I know the fear, people. You are out to a nice dinner. Maybe you are with a business client, maybe you are on a date. Everything is going well until the waiter drops off THE WINE LIST. Your eyes boggle as you try to poker face and act like you know what you are doing. You open this tome to find a lot of small print and several languages you don’t speak. Your mind is racing. Do I admit defeat? How long do I have to act like I am interested in perusing this dissertation before I can break down into a full panic-cry?
Keep calm and call the sommelier. Any decent restaurant that has an extensive wine list will probably have a sommelier on staff and they should have them working for most dinner shifts. Certainly they will be wandering the restaurant during the weekend dinner hours. If they don’t have a true sommelier, there is someone at that restaurant that built that wine list and they can certainly make a recommendation for you. There are several ways to end up with a great wine and each path is perfectly acceptable. Here are a few ways that I have found work well, don’t require you to be an expert in wine, and create a positive experience for both you and the person recommending you the wine:
- Tell them what you are eating – It seems pretty obvious but a lot of people miss this as a viable option. I have had the sommelier come over and simply said, “I am having the filet; she is having the lamb.” Honestly, I think most sommeliers love this scenario. It’s a little challenge for them and it also shows that you trust them. Stroking someone’s ego always greases the wheels a little bit. Sometimes the meals at the table may not be able to be paired with just one wine. This is another great opportunity for the sommelier to show their stuff. A lot of times they will have half bottles on the menu which can be perfect for a party of 4-6 to get a few different things that will go with each of their meals without breaking the bank.
- Tell them what wines you like – This is a pretty simple process. When they come over just say what you like. “I really like (insert varietal here), do you think that will go with the salmon?” You may not even know why you like a certain type of wine, but any sommelier worth his salt will. They may steer you in a totally different direction but keep in mind that they have taken into consideration your likes and dislikes. Trust that they know what they are doing.
- Tell them how much you want to spend – Completely acceptable and also super helpful for the sommelier. Of course no one wants to seem like a cheapskate, but if you tell him or her you want to keep the price of the bottle under $60, they can show you some options that fit that requirement. You may want to take a quick look over the list first to get a feel for the markup at this particular restaurant. Even if you are casual wine drinker, there will be at least a bottle or two on the menu that you will recognize. If you know a bottle to usually cost $15 and the menu lists it for $35, you can get a sense of what is going on. Markup is rarely a standard percentage across the board. It’s a sliding scale. The more expensive bottles generally have a smaller percentage of increase. The truth is, we live in the age of smartphones. If you are considering a bottle on the menu that is listed for $75 and you feel like you are getting ripped off, give it a quick google and see what some retailers are selling it for. PLEASE keep in mind that you are not only paying for the bottle, but for the knowledge of the person who recommended it and the experience of enjoying it with a nice meal. Everyone has their own sense of what they feel is an acceptable markup and you need to make that judgment for yourself.
- Leave it up to the sommelier – I have done this many times and never been disappointed. You may want to combine this approach with any or all of the above. Personally, I haven’t met a varietal that I can’t at least appreciate, so this is a viable option for me. If there are things you really can’t stand then perhaps you should go a different route. I am not a huge fan of Cabernet Franc, but I have had some bottles recommended that were perfect with the meal. This approach was what made me really dive deeper into white wines. However, sommeliers do appreciate a little direction but they will start a dialogue with you to get the info they need. They don’t want you to get a bottle that you won’t enjoy. Sometimes I will say something like, “bring me something that you think is the best valued wine you have” or maybe, “I want something that you think is great, but rarely gets ordered.” Sommeliers take a lot of pride in the wine lists they build and it must make them sad when they have assembled a list of 1000 wines from all over the world and people order the same bottle of Mondavi cabernet that they have had a billion times. Having a conversation with the sommelier about something being recommended is a great way to learn about different regions, grapes, or even other countries.
Challenge yourself. Get something you have never had, or something you have had but from a country or region that you have never tried before. Believe it or not, Israel actually makes some nice wines. A lot of people think French wine is incredibly expensive but some of them, especially the whites, can be delicious and still really affordable. I love what California does with wine but it’s important to me to try wines from all over so I can get the range of what a given grape can do. Malbec has become popular over the last several years with a lot of affordable, high-quality wines coming from South America. But, Malbec is originally a French varietal and is totally different when it is produced in the old world. Let a sommelier help you pick out something new and it may lead you to some new obsession that you never would have otherwise experienced.