After a recent wine class, a student named Alyssa shared an exciting story.
She was out for dinner with her boss, and her boss’ boss, and (you guessed it) the boss’ boss’ boss. It was a French-fusion-meets-steakhouse restaurant in Chicago with a pretty extensive wine program including two full time sommeliers on staff.
As they were seated, the hostess handed the wine list to Alyssa. She immediately handed it to her boss, who proceeded to pass it around like hot potato until it came back to Alyssa with the friendly directive from the big boss “You pick the wines tonight.”
Uh oh. Panic time. She suddenly had to assess the evening, the purpose of the meal, the impact of ordering certain wines instead of others. Should she claim ignorance? Should she ask for help? You can imagine just how cold the room suddenly got for Alyssa.
I’ll get back to Alyssa’s story in a bit, but in the meantime here’s a cheat sheet for ordering wine at a restaurant if you find yourself in a similar situation.
1) Employ the help of the sommelier or manager on staff. They are there to help, and are experts at answering questions. They are also mind readers and experts at body language. Honestly. They will pick up on the look of terror in your eye, quickly surmise the situation by glancing at your guests, and help guide you through a beautiful night. When they come by to ask to help, open the wine list and point at a price. “We’re looking for something distinctive and delicious around this price point.” It keeps the money conversation from going to specifics, but it also shows your spending intentions. A good wine director will pick up on all these cues and run with it.
2) Suggest some Prosecco or other gentle sparkling wine to begin. In the far northeastern corner of Italy, where Prosecco is born, every small and honest restaurant will start you with a carafe of Prosecco. You sit down, say thank you, the server comes by, doesn’t say a thing, and drops the carafe at the table. You didn’t order it, but you will be charged for it (usually something minimal like two or three euro). The purpose of the Prosecco is to wash away the thoughts and flavors of the day you have completed, and help get your palate ready for the evening ahead. Being slightly sweet, frothy, clean, and airy it makes for a fine start to an evening. Plus it buys you time to order the rest of the wines only after knowing who is having what dish.
3) If the sommelier is not available, or if you get the sense the staff and management really don’t know about wine, here are the four varieties to memorize or add to a file in your phone so you don’t forget: Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir, and Barbera. Here’s why:
Sauvignon Blanc is, as I’m sure you know, a great start to a meal and often complimentary to anything with seafood involved, or mild amounts of oils or fats. Light bodied, high in acidity, bright and crisp and clean and lively. Ones from New Zealand tend to be more grassy and green and sharp. Ones from California are more round and textural but still acidic. French examples tend to be the finest with a balance between textural and bright. Look for Pouilly-Fume or Sancerre for the French regions.
Viognier (vee-ohn-yay) is one of my favorite varieties to steer people toward. If a restaurant offers a Viognier by the glass, order it. Here’s why: Viognier is a pain in the ass to grow and a pain the ass to make. It’s picky, it’s fickle, it ripens in strange ways, it ferments in odd directions. In other words, anybody who makes a choice to plant and produce Viognier has a bit of a screw loose in the most awesome way. They are passionate and they see the challenge as part of the winemaking experience. Thus, more love and attention is often put into that wine. Expect peach and ripe apricot aromas, usually slightly elevated alcohol, and medium to full bodied with rich texture. Yum.
Pinot Noir is the go-to for many, and for good reason. No other variety can build flavor bridges quite like Pinot Noir. If the table orders meat, fish, red sauce pasta, and a vegetable sauté on couscous with feta cheese, go for the Pinot Noir. It will be the most agreeable wine with the variety of dishes. Lighter bodied, elegant, and detailed. However, expect to pay a bit more. Pinot Noir, like Viognier, is a pain to grow and make and thus the price points for entry into decent wine is a bit higher than others.
Barbera is my secret magic bullet. Barbera is most often grown and produced in far northwestern Italy, in the region of Piemonte. It’s a consistently medium bodied wine (i.e. versatile), with plump aromas of ripe raspberries, cherries, and blackberries plus a hint of spice. But here’s the best part: Barbera usually has little to no tannin, but is one of the few red wines with high acidity. This acidity is key to food and wine pairing magic, and the refreshing aspect of Barbera will have your whole table grabbing the bottle, looking at the label, and snapping a picture of it.
So how did the dinner turn out for Alyssa? After confirming that neither of the sommeliers happened to be on that night (huh? Then why have two, she thought) and the server didn’t seem to know anything when it came to fermented grape juice, Alyssa employed the exact list you just read. They started with Adami Prosecco, a delicious example of just how good Prosecco can be when made by a smaller producer. She moved them into two bottles of wine with dinner, a Sauvignon Blanc from France (Reverdy Sancerre) and a Barbera from the Boroli brothers in Piedmonte (which, because of the wine class she just took, she was able to show off some knowledge about). Dessert was a round of vintage Port to celebrate some business success.
The best part, of course, was the big boss picking up the check. It made the memory of Alyssa’s picks taste even better to her!
Photo: wine list at Mosca’s Restaurant in New Orleans, January 2016. A basic list full of big names for the most part, which can be tough for a wine geek like me. It’s frustrating to be at a restaurant where I’m perfectly willing to spend more money on something of better quality and distinction, but I can’t buy it if it’s not offered. But in the end, that’s okay in a case like this. Mosca’s doesn’t change much with the times, and that is why it’s legendary. Check out the New Yorker article on the restaurant for the inside scoop. Coming soon I’ll post all about my New Orleans wine trip.