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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - May 4, 2005
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected]  Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel


Wine & Dine

Ordering wine in a fine restaurant can be intimidating and confusing to say the least.  Perusing a typical wine list can be as daunting as the instructions of a do-it-yourself project.  There are three variables that may work for or against you when ordering wine in a restaurant:  the wine list itself, the restaurant staff, and your own level of expertise.

     The key elements of a wine list are the extent of its selections, the manner in which it’s organized, and the prices.  Generally speaking, the fancier and more expensive the establishment, the larger the wine list. While a more comprehensive list provides greater choices, it simultaneously offers greater confusion. Instead of there being one Chianti in your price range, now there are seven.  Which one do you choose? Suddenly price alone is not an effective discriminator. This is where your own expertise, or if you’re not that savvy about wine, your willingness to seek guidance from the staff comes into play.

     How the list is organized will determine its user-friendliness. Most lists are first divided into red and white wines. If the list is more extensive there may also be sections for champagnes, dessert wines, or ports.  Unless it’s a small list, the red and white sections will be further subdivided into countries, e.g., American reds, American whites, French reds, French whites, etc.

     A thorough list should contain: 1) the name of each wine and/or the producer, 2) the vintage, and 3) the price. The name of the wine and who produced it are not always one in the same.  French wines for example are often named after where they are made, not who made them.  The wine list may contain a Pommard, (a specific village in Burgundy), but any of hundreds of producers, with varying degrees of skill, could have made the actual wine.  If the list omits the producer’s name your ability to make an informed decision has been curtailed.  This is assuming of course, that you are knowledgeable about some of the more reliable producers.

     I’ve never encountered a wine list that did not have prices, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen them without vintages.  Just last night I had dinner in an upscale Italian restaurant where the wine list was devoid of vintages, (and the server equally devoid of knowledge about vintages).  I find this unfathomable.  The year the wine was made is one of the fundamental elements in discerning its quality, especially for European wines. There can be significant differences in quality from one year to the next.  If you’re interested in learning more about wine it will behoove you to know the recent vintages. 

     The last aspect of the wine list is price.  Expect to pay two to three times the store price for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.  Dissolve yourself of the fear of looking cheap. Never succumb to spending more than you planned due to the staff’s persuasions. If you ask the server for a recommendation, inform him or her of your price range.

If you’re lucky, the wine list may contain a small description of each wine but this is not standard practice.  Thus, if you desire more information about a specific wine, maybe you’re unfamiliar with the good producers or vintages, or you’re trying to choose from one of those seven Chiantis, you are now at the mercy of the restaurant staff. 
     Top of the line restaurants will have a sommelier (saw-muh-LYAY), the resident wine expert.  If you’re dining at such an establishment, then you’ll be in good hands. Sommeliers are not only skilled in wine but customer service. A good sommelier will never intimidate you but make every effort to match you with the right wine based on your needs.  Seek their assistance without hesitation.

     However, few of us are dining in four-star French restaurants on a regular basis.  If you need guidance at your standard eatery it’s a crapshoot.  Your server may not be any more knowledgeable about wine than you but you should still ask.  Many people are leery of soliciting advice for fear of looking ignorant about wine. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to be a wine expert just because you want to go out for dinner. You’re the customer, you’re paying the bill, and you have a right to seek information.
     Then of course, is the ritual of the wine presentation. Your server will first display the bottle to you.  This is for you to ensure you received the wine you ordered. Don’t just nod your head. Check the bottle.  I have been served the wrong wine or the wrong vintage on more than one occasion.

     Next, you’ll be presented with the cork.  This is for you to inspect it to determine whether the cork is good.  About 5% of wines have corks that have become infected with a mold. When this is the case the wine is said to be “corked” or “corky.” You’ll know because the cork will have an unmistakably moldy smell, like wet cardboard.  Naturally this affects the wine.  If the cork does not smell like wine, but has any off aromas, send the bottle back.   

     The final step is tasting the small sample the waiter pours into your glass. This is your last chance to determine the wine’s quality.  The degree to which you care for the wine will vary on your personal taste, but if it tastes bad, genuinely bad, as if something is wrong with it, send it back.

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