John M. Imperiale
Wine X Online Edition
“I’d like to see the wine list,” is the easy part. What to do with the wine list when you get it – that can be troublesome.
You definitely do not want to look clueless as you cluelessly wonder just what a Rossa di Montalcino is, and shouldn’t it be Brunello di Montalcino? That you have heard of! But “Rossa?” Now you are looking perplexed and feeling awkward, and, what the heck, “Bring me a Hess Select.” You know what that is, and it is pretty good.
You can do better than that.
Ordering from a wine list at a fine restaurant is an exciting, fun, educational part of the dining experience.
You just do not want to look foolish (or worse, actually be foolish) doing it.
So, if you can easily recognize a 2003 Marchesi di Barola and know that it is actually worth the $90 they are asking, then you do not need me.
If, on the other hand, you are one of the millions of people (I am guessing here, but I’ll bet that I am right) who regularly pick the second cheapest bottle on the wine list, then this advice is for you.
Wine lists can go from ridiculously small, ten or twenty bottles to choose from, to book-length manuscripts showing every wine ever produced. Regardless, spending more than a few minutes studying the list as if it were the Last Will and Testament of a rich uncle who you are sure left you something is going to annoy everyone. So get to it. Eliminate those out of your price range and make a decision.
Act as if you have been to a restaurant before.
First, do not, under any circumstances, order something because you recognize and like it. If it is a familiar wine to you, then pick some up at your neighborhood liquor store and enjoy it at home. Being out at a nice restaurant should be your opportunity to find a new wine, to broaden your experiences, to learn, to try a vineyard or varietal that you have never had.
But which one?
If you always drink Cabernet Sauvignon, try a Malbec. I did. And now I always drink a Malbec. But next time I am selecting a medium-priced Barbera. If you want a white, Chardonnay is still your best choice for dinner. Save the Sauvignon Blanc for the beach and the Riesling for cheese and crackers, although a dry Riesling can work for chicken or duck – just make sure it says “dry” or “trocken” or it will be your typically sweet Riesling. So ask for a “Trocken Riesling”, especially if you are on a first date and want to impress someone that you can guarantee is easily impressed.
So go with a Chardonnay, but save the Kendall Jackson for your own dining room and order a Burgundy because you are, after all, staring at a wine list!
Here is another simple rule: never try to seem smarter than you are. It does not work. Ever. It never has for me, never will for you. Picking a 2011 Bordeaux because it is a year older than a 2012, so it must be better, will have the sommelier hysterically laughing, behind your back of course, because everyone knows that 2012 was a much better year than 2011. Everyone except you, that is.
Speaking of the sommelier, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking him or her to recommend something. In fact, you always should ask to speak with the sommelier. Why pass up the chance to hear from an expert? Give a price range and an idea of what you are having for dinner, then pay attention! You will get more than a simple recommendation. You should also get some sound reasoning and helpful hints for your future purchases. So listen to the sommelier! Nothing is more brutish than asking for the opinion of a professional and then saying “Never mind. I’ll have the Ruffino.” Also, remember the sommelier gets tipped separately from the wait staff. You want expert advice? Pay for it.
If the restaurant does not have a sommelier, there are many apps that you can look at while sitting at the table with the wine list in hand. But please, don’t. It will probably annoy your dinner companions; certainly annoy the wait staff; and it definitely annoys me to think that anyone uses any “device” when they are supposed to be out for a relaxing evening. Just pick something interesting and enjoy it!
Back to that second cheapest bottle of wine. That’s the one they are pushing. Restaurant management knows that customers do not want to come across like they can’t afford dessert, never mind a bottle of wine. Therefore, no one orders the least expensive bottle of wine. They order the next one on the list. And just like that, the restaurant gets to sell the bottle that probably has the highest profit margin of any product in the known world. Be a little more discriminating than that.
If you are the only one drinking wine, that does not mean you have to say “I’ll have a glass of Chianti” and let it be at that. You should still ask for the wine list and select a glass from one of the finer bottles, if offered. It is a great way to have a wine whose bottle cost more than you would spend. Half-bottles have become a regular staple of the better wine lists. Try one if you think you will have two glasses. So never ask for wine without looking at the list. If you want any old glass of wine, sit at the bar.
Oh, one final thought, when the bottle is brought to your table and a small amount is poured for your review, do not sip or taste it. It is not being given to you to see if you like it. You ordered it. It is yours. The reason for the “pour for your approval” is for you to insure that it has not gone bad – which in a fine restaurant, it never does. Sound confident and just say “I’m sure it is fine.” Or if you must feel snooty, after your sample is poured, lift the glass, smell it, and if it does not smell like it has been left out in a parking lot on a hot summer day, smile, and say “Wonderful.” You will gain the respect of the staff and your dinner guests. Oh, and it’s the right thing to do.
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John M. Imperiale, a retired business executive, is a writer and lecturer on business, politics, and current events. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org