“I am always a bit overwhelmed buying wine because of the sheer number of choices. I usually just buy whatever has a neat name or a cool label, but I wish my choices weren't so dictated by marketing. It is especially hard when I am buying wine at a restaurant.”
Recently, I have gotten a lot of emails that are centered around picking wine in a restaurant. Choosing wine doesn’t have to be complicated. So I wanted to give you the tools to having the best wine experience.
The dreaded wine list: It is common to be intimidated, confused or overwhelmed by it. Here is a tip: Take your time. There is no rush in choosing a wine, especially if it is for a special occasion. Don’t let the server or sommelier rush you. However, do use them as a resource. It is our job as sommeliers to help you understand and pick out wine. We look at it as an adventure to find out what you like. Ultimately, the experience is about your evening at our restaurant, and we want to make you happy.
What I do when I look at a wine list is first decide whether I want to drink wine to pair with the food or just to enjoy. If I want to pair my food with wine, I look for the appropriate style of wine that would best suit the dish. If I just want to enjoy a nice bottle of wine, then I decide whether I am in the mood for white or red. Then, I decide what type of grape variety I want (cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrah, etc.). If I do not know what type of grape I want, I tell the sommelier or server what style of body (light- to full-bodied) and flavor profile (fruity or earthy) I'm in the mood for. This can really help the server or sommelier out a lot when narrowing down the list.
If I don’t know at all what I want to drink that night, I tell the server or sommelier what I typically drink. There are a lot of wine descriptors out there that are confusing and can be misconstrued through the "grapevine," which is why it is best to just tell them what you typically enjoy. They will either find you that exact type of wine, or they will take those flavors and introduce you to something new that you will like. This is where the adventure lies for me, and I like the challenge.
The wine list
If all else fails, here is how you navigate the wine list. Champagnes and sparkling wines start at the top and are typically in order of price or body style. As you scan farther down the page, you will see white wines and then reds. They will either be in order of price, body style, grape variety or any combination of the three.
However, there is a trap waiting for you when you scroll through the cheaper bottles. The second-cheapest bottle of wine is probably a not-so-good wine. Restaurants realize that insecure customers pick the second-cheapest bottle of wine to hide their lack of knowledge. So they put a bottle that is cheap and will give them the highest profit margin in that slot. This is not always true for every restaurant, but I just want you to know the facts. If cheaper is where you want to stay, then the two most recent vintages are best.
Please feel free to email me if you have any questions about the wine list or wine in general.
Michelle Richards is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along with hosting wine tastings for local organizations, she serves up wine goodness at St. John’s Restaurant. Your can contact her by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.