Tuesday, July 22, 2008

You Have the Wine List, Now What?

You have reservations at a new four-star restaurant. Your boss/mother-in-law/client is duly impressed. Then the maitre d’ hands you a wine list that weighs 20 pounds and looks likes an unabridged dictionary. “Would you care to order the wine now?” he asks. Your spouse/family/colleagues are staring at you in absolute silence. In fact, it seems as if the whole restaurant is waiting for you to order.

Now what?
Do you just go ahead and order the most expensive bottle on the list (something like “Screaming Ego”)? Or do you close your eyes and throw a mental dart at the list? Do you ask for advice? And if you do ask, will the waiter use this as a chance to unload that overpriced bottle that’s been gathering dust in the cellar? What if you never heard of any of them? Is Macon Lugny red or white? And Dolcetto d’Alba-- isn’t that an opera you once dozed through? Will everyone think you’re a wimp if you play it safe and order a martini, a beer or a soda?

You don’t have to be a novice to have problems ordering wine. Many of us who know quite a bit about wine, have had less than optimum experiences with restaurant wine lists. So, the next time you’re handed the wine list keep these things in mind:

Plan Ahead.
If this is an important business or personal dinner, ask to speak with the manager or sommelier to discuss your dinner plan when you make the reservation. Even better, call ahead and get a copy of the wine list faxed to you, or get there ten minutes early so you can read the list. Also, some restaurants now have their wine list posted on their website, so you can get an idea of what to order.

Ask for the wine list and menu at the same time, so you can pair the wine with the food. You can always order a bottle of mineral water and ask if anyone at the table would like a cocktail while you take the time to look over the list and menu. If there are four or more people, you will need two or more bottles of wine--figure on a half bottle per person. Many restaurants have a respectable list of half bottles as well, so that you can order a half bottle of white for that one person who insists on ordering flounder in a steak house. Or order an interesting wine by the glass as an aperitif and, if you like it, order a bottle. But be careful about wine by the glass. The bottle could have been opened two weeks ago. Ask the server if he would kindly open a fresh bottle for you.

Forget about the old rules of red wine with meat and white wine with fish. Today, people often drink lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Merlot with salmon, tuna, swordfish and other meaty fishes. If you are having the Seared Hawaiian Ahi, you could order Chardonnay or Pinot Noir and either one would be a great choice. On the other hand, you can also drink white with meat dishes. Big, buttery, oaky California Chardonnays can easily stand up to a veal chop (and maybe even to a steak!)

Consider how the food is prepared
Plain grilled chicken is very different from grilled chicken smothered in chile-jerk-chipotle sauce. So, rather than simply pair the wine with the main ingredient, you should pair the wine with the sauce, seasoning or dominant flavor of the dish. At Roy’s in Newport Beach, while you might order a rich, ripe California Zinfandel blend, such as Ridge Three Valleys, with your Slow Braised and Charbroiled Short Rib entree, you would do well with a glass of Trimbach’s Pinot Blanc from Alsace with your Shrimp on a Stick with Wasabi appetizer.

Remember that wine drunk by itself tastes different than it does with food. Wine acts on food, similar to the way a spice does, and the fats, proteins and sugars in food change the taste of the wine. The most important thing to remember is the goal of synergy and balance. The wine shouldn't overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine.

Go with the restaurant’s theme.

If 90% of the wine list is Italian, don’t order that one bottle of California wine they’ve stuck in at the end. One good rule of thumb is to think of geography—try pairing German Pork Schnitzel with German Riesling, Pacific Salmon with Oregon Pinot Noir.

Drink wines proportionate in quality to the food you are eating.
Don’t order the priciest bottle on the wine list and, unless you really know value wines, you should stay away from the least expensive. Drink an inexpensive red with pizza and burgers and a great red with a great steak.

Try a slightly sweet (off-dry) wine to cool off spicy food.
Sweetness in a wine takes the edge off spice, so slightly sweet wines go well with Thai, Mexican and Indian foods. Drinking water only circulates the spice and makes it worse. To cool off your spicy Ceviche appetizer of Shrimp, Scallops and Calamari with Serrano Chile, try German Riesling.

Stick to the names you can pronounce.

A slightly tipsy business acquaintance of mine once had a whole table of people laughing when he ordered another bottle of “Pinot Gringo” when he meant to say Pinot Grigio. And at an upscale Italian restaurant, the sommelier worked hard to keep a straight face when an executive was trying to remember the name of a wine that he had previously enjoyed. “Bolero,” he shouted, “that’s it,” when he meant to say “Barolo.” But if you do know how to pronounce the names some of the really obscure wines, you can get a great value and a great tasting experience. At many restaurants the best bargains on the list are often the wines that are hardest to pronounce. So, by all means, order a Gewurztraminer or Aglianico del Vulture if you can pronounce them!

Pairing wine and food is a highly subjective process.

If you see a bottle of wine on the list that you had before and loved, order it. Unless your choice is a totally of the charts (like tannic red with Dover sole), your enthusiasm for the wine will transcend all the rules!

Also, remember that you’re drinking wine, not scores. Just because a famous wine critic bestows 92 points or five stars on a wine does not mean that you will like it. Use scores as a reference point only.

Experiment with different varietals when you are by yourself.

We all love our fruit-laden California Cabernet Sauvignons and our delicious, rich Chardonnays, but try a big, brawny Petite Sirah with a steak or a fragrant Viognier with your sushi.

Don’t be intimidated by the sommelier or wine waiter
Fortunately, the days of the sneering older gentleman with and a huge wine list and a silver “tastevin” hanging from his neck are gone. Today, you are likely to see a woman or a young person as your wine server. These highly trained servers are passionate about wine and want to please you. So the wine waiter can be your ally. Really wine savvy people take their time and ask questions, like, “is the 2002 a better vintage than the 2003?” Discuss what you like or don’t like and, unless you are trying to impress someone, mention your price category. If the sommelier recommends a wine that you really enjoyed, a small additional gratuity is a nice gesture.

If you ask the waitstaff for advice, narrow your choices down first.
Then ask the server at “which would you prefer wit the Veal Porterhouse, Truffled Mashed Potato and Cipollini Onions, the Merlot or the Pinot Noir?” Some restaurants take the work out of ordering wine by offering tasting menus paired with wine for each course. These well thought out menus and pairings make for an interesting meal.

Finally, don’t worry about “wine speak.”

This language was invented by insecure wine experts who want to show that they know more about wine than everyone else. Making wine may involve science, but drinking wine is art appreciation!

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