Learning about wine is a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes work. And like any relationship, it’s often important to look good in a restaurant.
(Yes, I’ll retire this lead eventually.)
Dealing with wine in a restaurant can be intimidating, even if you think you know what you’re doing. What follow are tips that may help navigating your next experience a little less daunting.
Restaurant tip #1: If the restaurant has a wine steward, listen to him. Also known as sommeliers (pronounced sahm-ell-yaze), these are the professionals, the people whose entire job is to create, manage and tell you about the wine list. They almost always know what they’re doing, and they’re usually trustworthy. If you’re at a restaurant you think might have a wine steward (think “expensive”), ask the waiter if you can talk to him. His recommendations will usually be good, and he might encourage you to order something you wouldn’t have thought of.
Restaurant tip #2: Staying in your price range. Once you know approximately how much you want to spend and whether you want red or white (if you want pink, you’re probably not reading this column), call over the wine steward (or waiter, but more on that below) and point to some of the wines in your price range. Ask him for his recommendation, saying something like, “I’d like something around here.” As you say this, point to the prices you’re willing to pay. Most wine stewards will take the hint and recommend a wine in that range. If he doesn’t — and this may happen — don’t be intimidated. Say, “Well, that’s great, but I’d really like to stay around here.” He generally won’t try it again. (If he says that he can’t really recommend anything in that price range, which he rarely will, and if you’re feeling sassy, which I often am, you might ask, “Then why is it on the list?” There’s no good response to that.)
If you want to give him more information, tell him what you usually drink — cabernet, merlot, Chianti — and whether you’re willing to experiment (a bad idea on first dates or job interviews, but a good idea if you have a willing partner).
And one last price tip I picked up from the Wall Street Journal’s wine writers: Restaurant owners will often price the wine they buy cheapest at wholesale as the second cheapest wine on the menu. Why? Because people generally don’t order the cheapest wine and thus often turn to the second cheapest. Price that one higher, and you get a bigger marginal profit. Presto — restauranteur as microeconomist!
Restaurant tip #3: How to know when the waiter knows nothing. If there’s no wine steward, you have two choices: yourself or the waiter.
If you’ve decided to go it alone, you can usually give yourself about five minutes to look over the list before people start to stare. (Occasionally I take more than that, by which time my date’s usually flirting with the bartender, or worse.) At that point, you should either take your best shot — remembering to use good vintages as “cheats” — or ask the waiter.
If you decide to go with the waiter, don’t ask if he thinks a wine is good. Instead, ask if he has tasted the wine. If he says yes, ask what he thought of it. If he says it was “smooth” or “fruity,” he knows nothing. Period. Those are essentially meaningless words that people who don’t know wine use to sound like they do. While both are fine when paired with other descriptions, used alone they are a litmus test for bluffing.
Restaurant tip #4: What to do when the bottle comes. This is the most intimidating part of the process and where the real test begins. The key is to relax and not take it too seriously.
First, the waiter will present the bottle. You should quickly check the label to make sure it’s the wine you ordered; sometimes the vintage will be wrong, for example, or the waiter will just have selected the wrong wine. Both have happened to me. If it is the right one, simply nod and say “Yep” (or “Boo-ya,” if that’s more your speed). If it’s the wrong wine, just say so.
The waiter will then open the bottle and “present the cork.” Do not sniff it. It just smells like cork. You could fondle it, if you’re into that sort of thing, but otherwise just ignore it. (One exception: If you see that it’s soaked through with wine, that’s generally not good, as it means air probably got into the wine and could have ruined it. More on that below.)
Next, the waiter will pour a little of the wine into your glass. Here’s where the real challenge begins. You have three options: smell, taste or swirl/smell/taste. I usually just smell it to make sure it’s not corked (corked wine smells musty, like old cardboard or yesterday’s gym socks) or turned to vinegar (which smells like vinegar). If your nose is stuffed or you don’t trust it, just take a big sip of the wine — enough to really taste it.
Unless you’re trying to impress someone, don’t swirl. It looks pretentious and is best left to wine geeks and people who read “Cigar Aficionado.” (Swirling does help release a wine’s aromatics, and you might want to do it later in the meal; at the tasting stage, however, it just looks like you’re trying too hard. Consider it the wine-drinking equivalent of pulling out her chair at the table.)
Restaurant tip #5: What to do if you think the wine’s flawed. If you think the wine might be corked, tell the person who poured it. If there’s a wine steward, he will usually come over and taste it. If it’s flawed, he’ll replace it immediately. If it’s not, he’ll tell you — at which point, unless you’re sure he’s wrong, you should just drink it. Given that roughly one in every 12 bottles of wine today is corked, this will eventually happen to you, and you shouldn’t drink bad wine just because you’re nervous about saying something.
Because drinking took a back seat to working this time around (I know, I know, some things are more important than working, so lay off), only three bottles to report on.
First is the 1999 Falesco Vitiano, which I bought at Marty’s for $11.99. It’s more well-rounded and less “tight” than the 2000, which is probably due to an extra year in the bottle. (If you think that’s fancy math, you should see me divide by two!) In short, a fantastic wine at a great price. If you like red wine, you’ll like this wine.
Next came the Chateau Grande Cassagne “G.S.” La Civette 2000 (got all that?), which I bought at the Wine & Cheese Cask for $8.99. A simple, juicy red, it’s a good buy that tastes almost like a baby Zinfandel.
Finally, there’s the Agricola de Borja Borsao 2000, which I bought for the absurdly low price of $4.99 at the Wine & Cheese Cask. While it’s rougher — more rustic — than the previous wine, it’s got guts — a rough-hewn, candied sweetness that’s fun to roll around in your mouth. (Yes, I drink alone.)