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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In his last column as food critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni offers the following tips for getting the best value in your next fine dining experience:

  1. Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.
  2. Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.
  3. Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.
  4. Choose among the remaining dishes.

Amongst these, the most useful is the number 3 -- avoid truffle oil.  This means, avoid items made with expensive ingredients solely for the purpose of saying that they were made with expensive ingredients.  An analogy in wine would be a winery in California spouting how they used nothing but new Limousin oak barrels, assembled by a master cooper from France on-site.  Yes, French oak has different aromatic properties than American oak, just as truffle oil differs from soybean oil, but one must consider the value of the thing -- is it worth double the price to have the exotic ingredient?

A similar analogy to these can be made with the other two "remove from the list" suggestions.  Analogous to 2, I'd say avoid reserve bottlings.  Generally, there's not that much of a difference in quality, and often the reserve uses oak more aggressively, resulting in a more tannic wine that may be suitable for aging more so than drinking young (note that in some cases -- Rioja comes to mind -- this rule doesn't hold true all the time.  But it's good enough for 90% of the cases you'll find out there).   And, analogous to 1, avoid wines with large, generic appellations (a single state or country is way too varied to have a unique terroir).  You'll likely find inferior juice.

So, in the spirit of Frank Bruni (but not in the sense of "it's the last thing I'll write," hopefully), here's my list of ways to find value on a wine list:

  1. Scratch off everything that has an appellation broader in geographic size than a county (roughly 100 square miles).  Too broad = cheap juice.
  2. Scratch off every "reserve," and first-label wine for wines with multiple labels (Opus, Ch. Margaux, Dominus, etc).  You'll be paying for the privelige anyhow.
  3. If a description fetishizes the labor-and-capital intensive winemaking process, scratch that wine off too (you may have to ask the sommelier for help with this one).  They're trying to justify overpriced wine.
  4. Choose something from what's left.
Following these rules, you won't always get the best pairing you've ever had, but you'll likely not overpay for a wine, either.

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