How To: Navigate a Wine List
Caroline Helper is a 23-year-old wine geek whose love affair with fermented grape juice started in Italy at the age of 18 (it was legal there!). She has since traveled to Napa, Burgundy, and Tuscany to taste and learn. Caroline aims to enlighten, educate, and explore on her blog, Forget Burgundy.
Read on for her secrets to navigating a wine list. –P&C
It shouldn’t be a big secret that restaurants jack up the prices on wine. I’ve seen bottles marked up to two to three times what it would have cost me to buy the same bottle in a shop. While a 200% mark-up may seem ludicrous, the reality is that restaurants pay the rent with their wine (and liquor) sales–it’s hard to make much of a profit selling food, surprising as that may seem. Why bother with the quick lesson in restaurant economics 101? Because keeping that in mind is essential to successfully navigating a wine list.
Step 1: All about wines by the glass
Though generally wines offered by the glass are lower end and not as good as everything else, this is not always the case, and a good wine director will offer decent, if not remarkable, wines by the glass. Wines by the class can be marked up even more than bottles, and you’ll almost certainly get a better bang for your buck if you order a bottle.
Still, here are some great reasons for ordering wines by the glass rather than springing for the whole bottle:
• You, a sworn red drinker, are dining with an absolutely resolute white wine drinker, a compromise is nowhere to be found and god help you, you’d rather drink dishwater than rosé.
• Driving is an issue; you really only have the time and tolerance to get down one glass before you become a danger to yourself and everyone else on the road.
• You are feeling adventurous and not sure exactly what you’re in the mood for anyways. Maybe you want to have a different glass with your appetizer than your entrée, or maybe you’re just intrigued by a couple different options.
• Every once in a while, there will be a fantastic wine sold by the glass – a wine that would otherwise be too expensive. In this case, go for it – it will be on the more expensive side for a single glass but sometimes just experiencing a great wine is worth sipping slowly.
Step 2: Asking your server for guidance
Asking your server for help is always a good idea. That being said, keep in mind that, though they’re there to serve you, they’re also salespeople working on behalf of the restaurant. If you ask the waiter what he recommends without any guidance, he’s going to try to steer you towards the more expensive wines. Instead, let your server know what you’re thinking of ordering food-wise, give them a brief run-down of things you like in a wine or any wines you can remember having that you know you liked, and do not be embarrassed to give your server a price range.
Lastly, listen to your server’s suggestions; a good server wants you to enjoy whatever you order. Don’t ask your server to go on and on about various wines if you have no intention of ordering them or if you’ve already made up your mind.
Step 3: Ordering your bottle
We’ve all found ourselves in the position of wanting to order a wine with a name we can’t pronounce. Rather than attempt to say it, we usually just hold the wine list up, point, and say, “That one.” While this is surely one way to order wine, it’s not the best way to do it. (Note from P&C: And it can lead to financial ruin. We’ve heard a horror story about a $300 bottle ordered instead of a $40 one, all due to pointing.)
• If you absolutely cannot even begin to comprehend the way to pronounce something look to the left of the name of the wine you’d like to order. Chances are it may have a BIN number attached to it and you are welcome to use that to order your wine.
• Just try to say it and don’t be embarrassed if you bungle it – or try to find at least part of the whole description that you do know how to say along with the year attached to the bottle. If you can’t pronounce the year, I don’t know if I can help you.
Now, for wines that you do know how to pronounce it can be awkward figuring out which parts of those long title you need to read out loud and which parts can be left behind.
Here are a few examples:
5032 Louis Jadot ‘Clos des Ursules’ Beaune 1er Cru 2008
5015 Simon Bize ‘les Bourgeots’ Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru 2006
3718 Hendry ‘Blocks 7 & 22’ Napa 2006
3716 Robert Biale ‘Black Chicken’ Napa 2008
Each of the wines above list a wine-maker (Louis Jadot, Simon Bize, Hendry, and Robert Biale respectively), the name of the particular wine (‘Les Bourgeots’ and ‘Black Chicken’) or the vineyards from which the wine was sourced (‘Clos des Urseles’ and ‘Blocks 7 & 22’), the region in which the wine was grown, and the year that the grapes were harvested (we’ll skip the 1er Cru for now – just know that its not important when ordering).
The best way to order each of these wines is to say the winemaker and the year, except for the ‘Black Chicken’ because its just plain fun to say. You can forget about all of the stuff in the middle unless you come across something like this:
3507 Bond ‘Pluribus’ Napa 2005
3543 Bond ‘Pluribus’ Napa 2006
3508 Bond ‘St.Eden’ Napa 2005
3544 Bond ‘St.Eden’ Napa 2006
In this case, you should read out as much as the information as you can to avoid any confusion with the waiter. Lastly, speaking of confusion – that thing the waiter does where they present the bottle? Pay attention! You want to make sure that they’ve brought you the wine you ordered, so make sure you look for the winemaker’s name, the year, and the name of the specific bottle you ordered.
Step 4: Tasting your wine
When the server pours the wine for you to taste, take the time to actually try it. You’re not tasting it to see if you like it so much as you’re tasting it to make sure that it hasn’t been corked or otherwise compromised.
If you have the slightest suspicion that something’s not right, don’t be afraid to speak up. Ask someone else at your table to taste it and if they agree, most likely, the waiter will take the bottle to a manager or wine person to taste, as well. They will replace the bottle if it is, in fact, bad.
Unfortunately, if you order a bottle that you taste and just plain hate, that’s not a good enough reason to send it back. Unless the wine has been grossly misrepresented by your server (another good reason to ask for his advice), not liking the wine you ordered is not a good enough reason to send it back.
Lastly, don’t sniff the cork. The reason that servers and sommeliers may do this is to make sure that the bottle hasn’t been compromised before they pour it for you – there is no reason to pick up the cork and put it to your nose after the wine has been poured.
Step 5: Enjoy!
Just don’t get sloppy, ok?
–Caroline Helper, BGSK Contributor and blogger behind Forget Burgundy