How many times have you walked into a restaurant, have just sat down, absorbing the ambience of the room, engrossed in small talk with your dinnermates, when the waiter breaks the pleasant atmosphere by thrusting the dreaded wine list in front of you?
How do you react? With the confident bravado of a seasoned diner or a very visible look of intimidation?
Selecting wines from a restaurant wine list can be an awkward experience for many of us. Whether it is scribbled haphazardly on the back of a menu (hidden below the beer list and above the house cocktail specialties), or worse, presented in a bound leather binder that could easily be mistaken for a volume of illuminati stolen from the Vatican Museum, wine lists require a thorough review and evaluation. All in the span of time it takes for the latest muscle car to speed from 0 to 60 mph.
Fear not. The solution is usually right at hand – the wine attendant. It may be someone whose sole responsibility is managing the wine cellar and providing guidance to a restaurant’s guests or it may simply be the waiter/waitress who has been given a quick overview of the wine list an hour before you arrived.
Trudge onward. You know you are paying a significant premium (two to three times the retail price) for the wines offered, so why not get your money’s worth – with free advice. Most restaurants are eager to provide guidance, advice and gentle arm-twisting to enhance your dining experience. A stress-free diner is a repeat customer. Of course, there are those wine attendants who are belligerent or arrogant, but those restaurants are quickly added to your “never again” list. So, take the plunge. Ask for advice! Ordering wine can be just as enjoyable as drinking it.
Here are a few tips on mastering the art of wine selection:
- Do your homework. Many restaurants offer their menus and wine lists online. A few minutes of review at home before your culinary excursion will familiarize you with the wine list.
- Many excellent wines are made available only to the restaurant trade. Invariably you will find unknown wines that will provide a pleasant surprise. How to evaluate these wines? Just ask for advice. If you are in a French restaurant, chances are there will be several gems on the list from regions or producers that will never make an appearance in your local wine shop.
Likewise, for other ethnic-based restaurants. My rule of thumb: If I see a familiar wine on a wine list, I skip right past it to one I’ve never heard of and ask the server/steward for insights and recommendations. I rarely have been disappointed.
- A corollary to the above rule of thumb: Look past the traditional grape varietals like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, especially those from the Central Coast of California (bulk produced and industrial grade). Instead look to lesser-known varietals from lesser-known wine regions (Spanish reds or German whites). They tend to be less expensive and will open your eyes to a new world of wine enjoyment.
- When asking for advice, provide your wine attendant with a price range. Be coy in front of your date or your fellow diners; just point to any wine in your price range: “I’d like your advice on a wine in this price range.” Servers want to please you. The more input you provide the better the end result.
- Invariably there is a bargain on the wine list. It may be a wine that wasn’t selling well at its higher retail price and the owner has lowered the price. Great wine, reduced price. Another pointer: Great wines from poor vintages are abundant, which makes for great bargains. Again, just ask your server/steward for the hidden gems on the wine list.
Armed with these pointers, you will be able to focus on a pleasurable dining experience – great food, great wine, great memories.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the WineMedia Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.