By Richard Edwards
Recently while dining with some self proclaimed winos and sampling a rather fruity pinot, I mentioned how much I enjoy that particular varietal, but there are so many different styles to choose from it can be difficult to find the flavor profile I most prefer. This sparked a conversation about how wine lists, which should help diners choose the right bottle, can be very irritating to read and sometimes impossible to decipher. Sadly restaurant wine lists are frequently riddled with poor descriptors, abbreviations that only a Sommelier could interpret, no clear order, excessive pricing and to top it all off–service staff charged with selling who really don’t care if their guests get the right wine or who know less about the list than those sitting around the table.
After we all ranted about frustrating experiences, the conversation took a productive turn as we began the process of determining how best to approach any wine list. Everyone agreed there are few key factors that help start the decision making process including:
- Do I want a glass or bottle?
- What kind of varietal? (merlot, cabernet, pinot gris, chardonnay, etc)
- What is the price?
- Do I have familiarity of producer?
- How does it pair with my meal?
- Is the wine a perceived value?
So how do we take these factors and leverage them with any wine list?
Get over your apprehension. Don’t be intimated by the many different shapes and forms of the average restaurant wine list. Just like a menu, there is no set industry standard that all restaurants abide by. You may find a house bottle list, house glass list, captains list, boxed sets, one pagers which are laminated or stained or 50 page binders separated by varietal that would take your entire meal to get through. Remember whatever it looks like, it’s just a wine list.
Take back control. Don’t kid yourself, no matter how casual or fine of an establishment—restaurants use lists to do one thing: sell you wine. By keeping this fact in mind the process of choosing wine becomes less intimidating because you know that wine lists are the attempt by restaurants to encourage you to purchase—and that makes you in control. How are you in control? Because you already know what you want even before even reviewing the list.
Figure out what you like. By knowing what types or even flavors you enjoy before you come to any restaurant to buy wine immediately gives you the upper hand. This does not mean that you know exactly what bottle you want. Rather, it narrows the selection process and gives you focus. Get in the practice of taking notes when drinking a wine that you like. Write down the name, grape type, vineyard, vintage and anything else that appears important to you (If it’s French, just write down everything you see because the French label wine where it is from not so much what grape it is). Keep in mind that there are many useful applications for mobile devices that can assist you with wine selection such as Cor.kz, Hello Vino and Wine Ratings Guide. By figuring out your preferences first, you can pick up any list and look for that wine type, which will lead you automatically in the right direction.
Determine how much you want to pay. By understanding your preferences and giving yourself a budget, you are ready to make a decision. Another good next step before making a final selection on your own is consulting your server with those two criteria, type and price. I usually hit it like this, “I am looking for something which tastes like the 2007 Stag’s Leap Winery Petite Syrah. France or California are fine, and I only want to spend around $60.00.” They may have suggestions or offer you some hidden gem that’s not even on the list. Occasionally your server will attempt to up-sell you and if they do, stand your ground and stay focused.
But just remember, the wine list is there to inform you, entice you and sell you—nothing more. Do your due diligence and you can conquer every wine list that you encounter and end up with a glass of wine that suits your preferences.