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Recently, my friends shared their frustrations with ordering wine in a restaurant. But choosing wine doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. A few simple tools can help you have a more enjoyable wine experience.
Let’s begin with the wine list. It’s common to be intimidated, confused or overwhelmed by the wine list. Here’s a tip: Take your time. There is no rush in choosing a wine, especially if it is for a special occasion. Don’t let the server or sommelier rush you. I am a sommelier, or wine steward: a trained professional constantly increasing my knowledge of wine, beer, and spirits. Yet what does that mean, exactly? Or better yet, what exactly does a sommelier do?
Well, the biggest and most important thing for a sommelier is to provide excellent service, knowledge and to create an amazing dining experience. We look at it as an adventure in finding out what you like. In my opinion, the best sommeliers can recommend wine in all price ranges. I personally don’t work on commission—I work to find the bottle best suited to my guest.
As a diner, the first thing I do when I look at a wine list is decide whether I want to drink wine to pair with the food or just to enjoy on its own. If I want to pair my food, I look for the appropriate style of wine that best suits the dish. I always say, “Pair the dominant element of the dish with the dominant element of the wine.” For example, one of my favorite pairings is barbecue with Zinfandel. (No, not white Zinfandel—red Zinfandel.) Zinfandel is a red grape variety typically grown in California. Tasting notes include: jammy, berry fruit (raspberry, black cherry, blackberry, cassis, blueberry) as well as black pepper, vanilla, and smoke. Barbecue has a great combination of smoky and sweet—just like Zinfandel.
If I just want to enjoy a nice bottle of wine, then I decide whether I am in the mood for white or red, followed by what type of grape variety I want—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, etc. If I do not know what type of grape I want, I tell the sommelier or server what style of body, ranging from light to fullbodied, and flavor profile, ranging from fruity to earthy. This can really help the server or sommelier when narrowing down the list. If I don’t know at all what I want to drink that night, I tell the server or sommelier what I typically drink.
There are a lot of wine descriptors out there that are confusing and can be misconstrued, which is why it is best to just to explain what you typically enjoy. They will either find you that exact style of wine or they will take those flavors and introduce you to something new. This is where the adventure happens for me. It’s like buying the perfect birthday present. It is perfect for that person because they never even knew it even existed.
More about the wine list
If all else fails, here is how you navigate the wine list. Champagnes and sparkling wines start at the top and are typically in order of price or body style; again, as in light to fullbodied. As you scan further down the page, you will have your white and then red wines. They will either be in order of price, body style, grape variety, or any combination of the three. However, there is a trap waiting for you when you scroll through the inexpensive bottles. The second inexpensive bottle is probably a “not so good” wine. Restaurants realize that insecure customers pick the second-least expensive bottle of wine to hide their lack of knowledge. So, they often put a bottle that is more inexpensive than the first wine listed because it will give them the highest profit margin.
If you are feeling adventurous, pick out a grape variety you have never heard of. If you’re interested in a sweeter white wine, but are wanting to step outside of Riesling, try Torrontes, Chenin Blanc, or Gewurztraminer. If you enjoy spicier red wines, but are tired of Malbec, try Aglianico, Zinfandel or Tempranillo.
And then there’s buying wine
People frequently visit the wine store to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, special occasions, or sometimes to cellar. When consumers walk through those doors, they are immediately bombarded with wine labels and catchy signs. As they travel down the many rows of wine bottles, each bottle is labeled differently. Some of the labels are very simply done, while others are extravagant and eye-catching.
According to the book Wine Wars by Michael Veseth, “Wine is a mystery to most customers. They have little confidence in their ability to tell what’s in the bottle as they stare at the wine wall or puzzle over a restaurant wine list. Some of them are adventurous and treat it as a treasure hunt game, but far too many buy the same thing over and over again or worse, walk away in frustration buying nothing at all.”
The first rule of thumb in buying wine is to find a wine store that you are comfortable in and that has a well-trained staff. Most wine shops are organized by country or grape variety. You have to decide which style works best for you. There might be something new that just came into the store that only an employee might know about. In some wine shops around town, staff members pick wines they like and place them by the register for wine shoppers.
Next, share your discoveries with your friends. A common misconception about buying wine is “the more expensive, the better the wine.” I couldn’t disagree more with this statement. A lot of well-known regions carry a price tag with them. Napa Valley wines are going to be among the most expensive in California. The cost per acre is incredibly high in the valley and that is built into the price of the wines. But if you venture down to Paso Robles or Santa Barbara, the price won’t be as high. If you’re seeking an inexpensive price point, try wines that come from France, Italy, Spain, Argentina and New Zealand. When I find a wine that is under $15 and is a killer wine, I share it with everyone I know—especially when I am working as a sommelier because guests come to me specifically for that. We all enjoy a hidden gem.
Shelf-talkers and wine ratings are another influential part of the wine-buying experience. There are two styles: simple, discount tags to attract savvy shoppers, and the number tag that gives “Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate” or “The Wine Spectator” ratings of a wine. Costco, for instance, signed an exclusive agreement with “Wine Enthusiast” magazine to use its wine ratings in Costco stores. Shelf-talkers are an asset to helping you solidify your decision. However, know that you know what you like best, so that should always be the deciding factor.
Which leads me to my next point: Be adventurous. Most wine shops give a discount to their customers if you buy a certain number of bottles of wine. The typical discount happens when you buy a case. And buying a case is a great way to experiment with trying new wines. That is how you grow and learn. The first case of wine you buy should be wines from different parts of the world. Start with six whites and six reds and take notes on your experience. Pictures are another way to catalog wines you have enjoyed. They are also helpful tools to show the wine professional what previous wines you have tried. Next, narrow down which grape varieties you liked best. Once you have found grape varieties that are your favorites, then try them from different countries. This helps you to see what style of wine you like.
Not breaking the budget
Finally, I understand that trying new wines all the time is expensive. There are restaurants and wine stores in town that do wine tastings. For example, Riverside Wine & Spirits does a wine tasting every Saturday from 3-5 p.m. and these are free. Also, many restaurants in town do half glasses of wine for half the price. It is the perfect way to try a couple of different wines by the glass without having to spend too much.
Think of sommeliers, waiters, and wine shop staff as your tour guides on your wine adventure. We enjoy helping you navigate your own path through the vineyard. `A votre santé!