Don’t Fear the Wine List

If you’re like most people, you are handed a nice leather bound restaurant wine list and panic begins to set in as you try to choose what to order. It is likely that everyone at the table shares the same fear and are quite content letting you shoulder this heavy burden. A few simple rules will have you ordering wine like a pro while your dinner companions admire you as some sort of “wine god”.

If the restaurant has a sommelier (Soh-mell-yay), the proper name for a wine steward, ask them to guide you through choosing an appropriate wine for your meal. A good sommelier will know which wines on their list pair well with their menu items. If not, ask the waiter what they recommend. Even if the extent of their knowledge is that they have both white and red wine, they should know what is popular. If this fails, you may wish to look somewhere in the middle of the wine list price range and select a variety that you like. If you’re still confused, a safe bet is cabernet sauvignon or merlot for a hearty red and chardonnay or pinot grigio for a white.

Now that you have ordered the wine, the real fun begins. You are ready to show the waiter and your guests that you know wine! When the waiter brings you the bottle he/she should hold it for you to inspect the label. Make sure that it is the wine you ordered.

The waiter will open the bottle and may hand you the cork. Many experts advise against smelling the cork but since you are paying for the wine, it is up to you. The waiter will pour you a small sample that you should hold at a 45-degree angle and inspect the wine for clarity. Ponder the wine for several seconds while looking intently at the wine against the tablecloth. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it will impress everyone!

Next, swirl the glass for about three seconds and take a really good sniff of the wine. If the wine smells clean and “fruity” you can taste the wine and nod for the waiter to pour it for the table. If the wine smells of moldy hay or wet cardboard, send it back. The wine is “corked” and even the best wines can be affected. Cork taint is caused by contaminates in the cork, not the wine. This is a valid reason for asking for another bottle.

You now have the basic tools you need to stand up to the snootiest waiter and show the world that you will not be intimidated by a 10-pound wine list.

It’s Time to Open that Bottle

Go ahead and admit it, you are one of those people who have a bottle or two of wine sitting on top of your refrigerator or tucked away in a closet waiting for the “right” time to open it! It is a common myth that all wine gets better with age when in reality, very little of the wine made today is destined for long aging, save a handful of very expensive cabernet sauvignon or the sweet desert wines coming from Sauternes, Germany and Austria. Even these require near perfect storage conditions where temperature and humidity allow the wine to age slowly such as in a good wine cellar. While there are a few other exceptions, most wine is made to be enjoyed as soon, or at most, a year or so after you purchase it. Storing wine in a warm place such as the top of the refrigerator may add style to you kitchen but will cause the wine to age rapidly, giving it a “cooked” taste which is fine for Marsala but nasty for merlot.

With summer now in full swing, its time to grab your corkscrew because what time could be more right than now? Summer wine parties are a great way for building new friendships and renewing old ones. You can choose a theme where everyone brings the same varietal or just have everyone bring a bottle of wine and a favorite dish to see how each wine enhances (or diminishes) the taste of the food. You could also throw a costume party where everyone dresses up as a bunch of grapes and brings a six pack of beer, but where is the fun in that!?

Have each guest bring a bottle of wine and before opening them, place each bottle in a paper wine bag and write a number on each bag. Some of your guests will be surprised that their favorite wine of the evening was not theirs and only a few will be likely to guess which wine they brought.

These “blind tastings” are a great way to improve your palate and sensory skills and it is amazing how many different aromas and tastes a group of people can derive from a single wine.

Glassware cannot be overemphasized for serious tasting. It is not necessary to run out and spend $50 each on special tasting glasses but choose ones that are tulip shaped with enough volume to swish the wine thoroughly volatilizing as much aroma as possible. If you do not have enough glassware to go around, have everyone bring a few of their own so you can evaluate several wines side by side. Keep the pours small, 2-3 oz., which is enough to analyze several wines without having the alcohol make you think more of placing a lampshade on your head instead of the wine.

Most importantly, wine is made to enjoy so what are you waiting for?

Cheers!