Picture yourself dining at Aureole, the prestigious Las Vegas restaurant. The wine list comes on a tablet computer because there are 3,600 choices. Beautiful women in black lycra suits and repelling gear wait to ascend the wine tower to retrieve your selection. The sommelier hovers at the table with a bemused look and less than rapt attention. Will your choice be met with disdain or respect? So many choices. So many regions. So many wines that you have never heard of at prices that you would have never imagined. The pressure is on. What to pick, what to pick?
Relax. Buying wine at a restaurant should never be a chore or a bore. Remember, it’s only wine. No matter what you pick when it arrives at the table, it will be wet, made from grapes and probably tasty. Any restaurant worth its salt will have a well-selected wine list and perusing it should be met with the same enthusiasm as viewing the dinner menu. Think of it in terms of a kid in a candy store instead of a day at the office.
Navigating the Wine List
A hefty list with hundreds or perhaps thousands of choices can be daunting, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Wine lists always have a structure or format with which to work. Usually the categories are either grape variety or regions. A popular new trend is to break the list into stylistic categories such as “light and lively,” or “big and bold.” These are here to help you. Take what you know about wine and apply it to the list. If you like Cabernet, look for the cabs. Fond of Australia? Well here are thirty wines from Down Under to choose from.
This is by no means a mark against experimentation. Venturing into new regions or grape varieties can be a great way to find a bargain. Try a Cabernet from Spain instead of the pricier version from Napa. Dolcetto from Italy can be a great alternative to Pinot Noir. Both wines are light and packed with red fruits, but the Dolcetto may be half the cost. A good way to judge the dollar value of a wine list is to look for a well-known label and compare the price to versions you have had elsewhere. A well-priced list may spur you to try higher quality wines or to come back for more. A poor value list may leave you feeling gouged and hunting for a new place to eat!
A diverse list is a great way to try new wines and the best part is that you have a knowledgeable person on hand to help guide you through the list. Your server may not be a font of wine knowledge, but chances are good that anyone who works with a list every day will know a secret or two. Asking for help will not only break the ice but may endear the server to you as well. Some people were born to sell wine, and a little interest in what they like may get you a special bottle or a great deal. It may also get you just a little more attention for the rest of the meal.
A sommelier, or wine steward, is a dedicated server of wine. They often have the best recommendations and will know their list inside and out. Trust their judgement. Honesty is also the best policy. If you know absolutely nothing, it never hurts to say so. Any information that you give the sommelier on your wine habits or likes and dislikes will help them make a more informed selection for you. A 15% tip on the wine is standard at a restaurant with a dedicated sommelier.
When the server or sommelier brings the wine to the table, check the label to make sure that it is both the proper wine and the proper vintage. Vintage changes are a fact of life and it can be hard for a restaurant with a large list to keep up. That is not your fault however, and you shouldn’t feel compelled to drink a vintage you did not order. The server will offer the cork for your approval. Please do not sniff it! It will smell like cork, and is in no way indicative of what the wine smells like.
Swirl the wine in your glass and smell it before you take a sip. If it has a heavy odor of wet cardboard or bird poo, it may be flawed. These are just two of the many faults that can be in a wine. Do not feel bad about sending back a flawed bottle of wine. Neither the winemaker nor the restaurant wants you to have a bottle of bad wine and the fact is, it happens. Industry analysts put the percentage of flawed wines out there at between 3 and 5%. However, if there is nothing wrong with it and it just isn’t your cup of tea you should probably keep it. With your nod of approval, the sommelier will fill your glasses.
Restaurants offer many ways to experiment with wines. Intensive wine-by-the-glass programs are a great way to try a few different items. Some establishments offer flights, which is a series of different wines in small amounts, usually linked by region, varietal or whim. Another great way to dine is take advantage of a “fixed price” or “chef’s menu.” Usually this is a menu specially prepared by the chef for that particular evening. Hand selected wine pairings are often suggested by the chef or sommelier. These can be the greatest expressions of both food and wine, and are highly recommended. For more on this subject check out our Introduction to Food and Wine Pairing.
Some restaurants will allow you to bring your own bottle of wine, opening and serving it for a small corkage fee, usually around $15. This is not a universal practice and illegal in some states. If you plan to bring your own call ahead to make sure that it is ok. This should be done only with unique or rare bottles that the restaurant is sure not to have on its list.
Overall, try to keep an open mind while trying wines. Going with a well-known label may be safe, but finding a gem or trying something that you have never had before can be fun and rewarding. No matter how large the list, chances are that you will find a great bottle at a price you can live with. Now all that’s left is to drink it, and I think we can all live with that.