Friday, March 23, 2007

Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Nothing brings on an anxiety attack quite like taking someone we’d like to impress -- significant other, family, friend, in-laws, business client, or boss -- out to dine and being presented with an inch-thick wine list by a snooty wine steward (called in French a sommelier). As all eyes turn to you, and an expectant silence settles over the table, it can be enough to induce indigestion before the meal even starts. But it doesn’t have to be such a gut-wrenching experience. In what follows I’ll try to offer some
suggestions I hope will help you deal with the situation smoothly, if not avoid anxiety altogether.

Rule 1: Above all else keep firmly in mind that you are the customer. You are the boss. You are in charge. Don’t ever allow yourself to be intimidated or railroaded into something with which you’re not comfortable. Because wine prices in a restaurant are in general two to three times higher than in a retail wine shop, you can never expect to find the same kind of bargains and this makes it all the more important to select wisely. For most of us price is in fact an object, and plays a role in our overall enjoyment. It’s hard to enjoy a meal if you just spent next month’s rent on a bottle of wine you’re not sure about.

Rule 2: Ask questions, lots and lots of questions if necessary; and, in line with our first rule, make sure to ask them in a firm and decisive way. If you are being served by a professional wine steward, he or she should have answers to all your queries. If you’re dealing with an inexperienced wait-person, ask to see in advance any bottles you might be considering. Look at both the front and back labels, as these will often tell you all you need to know.

So, what do you need to know? What questions should you ask?

The first thing you’ll want to know is something the wine steward can’t answer: what are your guests planning to order -- fish, red meat, the vegetarian plate -- and in general what kind of wines do they like? Never order the wine until you have some answers to these questions. If you’re with a large group, it’s likely the range of foods and methods of preparation will be so large it will be impossible to select a single wine to go with everything. You’ll be forced into choosing a bland, middle- of-the-road style of wine or else ordering several types. If the restaurant offers wine by the glass, this could solve your problem. If the boss is part of the group, and you really need that raise, then you might what to select what will go best with what he or she is having. Fortunately you always have the option of ordering something for yourself that goes well with whatever wine you pick. If others in the group are savvy, they can do the same thing.

Once you have some idea of what folks will be eating and what kind of wine they like – white, red, sweet, dry – you can begin asking questions of the wine steward and working your way through the list. Keep in mind that in general you want to match the wine type to the food type, i.e., high-acid wines with acidic dishes, light wines with light fare, robust wines with heavy or meaty foods, and sweet wines with sweet ingredients. A good wine steward, knowing what has been ordered, can be of great help in steering you towards wines that will work with your meal, so listen to what he or she has to say and communicate to them any limits of price or style you might have in mind. Again, you are the customer, and the wine steward is there to meet your needs not the other way round. I’ve actually seen people select a wine to impress the wine steward, and that to me is foolish.

If you’ve been following earlier posts, you know what grape variety, geography, and alcohol content can tell you about a wine. These are the three essential things you need to know about a wine: what is it made from (grape variety), where was it made (climate conditions), and how was it made (degree of exposure to oak being perhaps most important). If you have not read earlier post, I encourage you to do so.

So ask about these. If you’re not sure what grape is involved in a wine, ask. If the wine is one made from a blend of grapes, like a Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja, ask what grapes were used and in what proportions. Ask about the gowning region and conditions, in particular if it is a cool or warm environment. Finally, ask the alcohol level, because, even with the same grapes from the same region, there is a world of difference between a wine of 11.5% and one of 13.5% alcohol.

If you want to take things to a more detailed level, ask if the wine was fermented in stainless steel vats or in wood barrels. Ask if it was aged in oak and, if so, for how long? From my post on what oak does to wine, you appreciate what a critical impact it can have on taste. You might also ask if the wine underwent secondary fermentation, as this will tell you what kind of acidity to expect and if the wine will have a “round” or sharp edge to it.

Now for some specific hints I hope will prove useful.

Hint 1: If the restaurant boasts a “house wine,” especially if it is a high- end establishment, or one in Europe, there is an excellent chance it will be both good and a good deal. In essence the restaurant is staking its name and reputation on their selections, so it’s a good bet they’ve put careful thought into whatever it is they are serving. If there is ever a chance of finding bargains in restaurant wine, the house wine, or house selection, is where you’ll discover them.

Hint 2: If you are dining in a particular region, or are having regional cuisine, select wines from that country or specific area. Food and wine from a given locale tend to go well together. Generations of experiment and experience result in natural harmonies of taste, ones that can be quite unique, surprising, and delightful. If a regional restaurant offers regional house wines, all the better.

Hint 3: Ask the wine steward if there’s a “little” Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cabernet, what-have-you, that is “drinking particularly well.” By using the word “little” you are signaling that you’re not interested in a high- end or expensive wine, but a moderately priced one that is mature and tastes good right now. A common mistake is to order a wine that’s too young. It might be great in several years, but right now it’s harsh and closed-in.

Hint 4: Don’t hesitate to ask the wine steward or wait-person what it is he or she drinks, or would select, to go with the meal. Usually they can not afford to have great wines regularly, so they have discovered good ones that will not break the bank. They are also, or should be, familiar with how a particular dish is prepared and tastes, so they have an idea of what would go best with it. You’d be surprised at how happy they are to share their discoveries.

Hint 5: These days many restaurants post their wine list online. This gives you an excellent opportunity to check out prices and do a little homework. You can come prepared with questions and with a general idea of what’s available and what you might do if your partner orders the grilled fish rather than the roasted lamb.

Finally, make sure the wine is served properly, meaning first and foremost, at the right temperature. In general red wines should not be served above 68 degrees or whites below 50 degrees. Unfortunately, most restaurant’s are not as careful as they should be when it comes to storing wine. They often keep it near the kitchen, or in a refrigerator, which means it will be either too warm or too cold. Don’t hesitate to ask that a red wine be placed in an ice bucket if it’s too warm, or take a white one out of the bucket if it’s too cold.

If you’ve ordered a young red wine, or an old one with sediment, ask to have it decanted. The French have a saying that young wines demand it and old wines deserve it. In the case of a young wine, it will help soften its harsher aspects and open up its flavors and smells. Merely opening a bottle and letting it “breath” will not effectively aerate a wine or soften its tannin -- it must be decanted. Old wines deserve decanting because otherwise the deposit at the bottom a bottle can easily become mixed up with the wine as it is poured, turning it cloudy and giving it a bitter and gritty taste. It took years and years for the deposit to form as tannin and other unwanted elements settled out of the wine, so to mix it all back up again is a great disservice to the wine and a waste of your money.

My experience has been that in the general conviviality of a good meal with friends, family, or even business acquaintances, no one much notices how well or poorly the marriage of food and wine works. This is especially true if there has been several rounds of before-dinner drinks, and becomes progressively more true as the wine is consumed. So my advice is relax and enjoy yourself. Certainly it’s well worth doing your best to select a good wine that will comport well with the meal – after all, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t care – but don’t let the responsibility overwhelm you or detract from your own pleasure in the company and meal. If no one compliments your selection, don’t worry. If there is no wine remaining at the end of the evening, you’ll know you did well. If the boss gives you a wink and a nod, I’d order a round of after-dinner Cognac to celebrate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You have done it again! A home run. My only problem is that I need to print out this blog and keep it in my wallet so I can read it several times before I go into a restaurant. You've given great advice, but with one exception. What if, instead of the "boss" I'm trying to impress, I am with a beautiful lady who I know knows something about wine? This is our first date, and I also know that she is watching to see how I handle this tricky situation. My goodness, I'm getting sweating palms just thinking about the situation. As usual, you'll have some cool advice, drawing as you will, no dount on your vast experience of such incidents.