Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tackling a Restaurant Wine List in Its Many Forms

Ordering wine in a restaurant can be an intimidating experience.  When I first embarked on my journey to becoming a wino, and my question to the restaurant server changed from "what do you have on tap?" to "can I see your wine list" it was more than a little stressful for me.  Hey, you are already paying a pretty hefty markup to enjoy that bottle - no need for it to be stressful too! So here are a few helpful hints about wine lists to help you prepare to tackle most any wine list that is presented to you.

How are Wine Lists Typically Organized?
The answer to the most important question - how do you navigate the wine list to find a great wine to go with your meal - is a very disappointing "it depends."  The only common rules is that white wines come will come before rosés, which come before reds (although there may be more than one of these groupings). There will also be some distinction to identify wines that are available by the glass.  Some lists, especially larger ones, will have the first part of the list dedicated to wines by the glass.  Other, typically smaller lists may have two columns of numbers to denote pricing. A number in the first column means that wine is available by the glass, a number in the second column only means only by the bottle.

Most Common Wine List Organizations Schemes

White, Rosé, Red. Smaller wine lists that don't warrant division into sections may be very simply organized by type of wine.

Grape Variety. Perhaps the most common organization you will see, the list will be arranged according to the grape variety.  Typically varieties that produce lighter wines first - so in the white wine section you will see Sauvignon Blanc before Chardonnay and in the red wine section you will find Pinot Noir before Cabernet Sauvignon.   Blend wines (with several different varieties) will usually appear at the end of their respective section - white blends at the end of the white wine section and red blends at the end of the red wine section.  Also, some wine lists will have a separate section with "Other" or "Interesting"  white or red wines.

This arrangement is simple in concept, but assumes the reader has enough wine knowledge to know what grape variety they would want with their meal. Some are avid Merlot or Chardonnay drinkers and would order their favorite in every case.

Country. Wine lists that offer many selections from throughout the world of wine may be organized by the Country of Origin.  Often the list may first be organized by "Old World" countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Germany, followed by "New World" countries like the US, South America, Australia and New Zealand.  The list may also be organized by white, rose, and red, with sub-sections for countries and perhaps regions within those countries.

Within the section for each country you may find additional sections for regions within the country if the list offers a big selection, or just wines in the white, then rosé, then red arrangement if the selection is smaller. 

This arrangement assumes the reader has even more knowledge of wine that the list arranged by grape variety.  If you want to select a reasonably priced, medium bodied red wine, you may need to peruse the Rhone, France section for a Cotes du Rhone, the Rioja, Spain section for a Crianza Rioja, and perhaps the Piedmont, Italy section for a nice Dolcetto.

Style. The least traditional, but probably the most useful to those without a PhD in wine, are lists organized by the style of wine.  Not style expressed in some fancy winemaking terms, but divided into categories like "Light", "Medium", "Full".  Having a heavier dish? - check out the full bodied reds. Having a lightly flavored appetizer or just want a nice wine to sip on a hot day? - try the light bodied whites.

My prediction is that you will start to see more wines organized in this manner. Not only is it the more helpful, but the newer generation of young winos care little about the snobbery of the old school wine world, and just want the easiest way to find the type of wine they want.  They want an interesting wine, one that tastes good, and one that matches the food they are drinking. They are not worried about only drinking wines from the right bank of Bordeaux because somehow that is automatically better than any other wine... and what would people think if they saw me slumming with a bottle of left bank! The horror!

Less Common Wine List Organization Schemes

Cost. OK, so I've only seen this once ever, but it happens to be one of my favorite restaurants in Arizona - Cowboy Ciao - so it gets a shout out. The wine list is literally 75 pages long - don't believe me? - check it out   Some mock it as being way overdone, for me I like the rebel nature to have such a big wine list, organize it in a very different manner, and I love the humor and tidbits of wine information you will find sprinkled throughout the list. 

Lastly, oh what a selection!!! I so enjoy perusing this list, and struggle with making a selection from all the usual and unusual selections they offer.  The list is broken down first by whites and then reds, with wines listed by price within each of those sections.

Why by price... well I think the folks at Cowboy Ciao explain it best in a blurb from the wine list itself.. so here it is: 

We believe there is a sea of wine that very few know about or have the chance to try. Rarities from Romania, aromatic Arizonans, bold bubbly from Barossa, Israeli ice wine, it’s a great big globe full of terrific vino and it’s our mission to bring it to you…in the neighborhood of 2000 listings in all.

To accomplish such a task, we needed to rethink how wine lists are traditionally formatted. By region? This list represents 40 plus countries, close to a dozen states and a municipality or two, so that’s out. By grape varietal? Hovering at 275, including countless blends. What does that leave? We chose mainly to organize this list by price. The majority of our guests have a price range in mind when it comes to wine, and we valiantly attempt to provide solid values from $10 to $10,000 (OK, $10,000 for a bottle may not be your idea of value, but in the context of drinking history, sometimes you have to both smell and pay through the nose).

Hybrid. Wine lists don't need to stick to one of the options - some will have an overall arrangement - say by Variety - by may want to highlight a certain selection of wines from one specific country or region - probably aligned with the cuisine they offer.

Choose Your Own. In our age of technology, you might find yourself presented with an iPad instead of a wine list.  Wine list apps allow you search the wine list by wine name, style, price, country, region... whatever you like.  
This was the case when we went to Alizé at the Palms Hotel and Casino. It was very cool, and I probably could have perused for an hour - but I limited my play time to only 5 or 6 minutes, and got back to the incredible views of the Las Vegas strip!  Our future may hold more and more wine lists like this at those special occasion restaurants - very cool!

There are Those Ready to Help You
Overwhelmed... don't be!  You will get better with experience, but if you ever find yourself confused or unsure just ask for help.  Depending on the restaurant there may be a whole sommelier staff, or no sommeliers but a server staff trained on the specifics of the wines offered.

Don't be afraid to ask for help - you can specify the type of wine you like, or even just the wine budget you had in mind and what dishes you plan to order - and let them help out.  You may prefer just to rely on the restaurant staff, or ... (cue next section!!!)

Do a Little Homework
Now that this one-time fad referred to as the Internet appears to be catching on, many restaurants will post their wine lists on line.  I like to come in prepared,  and already have a sense of the types of wine the restaurant offers, price range, and how the wine list is arranged.  I also pick out a couple of red wine options that I might do the trick (bottles of course), and perhaps an option for a glass of white to enjoy with a lighter appetizer.  Be warned though, in a restaurant with a good wine program the offerings will change quite often, so a bottle you picked out from the on-line wine list may not be available.  I have occasionally done some homework on a wine list, and the actual list had almost nothing from the on-line version. In these cases I did get at least get a sense of how the list was arranged, so was more easily able to find another option.  

You may not want to take the time to do this type of homework - and I understand not wanting to make a trip to dinner that much effort. I do it because I enjoy it, and while I sometimes ask for help from the Sommelier if the wine list is full of obscure choices - I mostly prefer to make the wine selection myself. 

Also, the restaurant's wine list may offer some wonderfully obscure wines or wineries that you may want to try. A little homework beforehand can give you a chance to learn more about the wine or the winery to decide if it is worth a try.

Remember What You Ordered
Not so much about the wine list, but a recommendation for wine ordering in general. Remember exactly what you ordered - winery, grape variety, vintage,  and any special designation (single vineyard, reserve, special wine name). Take the time when the wine is served to look at the bottle. The server or sommelier should immediately identify if there is anything different from what you ordered, for example the vintage you ordered is gone, they have the next vintage available.

Why you ask... you never know!  Early in my wine tasting experiences we attended a great tasting on Italian wines.  During this tasting I was introduced to a very intriguing wine from Piedmont - Barolo. Made from the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo is typically big and tannic while remaining quite acidic.  The aromas are an interesting blend that can include flowers and road tar.  Not a wine for a spaghetti with tomato sauce, but for Italy's bigger dishes perhaps a meat sauce made from a game animal.  During my Barolo love phase, my wife and I visited one of our favorite Italian restaurants. They usually had some special dishes that were bolder flavored - so I was anxious to order a Barolo and see how awesome it was with a good Italian dish.  The server brings out a bottle, flashes it briefly and says we were out of the '96, this is the '97. OK, he identified a change in vintage...that's cool.  At this point I had ordered a few bottles in restaurants while actually knowing a little about what I was doing, but honestly paid little attention to the bottle when presented to me. This time I did pay a bit more attention and saw the bottle was in fact a 1997, but it was a Barbera.  I told the server, "wait, that's a Barbera"... his response "they are basically the same wine."  You may or may not be familiar with Barbera - but if not the wine does come from the same region as Barolo (Piedmont, Italy), but that is the only similarity. Barbera is a simple, highly acidic "pizza wine." The high acidity goes nicely with the acidity of a tomato based pizza sauce.  I have nothing against Barbera, and will have it with a good pizza in a second, but same as a way dude!  At this point I was afraid I was on the way to becoming a wine snob... I folded my arms, looked at the sever and said "really! Barbera the same as a Barolo, I have never heard that before."  Fluster, the server said "only about 10% of people who come in here would have known the difference" and walked away.  About two minutes later we have a new server who brings back the wine list for me to make another selection!  I wonder how often a little switcheroo happens to an unsuspecting diner?  Best way to make sure it doesn't happen to you?  Read that bottle!!!

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