Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Navagating a restaurant's wine list

A bottle of wine is often about celebrating; even if someone's not a regular wine drinker, they're likely to open a bottle for Valentines, or a birthday, or a promotion at work, or other special occasion (even if that occasion is called, as it often is in my household, "Tuesday").  Often, celebrating involves going out to a restaurant, so the wine may come from the wine list.

Some tips for working with a wine list:
  • If you don't know, ask!  Your waiter may know if 1998 was a good year for Brunello, or the wine steward/sommelier may be able to help if you don't know the grape types typical of the Douro.  
  • Be willing to shop by price and region, rather than by name, as paying for a name brand wine means paying a serious surcharge for the name's recognition; I was out at lunch the other day and looked at the wine list, where they had Silver Oak Napa Cabernet 2004 for $250.  The list in my local wine store is $90.  You may find a hidden gem with an unusual appellation, or as-yet-unheard-of label. 
  • The third-least expensive bottle on the menu is often the hidden gem.  Why?  Nobody orders the least expensive, it looks cheap.  The second-least expensive wine is the high profit margin wine (as nobody orders the least expensive), so it'll likely be something ever-so-slightly sweet and inoffensive; you see a lot of critter labels as the second-least expensive.  Third from the bottom is where, often, a restaurant will place good wines nobody's ever heard of.
  • Expect to pay more than you would in a retail setting -- the standard markup should be about 50%-100%.  Guess what?  Your local wine store probably gets a quantity discount from their distributors.  Your local restaurant probably gets wine in one and two case lots, so no discount.  Additionally, you're partly paying for the labor -- your waiter should be on hand to keep your glass full, so you may never actually touch the bottle!
Now, when you order wine, there's a specific routine that most places go through:
  1. The bottle will be presented for your inspection.  Look to see that you got what you ordered -- you would be surprised, I've been presented Belleau Vineyards Coastal Estates Cabernet 2005, when I ordered Belleau Vineyards Rutherford Caberent 2004.  That's getting a (retail value) $9 bottle in place of a $20 bottle.  So check the wine's appellation and vintage.  If it's not what you ordered, politely point it out and ask for the correct bottle.  At this time, also look to see if the label is stained, as that may be an indicator of a problem in stage 2 or 3 (see below).
  2. Then the cork will be removed and presented for your inspection.  Do not sniff the cork. Trust me, if the wine has gone to vinegar, you'll smell it without having to sniff the cork!  The cork is presented so you can see that there's been no leakage -- look up the sides of the cork, to see if there's any staining beyond the bottom 1/3 or so. 
  3. Next, a tasting pour will be poured out.  Taste the wine.  Look for aroma and flavors that indicate problems with the wine.  Does it taste like cardboard, or a musty basement?  It might be corked.  Is there sediment?  Request a decanter.  Not cool enough, if the wine is red (remember, serve your reds slightly chilled!)?  Ask for an ice bucket.
At any point during this, if the wine doesn't meet your expectations, this is when you have the sommelier come over to see what can be done.  The sommelier may taste the wine as well, if you find a fault with the bottle once it's opened, and will agree with your assessment.  Trust me, they'll agree, unless the wine is irreplaceable; they would rather replace a bottle for a happy customer than deal with an unhappy one.  If it's not faulted... well, the staff drink well that evening.  And that, my friends, is why the markup is 50%-100%; many folks call a wine "faulted" simply because they don't want to say "I just don't like it."  So, knowing that, be willing to take a suggestion from the sommelier if you find the wine is faulted; it may be that you didn't know you don't like Retsina, and yes, it is supposed to taste like pine tar.

Now, you don't have to limit yourself to the wine list.  You can, local laws permitting, often bring a special bottle of your own and pay a "corkage fee."  Basically, you give the restaurant $10 to $30 for the right to have their staff serve it to you.  You replace some of their markup, and get to have that bottle you've been saving for a special occasion.  Just remember a couple things regarding corkage:
  • Call ahead to make sure it's OK.  Where it's legal, most restaurants allow the practice, but some don't.  Find out what rules they have (often it's as simple as the wine not be found on their wine list).  If you have a specific bottle you're thinking of bringing, tell them so.
  • Don't show up with a grocery store wine in a store bag, and in the name of all that's holy, take off the price sticker.  That's just tacky.  Corkage is supposed to be so that you can bring a special bottle -- that one you brought home from California when you were there last year, not a bottle you pick up at the grocery on the way to the restaurant!
  • Offer a sip of the wine to the waiter and the wine steward; who knows, you might encourage them to get your wine on their menu that way!  Additionally, if you dine there regularly, this will give them a better feel as to what you like, making their recommendations for you all the better.
  • If the wine is bad, c'est la vie.  The only way the restaurant will do anything if there's a problem is if their staff screws up (dropping the bottle, for example)...  And don't expect a refund, just an attempt at replacement-in-kind.
  • Tip well, not just on the cost of the meal and corkage.  The waiter did all the same work as if you got the wine at the restaurant, so acknowledge that.

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