Monday, April 04, 2016

The Naked Vine Guide to Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Dinner for One. Wine for Six. Lovely.
You’re out on the town at a nice dinner with your besties. You’ve been to the bar, had a cocktail or two, and the maître’ d has escorted your happy gaggle to the table. Menus are distributed, and your server utters that fateful question: “Who would like the wine list?

An uncomfortable silence settles over your tableful of playful banter like someone just asked for volunteers at a business meeting. Everyone nervously looks around, hoping someone…anyone will step up to the plate.

You’re a Naked Vine reader, by gum! You’ve accumulated enough wine knowledge to be dangerous! I know you’re good pairing for dinner in the privacy of your own home, but are you ready for the big stage? Are you brave enough to look that server in the eye and say, “Bring that list right here! Allow me!”

Hell yes, you are! And I’ll be right there at your side with these few basic tips to help you win the evening.

First and foremost, Take your Time. Once you’ve got the wine list in hand, this is the perfect opportunity to ask your server to get a round of waters for everyone – or just say that you need a few minutes while you make some decisions. (This little stall has the added benefit of letting people peek at their menus without feeling pressured.)

Once the server departs, Survey the Scene. “Does everyone want to go in on a bottle or two?” Some of your friends might want beer, cocktails, or a specific glass of wine. Get a quick sense of how many people you’re ordering for. A standard 750ml bottle equates to five 5-ounce glasses of wine. I usually assume 2-3 glasses per person during a leisurely meal for an ordering standard. Do appropriate multiplications and divisions to come up with a rough estimate of how many bottles you’ll need. Also, ask what folks are thinking of ordering, foodwise, to get a general idea on the pairing spectrum. For instance, if everyone’s getting fish, you’re probably leaning white. If you can’t determine whether a white or red will be best, order one of each and let people choose. And don’t let the server take the wine list away.

Don’t Get Fancy. Remember, you’re not leading a wine tasting. While you may absolutely love the deep, barnyard funk of a particular French wine region, this isn’t the venue to wow the table with your in-depth knowledge. The pecking order is friends -> food -> wine. Think about middle-of-the-road, crowd-pleasing wines when you’re making your choice, since palates and entrees can be all over the map. Also, good restaurants often offer many of their most food-friendly wines by the glass, so file these away for reference as you’re perusing the list.

Go Deep. There’s a reason that Cabernet Sauvignon from California, French Bordeaux and Burgundy, and Italian reds like Chianti show up so often on wine lists. People are familiar with them – at least by name – so they make for an easy order. Since they’re an easy order, many restaurants tend to increase the markups on these bottles. Every country has lesser-known wine regions and grape varietals, many of which you’ve explored with me here. Instead of Chianti, for instance, drop a Barbera on folks. If you’re thinking French Burgundy, maybe think about a red from Loire or Languedoc instead.

Also, great values can be hidden on wine lists from somewhat obscure countries. Lesser-known varietals and wine regions are often priced to move. We know that South America makes fabulous, relatively inexpensive wine, for instance – and if you’re choosing between a California Cabernet and a Malbec from Argentina at a steakhouse, I can guarantee you the Malbec will give you a better bang for your buck.

Go Cheap. (Or at least don’t be afraid to.) Do you think, outside of a Guy Fieri joint, a chef’s going to put something on a menu that they know tastes terrible? Of course not! In any decent restaurant, you should be able to order the least expensive item on a menu and still have a quality meal. A wine list is nothing more than a menu. A restaurant should vouch for every bottle on their list. Order what you think will be best.

[Also, in my opinion, it's easy for high-end wines to be wasted in a restaurant setting. Many of the more expensive wines – top-end Bordeaux, Italian Barolo, and high-end Napa cabernets, for example – need to be decanted, sometimes for hours, for their flavors to really shine. That doesn’t happen in many restaurant settings, as server will often just go through the wine service and pour. There are some establishments who do a good job presenting these wines -- but you need to do your research...]

Don’t be Afraid to Ask. It’s perfectly OK to ask the server or the sommelier for advice. (After all, that is what they’re there for.) Rather than just asking, “What would you recommend?” give them a little guidance. If you’ve narrowed it down to 2-3 choices, say “I’m thinking about these. Which would you say is drinking best?” If you’re really stumped, maybe go to: “Can you give me a couple of options for a medium-bodied, food-friendly red?” or “What are a couple of mellow, somewhat fruity, dry whites?” They’ll suggest something workable.

Be the Boss. Here come those bottles! Time for the wine service. The server or sommelier will first present you with the bottle to verify they’ve brought the correct selection. They’ll then open the bottle and usually hand you the cork. Look for any signs that the cork might have been damaged. If there are wine stains running down the sides of the cork, or if it’s crumbly or brittle, this can be a warning sign that the bottle is flawed. File this away mentally for the next step. Don’t sniff the cork – I mean, unless you've got a particular fetish for that sort of thing.

Making this face at first sniff? Send it back. Please.
The server will then pour a little wine into your glass. This is a quality test. You want to give the wine a vigorous swirl, sniff, and sip to see if the wine is defective. Does it taste slightly carbonated if it’s a still wine? Does it have an odd odor or flavor? Flawed wine can smell/taste like wet newspaper, damp dog, a moldy basement, strong vinegar, or rotten egg. Trust me, you’ll know it if you encounter it.
Get any of these smells, sensations, or flavors? Simply turn to the server and say, “I’m sorry. I think this bottle is off.” Be firm. Don’t be intimidated. Trust your instincts. Use the Force. Whatever you need. They’ll bring you a new one, trust me. It’s your damned bottle. Get a good one.

Chances are, though, the wine will be just fine. If you sniff and everything’s cool, then lean back in your chair with a self-satisfied smile and say, “This will do nicely,” and relax as the server makes the rounds.

Finally, always remember that You Can’t Screw Up. There’s no “universal donor” in the world of wine. You’ll never find a bottle that’s perfect for a group of people with varied palates all ordering different meals. Your goal was to find a “good enough” wine, and you’ve done that! Once everyone has a full glass, raise your glass, give a hearty “Cheers,” smile, and bask in the admiring gazes of your friends.

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