Wines of the Month

June, 2000

Restaurant Selections

As a confirmed wine fan (my wife prefers the term "wine nut"), people often ask me questions about wine. Sometimes their questions are easy to answer, but sometimes they really make me think. Interestingly, one of the most common queries is also one of the most thought-provoking. That question is: "When I'm eating at a restaurant, how should I pick the wine?" People seem to expect that since I know something about wine, I must have some mysterious strategy, or know a secret password that makes waiters and sommeliers bring me the "good stuff." What they don't realie is that ordering off a restaurant list can be one of the most harrowing wine experiences, even for a hard-core "nut."

Why is it sometimes so difficult to find a good wine to order in a restaurant? I believe that a number of factors, some avoidable, and some not, make restaurant wine selection a challenge.

1. Bad lists. There's no getting around it -- some restaurants just have bad wine lists. I'm not even talking about what wines they have on the list (not yet, anyway), but about the lists themselves. For example, many restaurants leave vintage years off the listings, and some even go so far as to leave off the producer's name, listing the wine only by grape or by region. Sure, when the wine list says "Red Bordeaux, $25," I know I won't get a '45 Mouton Rothschild, but will I be served some '84 Mouton-Cadet that the proprietor has had sitting over his stove for the last 16 years, or a modest, easy-drinking wine from the late '90's? Probably the latter, but it would be nice to know in advance. Another pet peeve is the impressive "phantom list." Some restaurants maintain wonderful-looking lists filled with fabulous bottles, but when you try to order, you find that the beauty is only paper-deep; all of the bottles or vintages of interest are out of stock. In the era of cheap PC's and printers, I don't think any restaurant has a valid excuse for maintaining these types of lists, but many still do.

2. Prices. Restaurant wine pricing is a complicated and controversial issue, with many wine-lovers insisting that most restaurants charge unreasonable markups, and restauranteurs responding that they need those high prices to stay in business. However, regardless of their opinion regarding the reason for the prices, I think almost everyone would agree that wine prices in restaurants are generally higher than at wine shops. (Note my attempt to keep my mailbox flame-free by neatly side-stepping the controversy.) Obviously, the high prices can make selecting an interesting wine much more difficult, assuming one doesn't have unlimited financial resources.

3. Food matching. A big part of selecting a wine is making sure that it complements the food. When entertaining at home, matching is a fairly simple matter. You can either pick a menu to serve your guests and choose a wine to match, or you can approach from the other direction by choosing the wine and planning the menu around it. Unfortunately, in a restaurant, you don't have this kind of control; the people in your party may order very different types of food, and they won't necessarily defer to your choice of wine. Complicating matters even further, unless you've exhaustively sampled the menu in the past, you won't really know what the food is going to taste like. Menu descriptions provide some guidance, but how many times has a restaurant meal tasted exactly like you thought it would?

4. People matching. OK, I know what you're thinking. Matching food with wine is one thing, but isn't matching people with wine a bit compulsive? How does that work anyhow -- red hair with red wine, blond hair with white wine? Actually, it's much simpler in concept, but much more difficult in practice. Different people have different tastes in wine, and finding a good wine match can partly be a function of the people who are eating and drinking. For example, some people like lean, elegant wines, while others like big, powerful oak-and-fruit bombs. A young, expensive, tannic Bordeaux might impress some wine enthusiast friends, but it will likely be lost on the person who always orders a glass of "white wine." Needless to say, picking a wine that you like is much easier than picking something that everyone at the table will like.

5. Selection. Even a restaurant with a very good wine list probably doesn't have the same kind of selection you would find at a mediocre wine store. Exceptions do exist, of course, and some restaurant wine lists would put all but the very best stores to shame, but those are quite rare. Besides the fact that many wine lists lack breadth and depth, they also often stock unfamiliar wines. For example, some wines are only available to restaurants, making it difficult for the consumer to know if they represent a good value. Finally, many restaurants don't even seem to make any effort to choose wines that might complement their food. Instead, they fill their list with popular grapes (e.g. Chardonnay and Merlot) or brands, knowing that the wines will sell, regardless of how they taste.

6. Staff. Many of the difficulties I've listed can be overcome if the restaurant has informed and helpful staff. Unfortunately, that combination of qualities can be difficult to find. Many waiters and waitresses are eager to help, but their suggestions are often limited to telling you that a certain wine is "very popular" (when its popularity is possibly a result of telling the all other customers how popular it is...). And often, I'll run into someone who is well-informed, but uses the knowledge to push customers to buy higher-priced wines, rather than finding something that is both reasonably-priced and good. Of course, there are many exceptions, and I've had the pleasure of meeting quite a few waiters and sommeliers who take pride in finding good wine pairings, while leaving their customers' wallets (mostly) intact.

So how do I overcome all these issues? I don't have any magical answers, but I do have a general strategy that seems to work pretty well. Even so, I don't expect to find the perfect wine every time I dine out; I'm generally happy if I manage find something interesting and flavorful for an affordable price. Here's what I do:

1. Scan the list. If something extraordinary jumps off the page, order it. Skip the rest of the steps and instead spend the time congratulating yourself on your brilliant discovery.

2. Read the list more carefully. Try to find a few possibilities that you might like to drink by considering several factors:

a. Familiarity. Look for wines that are similar to ones you've previously enjoyed. Look for familiar grapes, producers, regions or vintages. Or look for wines that you've heard about and want to try. The flip side of this is that you can often find better wines for less money if you look for less "fashionable" or less popular types of wine. Chardonnay and Merlot are less likely to yield bargains than Loire Chenin Blanc or Portugese reds. Of course, if you have a sense of adventure, you might want to use the restaurant's list as a chance to sample wines you've never heard of -- just be prepared for some disappointments along with the successes.

b. Price. If you're worried about getting a good value, eliminate any wines that are the cheapest on the restaurant's list (restaurant bottles priced under $20-25 often have the highest percentage markups) and the most expensive (which are sometimes overpriced because they're just intended for show).

c. Crowd Pleasers. If you don't know your companions' preferences, ask them what kinds of wines they like to drink, or what they usually drink at home; you'll probably get a sense of what might go over well. Also, especially if you're ordering for a group, avoid young big bruisers (e.g. a big, young, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon meant for aging). While some people love these wines, most people will wonder why you spent all that money to bludgeon their palates. In restaurants, where wines are almost always young, slightly softer wines are more likely to appeal to a group. If you really feel deprived, don't worry. You can always enjoy your monster wines at home -- where you'll get more of the bottle anyhow!

d. Food. Ask what your companions are ordering. Don't let the waiter force you into a wine choice before people have decided on their meals. You may find that it's impossible to match all the choices with one wine. If so, just sigh deeply, and try to look slightly disappointed when you announce that you'll have to drink two wines instead of just one. You won't fool anyone, but they'll appreciate the effort.

3. If step 2 fails to provide at least one potential choice, order a beer instead.

4. Ask. For many people, asking for advice is one of the most difficult, but most important, parts of the method. Some people seem to think that if you know something about wine, you shouldn't have to ask anyone anything, and it can be difficult to go against this expectation. However, in my experience, it's actually the people who know the most about wine who are the most likely to have a conversation with the staff about the various selections. This step is especially important if you still have a couple of possibile choices. The waiter or (even better) sommelier should know their wines and food (although, as I said above, it isn't always the case), and should be able to make an appropriate suggestion -- even if it is a slightly different wine than what you had in mind. Still, even if they seem informed, remember that their job is to sell wine, and salespeople of all types have been known to push mediocre items that are overstocked, or items with particularly high markups -- so don't just blindly follow their advice. And remember to take your personal preferences into account, especially if they aren't exactly the same as the majority of the population.

5. Guess. If you're still unsure, go with your gut feeling, and prepare for a surprise!

Simple, huh? While I can't promise absolute success -- I've ordered my share of disappointing wines in restaurants -- this method seems to work most of the time. As an example of the successes (You didn't really expect me to list the failures, did you?), all of this month's wines were chosen from restaurant wine lists. Enjoy!

Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc Fall Harvest Martinborough '98 -- This New Zealand white was first reviewed in the May '99 Wines of the Month, and has been holding well over the last year. Nice citrus and mineral aromas. It seems to have lost the slight grassy and herbal character apparent last year. As noted last year, this wine is fairly big and fruity for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which isn't too surprising for a wine from the hot '98 vintage. The palate shows plenty of grapefruit, lemon and apple flavors along with some stony mineral character, but without any overt herbaciousness. Long grapefruit & mineral finish, with refreshing acidity. A good, inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc.

Pascal Jolivet Sancerre '96 -- This Sauvignon Blanc-based wine retails for more than twice as much as the Nobilo, and it's worth the money. Very nice focused, almost piercing. citrus and mineral aromas. Generous flavors of lemon, grapefruit and wet stones along with a touch of rosemary. Finishes long and intense, with more herb, citrus and mineral flavors and thirst-quenching acidity. Elegant and classy.

Monsanto Chianti Classico Reserva '95 -- Expressive nose of black cherry, plum and leather. Sweet black cherry up front is followed by more cherry, leather, plum and earthy flavors. The long finish shows black cherry, plum, leather and a touch of chocolate. Not particlularly acidic for an Italian wine, this seems almost Californian in style. There's plenty of smooth tannin to provide a strong backbone. Exuberant without being overblown, this is a perfect example of a crowd-pleasing restaurant wine.

Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco '96 -- This red, from the Umbria region in Italy, isn't exactly a household name, but if this bottle is an example of what they are producing, it just might become one. It starts off with a huge nose of earth, leather and plum, which leads to intense, concentrated flavors of lush plum, black cherry, earth and leather. Finishes with more of the same lush flavors, along with a hint of tobacco and a touch of acid. An incredible bargain at $38 on a restaurant list. Unfortunately, I've also seen this wine for the same price at retail.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.