For many people, the process of ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant is uncomfortable at best, debilitating at worst. They see the waiter as more of an adversary than an ally, the ritual as more archaic than helpful and the actual selection of a wine more reminiscent of a calculus problem than an opportunity to begin a fun culinary experience. I’d like to shed a little light on the subject and expose it for the simple exercise in hospitality that it is. Anyone who is sitting in a restaurant ordering wine has certainly, at some point in their life, mastered more difficult tasks.
For the moment, let’s put aside the actual selection of the wine and go through the steps of service. Realize that these steps have been codified over the years to help guests get the exact bottle they want, in good condition, and that’s all. Although some waiters take it upon themselves to add a certain degree of drama to the proceedings, you don’t have to buy into their show unless you are enjoying it. First, tell the waiter your choice. If there is a “bin number” for each wine on the list, use it when ordering, especially if you’re not sure of the pronunciation. There may be half a dozen wines on the list with similar names, but only one with that number. Using it will avoid any confusion. Next the waiter will bring the bottle to the table and show you the label. Take the time to look at it and make sure it’s what you’ve ordered. This is your chance to note that, perhaps it’s a different vintage, or even another wine altogether. If you nod and smile he will open it; and, if it’s not defective it is yours even if the price or product is substantially different from the bottle you picked.
After he opens the bottle, he will put the cork on the table for you to inspect. I have heard rumors about people picking up the cork and staring at it as if some great mystery of the universe might be revealed if they concentrate hard enough, sniffing it more than they will the wine itself or even taking a nibble out of it. Personally, I think the best thing to do with the cork is ignore it. It’s not unusual to have a terrible looking cork come out of a great bottle of wine, or a great looking cork come out of a terrible bottle. By ignoring it, you will encourage the waiter to move on to the next step, which is pouring you a small amount to smell and taste. This is your opportunity to see if the wine is “corked” or not. A wine is corked when, because of a defective cork, it smells musty. It’s not a bad reflection on the restaurant in any way if you get a corked bottle of wine; it’s just a naturally occurring defect in a certain percentage of wine bottles of all qualities. If it does smell and taste musty, tell the waiter it’s corked and, without much fanfare, he should bring you another bottle of the same wine. If you’re not sure, ask him what he or a manager thinks. It’s important to realize that this is not your chance to decide that you don’t like the taste or style of the wine you picked, just to decide if it’s defective or not. After you say that it’s fine, he will pour everyone else at the table who wants it a normal portion, and then return to you to give you yours.
Now for the much more fun part: picking out what you will drink. If you know what you like and don’t mind drinking it all the time, this will be easy. A little boring, but easy. Eating and drinking can be a lot more interesting if you are open to new flavors, sensations and combinations. Depending on the restaurant, a good waiter, sommelier or manager can be a huge help in navigating the wine list. No one will know the wines, food and how they go together better. Give him a price range, let him know what food you are thinking of ordering, and see what he recommends. Once you have developed a good rapport with the Wine Guy (or Gal) in a restaurant, it will be a whole different experience. What if it’s your first time in a particular restaurant and you’re not in a very trusting mood, or you’re just not the type to ever ask for directions of any sort? Here are a few suggestions.
It’s never a bad idea to start with some sparkling wine. Between the pop, bubbles, temperature and alcohol, it’s the perfect announcement to everyone involved that a good time is about to be had by all. Great examples come from California and Champagne, and good wines at a great value come from Spain. Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne is always a treat. It’s crisp and clean, but with just the right hint of buttered toast to make it interesting without being imposing enough to divert it from its role as an aperitif. Retail, it costs about $36. (All prices quoted will be retail). Expect a two to three times markup in a restaurant.
The two basic flavor profiles to consider in white wines are non-oaked Sauvignon Blancs and oaked Chardonnays. They’re both great food wines, but for opposite reasons. The Sauvignon Blancs will mostly come from California (where they are called, easily enough, Sauvignon Blanc) or the Loire Valley in France (where they are called, more cryptically, Sancerre, among other things). These Sauvignon Blancs tend to be high acid, herbaceous wines. They bring out the best in foods by contrasting with the food’s richness or accentuating their brightness. Groth 2002 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($14) is a good example. It has a firm acid backbone and bright citrus fruit. It would be nice with a cold shrimp salad or rich sea bass with an herbed beurre blanc. The oaked Chardonnays will probably come from California or Burgundy. Hess Collection 2000 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($18) has a lovely baked apple nose, rich pear flavors and feels pleasantly full on the palate. It would also be nice with the shrimp and sea bass, and wouldn’t be bad with a filet mignon.
If some of your guests are having red meat, others are having seafood and you want to get just one kind of wine to go with everything, Pinot Noir can be a good compromise. Its typically high acid, moderate tannins and pleasant fruit can often work with a variety of dishes. Try Acacia 2001 Pinot Noir ($18). Its nose is spicy enough with red fruit to appeal to everyone and its tannins and alcohol are warm enough to mitigate the richness of a rib eye without making a grilled salmon taste like old sardines.
Cabernets, Red Burgundies and Red Bordeaux can often be a little pricey in a restaurant, and it’s not a bad idea to have some other, less cost prohibitive choices in mind when dining out. Wines from the Rhône Valley in France are often a great value on a wine list. A simple Côtes du Rhône like the one from Domaine Santa Duc ($14) is often just the ticket to a nice red without breaking the bank. It’s a big wine, with lots of tannins, bright red fruit and a generous dollop of alcohol. What it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in exuberance. In a similar vein, but with more polish, is the Château de la Gardine 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($35). It is also very big, but smooth, rich and velvety, with a beautiful palate of chocolate, concentrated fruits and enough firm tannins and alcohol to get the attention of any dedicated Cab drinker. It would be worth a try even if it wasn’t such a relative bargain.