Selecting Wine in a Restaurant

It is the part of restaurant dining that most people dread. You are with a group of colleagues or friends, or perhaps on a special date. The conversation is flowing, everyone is relaxed and having a good time. Then, the waiter gives you the wine list. As though selecting a wine were not difficult enough as things stand, restaurants have made navigating the wine list more difficult by a lack of consistency in its organization. Sometimes the wines are arranged in a traditional fashion by regions, while other lists arrange the wines by style or grape variety, mixing white Burgundies with California Chardonnay since they are made from the same grape. To make matters worse, most lists are certainly not priced in a way that encourages experimentation.

If all restaurants approached wine the way Disney does at their Napa Rose restaurant in Anaheim or their California Grill atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Orlando, ordering wine in a restaurant would be painless and educational. At those establishments, the staff encourages customers to taste any or all of the scores of wines they offer by the glass to help decide what to order with dinner. They realize that the wholesale cost of the wine is insignificant compared to the value of pleasing and keeping a customer.

Until that attitude moves nationwide, diners will have to rely on broad guidelines and general advice to help them through what can be an ordeal.

Upscale Restaurants

In upscale restaurants that emphasize wine, I’d advise you to ask the waiter or sommelier for assistance. True sommeliers, as in France, are responsible for every stage of restaurant wine service, from buying to pouring. They select the wines for the restaurant by tasting hundreds of bottles supplied by distributors or by visiting wineries directly. They decide which wines can be put on the list immediately and which need to be cellared for service in the future. And, of course, they advise diners. In the United States, sommeliers typically have less responsibility because wine is a less important component of the meal and few American restaurants buy wine to cellar themselves. A few Boston sommeliers, such as Jeannie Rodgers at Il Capriccio in Waltham and Cat Silirie at No 9 Park in Boston, while not going to the lengths of their European counterparts, find treasures for their lists that are not widely available in the retail market.

In other wine savvy restaurants, a sommelier or someone on the staff has tasted and selected all the wines on the list based on what they like and what they feel goes with their food. The typical restaurant wine buyer has endless opportunities to sample hundreds of wines from which to construct a list. Rely on his or her advice. Many consumers still have a cynicism regarding wine recommendations in a restaurant, as if the staff is “pushing” a particular item. While some producers, wholesalers or distributors may offer incentives to restaurants to sell a particular wine once it is on the list, the fact remains that most restaurateurs do not buy items they do not like, regardless of the incentives that may be offered.

Ask the person who gives you the wine list if the restaurant has a sommelier or someone who can advise you about selecting a wine. Voice your preference for red or white or inform the sommelier what your table has ordered. Do not be shy or embarrassed about your preference regarding price. Suggest a price either verbally or by pointing to the right hand column of the list and saying, “what can you suggest in this range?” If you do not suggest a price range, a good waiter or sommelier should offer a couple of suggestions in different price ranges, according to several Boston sommeliers.

Apstein’s Crib Sheet

Ordering wine is more difficult at a restaurant where wine is not a priority and the wait staff knows no more about it than you do. You are truly on your own. Here are the general characteristics of the most important wines to assist you in selecting one with dinner. Since the French generally label wines by where the grapes are grown instead of the name of the grape, important place names where that grape is grown are in parenthesis.

White Wines

Chardonnay (white Burgundy including Chablis, Macon-Villages and Pouilly Fuissé): Creamy, rich, and suave, Chardonnay is a good choice for unadorned seafood, or any fish, chicken, and veal preparations that emphasize butter or cream. California Chardonnays tend to be fuller and riper than their French counterparts. Their familiarity and popularity adds to the price.

Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre and Pouilly Fume): The hallmark of Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes simply called Sauvignon, especially in Italy) is a pleasantly piercing citric character that makes it perfect for spicy or highly flavored dishes. While a touch of coriander or hot chili in a dish obliterates Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, especially from New Zealand or South Africa, can take the heat. These are ideal wines for Asian influenced cuisine or dishes with lots of different flavors.

Riesling: Riesling from Alsace in eastern France (where they do put the grape name on the label) or Australia is like my father’s rosé: it goes with anything (only in this case, it is true). Many consumers overlook Riesling because of a fear it will be sweet. Most from California and Germany are indeed sweet, but not so for ones from Alsace or Australia. An extremely versatile wine, dry Riesling has a mineral quality and bracing acidity which makes it excellent throughout a meal. The classic match for pork, it is also excellent with all types of fowl, from chicken to goose.

Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux): Intense black fruit flavors typically with an attractive hard edge makes Cabernet Sauvignon a good foil for the fat infused, succulent flavors of beef or lamb.

Merlot (Bordeaux): Softer edges make Merlot more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, but for practical purposes, it can be used interchangeably at the dinner table. Most Bordeaux is blend of the two grapes and is usually less intense than the Australian or Californian versions of either.

Pinot Noir (red Burgundy): Pinot Noir can be a heavenly wine. Deceptively light, it explodes with bright cherry and strawberry-like flavors, without the astringency typical of most red grapes. It is versatile, equally at home with beef (as in boeuf bourguignon), duck, roast chicken, or even grilled salmon. Just check the credit limit on your card before you order. They are never inexpensive.

Syrah or Shiraz (Rhone wines such as Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Hermitage): Most Californians call these Syrah while the Aussies call them Shiraz. In either case, they are spicy, full-flavored wines that insist on robust foods, such as stews, casseroles, and other winter fare. Like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, they also are a good choice for beef or lamb.

Italian Food

Since Italian restaurants play such a large role in dining out for Americans, they deserve a category of their own. Despite the potentially confusing labeling (the Italians use both place and grape names for their wines), opt for Italian wines whenever dining in Italian restaurants. Their hallmark, naturally high acidity, cuts the oil and garlic flavors indigenous to the cuisine. For whites, in addition to the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, try Vermentino or Sauvignon (all grape names). They are clean, light-bodied refreshing whites that are lovely with seafood. The choice of reds to accompany pasta, meat, and even fish in a tomato-based sauce, is virtually limitless. It is hard to go wrong with Chianti (a place) and its bright cherry-like flavors devoid of sticky tannins, a silky Valpolicella (a place), or a spicier Barbera (a grape).

Concluding Advice

Take advantage of a producer’s consistency and style. If you have enjoyed a Mondavi Chardonnay in the past, but the meal calls for a red wine, you will probably be pleased with one of the winery’s Cabernets or Merlots. Similarly, if you remember fondly a humble Beaujolais by Louis Jadot, you will not be disappointed if you splurge on one of this producer’s upper end white Burgundies.

The least expensive wine of the list usually offers the worst value because it is usually marked up the most. You can find a much more interesting choice for just a few dollars more.

When ordering a bottle of wine to serve as an aperitif or pre dinner drink, inform the waiter of your intentions so he can bring it immediately. Often, there is an inexplicable delay in staff bringing wine to the table.

Wine sold by the glass potentially allows customers to enjoy wine with a meal when only one person is drinking or when you wish to sample a variety of wines with different courses. Be sure the restaurant opened the bottle that evening or has a system to store opened bottles under inert gas to keep the wines fresh. It is especially risky to order wine by the glass at lunch, since the bottles used were often opened the night before.

A glass of port is a pleasant way to finish a meal, especially during the winter. Vintage port, the most prestigious category, is sturdier than ordinary table wine, but nevertheless loses its freshness after being opened for more than a day. Before ordering it, inquire when the bottle was opened. A safer choice is a glass of well-aged, 20 or 40 year old tawny port, which has been exposed to air over its entire life. It will not have deteriorated significantly sitting in a bottle opened even months earlier.

January 17, 2006.