RVR MEN SKill #8 - Order and Taste Wine in a Restaurant. Excerpt from Men: 10 Essential Skills below. By Kurt Gunkel - Masciarelli Wine Company
It’s all about personal taste.
There are only two kinds of wine: wine you like and wine
you don’t. The enjoyment of wine, like food, is very personal
and subjective. Ask a dozen people what toppings they
like on their pizza and you are likely to get twelve different
Why then, are we so intimidated when having to select a
wine from the list at a fine restaurant? I think it is the perception
that there are rigid food-and-wine-pairing rules that we
are supposed to adhere to. We are afraid of making a mistake
by ordering the “wrong” wine. We stress at the thought of ordering
wine for the table and choosing one that some snooty
sommelier may sneer at and say, “Are you sure you want to
drink that with your meal?” Yikes!
The notion that there are proper food and wine pairings
is ingrained in our culture. There are a myriad of books, magazines,
and wine education classes devoted to the subject of
pairings. However, these can also perpetuate certain myths
about wine and intimidate anyone trying to decide what wine
to drink. We are told that for every dish there is a perfect wine
and many mistakes can be made by choosing wines that just
“don’t go” with certain foods. We are led to believe that learning
food and wine pairing is difficult, requires in-depth wine
knowledge, and is better left to the experts.
Can you learn from the experts? Absolutely. You can learn
a lot. Should you take it as dogma? No way. We are all quite
capable of determining what we like to eat and drink. The best
way to figure out what really works for you is by experimenting.
There are many good wine shops that conduct tastings for their
customers. Take advantage of these and try as many wines as
you can. While tasting different wines, you’ll think to yourself,
“Gee, this wine would be perfect with a filet.” Or “That wine
would really go great with salmon.” You don’t need anyone to
tell you what you enjoy. Just as you’ve developed a palette for
certain foods over time, you will do the same with wine.
Okay, you’re hosting a dinner at Chez Expensive and need
to select wine for the table. You have some experience with
wine, maybe not a lot, but you have a vague idea of what you
like. You open the lengthy wine list, scan the 400 or so wines
and don’t recognize any of them. How are you possibly going
to make a decision?
Well, you basically have three options:  read the wine
list from right to left and choose by price (uh, not a good idea);
 ask your guests if anyone would like to select the wine
(unless there’s a wine geek at the table, it’ll be up to you); and
 by far the best option, engage your server/sommelier.
Any good restaurant with a comprehensive wine list will
have a sommelier or wine director on staff. They are the most
underutilized resource in many restaurants. These wine gurus
are not only well educated but are also passionate about wine.
They have put much effort into selecting wines for the list to
complement the chef ’s menu and have intimate knowledge
of each bottle. They are like little kids who can’t wait to show
off their new toys. They respond well to people who appreciate
their work and express genuine interest. Don’t be shy.
Ask them lots of questions. “Do you personally taste all the
wines on the list? Do you have any favorites? What do you
Every wine list will reveal something about the sommelier’s
personality. It might focus on small loire producers, or have a
great Riesling selection, or feature some interesting Oregon
Pinot Noirs. This is where his passion lies. Ask about these. If
you’re someone with limited wine exposure, you can learn a lot
from these guys.
When selecting the wine for dinner you need to provide
the sommelier with as much information as possible to come
away with a bottle (or bottles) you will enjoy at a price you feel
comfortable paying. What is everyone ordering? Will you be
having wine with the appetizer course as well as dinner? Do
you want red or white? How about starting off with champagne
or sparkling wine? Have you had a wine recently that
you really enjoyed? Maybe he can suggest something similar.
Discreetly let the sommelier know your price range. A good
trick is when engaging the sommelier, point to a wine on the
menu in your price range, or mention a wine that you like in
your price range. The sommelier will take your lead and make
a few recommendations. He should explain why he chose the
wine and why it meets your criteria. Then it’s up to you. Make
your selection and get ready for the wine presentation ritual.
There are some basic guidelines—not rules—you might
want to consider in the absence of knowledgeable waitstaff or
a sommelier. The better values are often found in the midprice
range of the wine list. The least expensive and the most
expensive wines commonly carry the highest markup. Regional
wines will usually go well with regional foods. Wine
should complement the food. Typically you will want to
match lighter foods with lighter wines and heavier foods with
heavier wines. You don’t want the wine to overpower the food
or the food to overpower the wine. You want the flavors of the
food and wine to play nicely together. Apart from that, it’s all
about your personal taste.
Wine is an adventure. Go forth, drink, and enjoy.