Choosing A Great Wine -June 2011

by: Amber Cantella

A friend suggests a restaurant and drops the line: “They have a great wine list!” Is that because they have a large selection? Is it because they have gentler pricing? What makes a great wine list for a restaurant?

I personally think a wine list is great if it meets three criteria. One is that it should reflect the cuisine the restaurant features. If there is a fusion of different cooking styles and ethnicities, like most successful restaurants today, then that same variety should be reflected in the wine list. Second is that there should be some depth and variety of vintage. It demonstrates that the owner cares enough to invest back into the wine program and makes for a better overall experience. Finally, the information on the restaurant’s wine list must be correct. Those who know that 2005 was a phenomenal year for French Burgundies will be extremely disappointed if the wine that comes to the table is actually a 2008 vintage.

If these criteria are met and the wines are served at a proper temperature, in proper glassware by a knowledgeable staff, they earn the price-tag. Otherwise, a hefty mark-up is not justified.

Here are my suggestions for navigating a restaurant wine list, no matter the size or variety:

1 } DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Although not always possible, you probably view a restaurant’s menu prior to dining there. You want to know the options and the price-range. You should do the same thing with the wine list. Most restaurants don’t have their complete wine lists online, but on Nantucket you can stop by a restaurant beforehand and ask to peruse the wine list. I strongly warn you not to pre-choose a wine, as it could be out-of-stock or no longer on the list, or simply prevent you from trying a better choice once you have decided on your meal. Look to see if there are a number of options in your price range. Are there a few reputable producers? Did the list win any awards? You will also get to familiarize yourself with the layout.

2 } TAKE YOUR TIME. The whole point of ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant is so that it complements your entire dining experience, so do not rush this aspect of ordering your meal. This is particularly true if you are fine-dining and have a large list to look at. I suggest ordering a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine from the bar to start. It takes the pressure off immediately making a decision. Although many equate Champagne with a special occasion, it is a wine that is extremely food-friendly and pairs well with raw bar, salads, crab cakes and other popular choices for starting off a meal. It also will not ruin your palate, but rather refresh it, if you move on to a contrasting wine.

3 } USE THE SOMMELIER. If you are a wine connoisseur, you can narrow your choices down to a few and then throw in the restaurant professional’s opinion to help you make your final decision. The sommelier will immediately know the style and price-point you are drawn to and should be able to give specific information about which one is drinking better, or a better value, or a better match to your food choices. My favorite is when I get the reply, “If you were considering those, let me point out this one you may have overlooked that I know you will love.” Sold.

4 } USE THE SOMMELIER SOME MORE. If you are more of a novice and do not recognize any of your favorites on the list, say what you normally like to drink. If you tell the sommelier you like Rodney Strong Chardonnay, for example, it speaks volumes about the fuller, richer, toasty and buttery style of white wine you prefer. Therefore, a crisp, fruity Torrontes from Argentina is not going to be suggested to you. You should always be up-front about what price-range you are comfortable with, which can be communicated simply by pointing to some of the prices on the list and saying, “I am looking in this range.” Remember, they often work on commission.

5 } BE OPEN-MINDED. I am a firm believer that you should drink what you like. That being said, you may be missing out on plenty that you would like because of fear of the unknown. While most New World wines are named by the grape, most Old World wines are named by the region. Many do not know that Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are both Sauvignon Blanc. Yet, Pouilly-Fuissé and Meursault are Chardonnay. It is confusing. And while you know what Pinot Noir and Merlot are, you may not be familiar with other grapes. Just come right out and ask, “What is Sangiovese like?” A great way to experiment with a new grape or style of wine is to order from the by-the-glass list or consider ordering a half-bottle if the restaurant offers them.

6 } LET IT BREATHE. When the server brings the bottle of wine to your table and offers you a taste, you are ensuring that there is no fault in the wine, such as having cork taint. Once you have approved that the wine is sound, it is poured. The wine will begin to open up and improve within minutes. It should continue to evolve over the course of your meal, so do not judge too quickly. If the restaurant only offers newer vintages, and you have your heart set on a big wine such as a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, ask for it to be decanted. Old wines are decanted to remove sediment, but a young red wine can greatly benefit by being “punched” into a decanter to accelerate the softening of the tannins by exposing it to more air.

7 } SIP. SAVOR. Wine is meant to be enjoyed, but I often have to hold off a waiter from filling my glass too high or too often. Massachusetts now has a “Doggy-Bag Law” that allows you to bring home your bottle of wine if you are unable to finish it, which may be the case if you took me up on that glass of bubbly to start. 

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