several suggestions, in a low, mid and high price range if you desire. You'll end up with a wine that makes you happy.
Ask if the wine buyer is there. If he or she is present, you open the door for a wonderful time. Ask what the best values are, and what they like within the guidelines you've provided. Wine buyers love to talk wine and you will be delighted with the results.
Use your own benchmarks. You can gauge value on any wine list by searching out a wine that is often available in many restaurants -say "XYZ" Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. While one restaurant may charge you $18, another may charge $25, or even $15. The value of that $15 bottle of wine can be extrapolated to other wines on the list. Pricing philosophies nearly always prevail throughout the list. It's a good idea to arm yourself with this type of thermometer to take the list's temperature!
Great "high-value" wines today come in all colors and countries. I find great bang for your buck in wines from Southern France, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Portugal. Many California vintners offer great value in varietal wines as well. In particular, seek alternatives to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the best wines at the best prices bear other names: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Zinfandel to name a few. And Petit Chateaux and cru bourgeois in Bordeaux can be as delicious as classified growths-at a fraction of the price.
Wine by the glass. Take a good look at what you're offered by the glass. Often, wines that are in training for the list, vintage changes or just plain great deals will crop up in the wine-by-the-glass section. If you don't see a bottle price, ask.
Don't ignore half bottles. A half bottle each of red and white can provide a complete wine and food experience.
Pay attention to what you're eating. More wine choices turn out "wrong" because they were matched with the wrong entree than for any other reason. Choose your dish first; then seek out a wine to marry with it. Or choose the wine first and then work out with the server what to eat with it. Either way, you'll be a much happier diner.
If you need help picking out acustom wine glass, we can help with that too!