Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sitting down for a chat with Patrick Cappiello


Recently, I had the opportunity to talk at length with Patrick Cappiello, who is the Wine Director and Sommelier of GILT Restaurant in New York's Palace Hotel. Patrick has been quietly assembling an amazing wine list over the last two years, and I thought it would be a good time to check in with this extremely knowledgeable steward about what he is now bringing to the tables at GILT.

This is the ceiling at Gilt, in the lounge area. This is one of my favorite places in all of Manhatan to uncork a bottle of wine. There is a feeling of the exquisite in the surroundings that adds to the sense of awe I find in a great wine.
The mantelpiece in the lounge at Gilt. Being surrounded by such details helps attune one to finding the detail in a layered wine, I think.

I was lucky to get to talk with Patrick and to hear what he had to say, just as I have been lucky in the past to follow his wise counsel about bottles of wine from his great list. You can peruse that list here. See the full interview for yourself: I promise that time listening to Patrick will be time well spent.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

the Amari file: Spanish interlude

I took this picture in 2009, at Star Bar in Ginza. I had no idea at the time that I was looking at the last Xerez-Quina still produced.
On a trip to Tokyo a couple of years ago, I became acquainted with the Xerez-Quina of Valdespino. You can see a clearer depiction of the label, and its listing of 15% abv., here. Today I learned, through the help of friends, that Eduardo Ojeda of Valdespino (whom you can see in this video) believes Valdespino's to be the only Xerez-Quina still produced in the Sherry zone today. I was also told that the name of the product will soon change, from Xerez-Quina to simply "Quina," owing to a change in the labelling regulations.

Why does this matter? Well, because you are looking at the last remaining example of the Sherry equivalent to Barolo Chinato. This is Sherry that has been infused with quinine, herbs, and spices. A solera aged wine made into a Spanish Chinato.

What other Xerez-Quina labels were there in the past? Well, Ruiz was one. So was Agustin Blazquez. Saenz. R. O'Neale. Merito. Los Arbolitos. Bodegas Morilla "Santa Lucia"V. Diaz & Co., A&A Sancho, Jorge Thuillier, and Luis Caballero. And a few more.

But we are left now with a single example of Xerez-Quina, of which only a small quantity is made, and none imported into the United States.

I wonder if we will let this last example also disappear, as we cast about for something clever to say on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving thanks


As you uncork many bottles of special wine in the next few days, perhaps spare a moment of thought for those who labored successfully to fill them for you.

A Happy Holiday Season for Everyone.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rereading Peter


My relationship to tea might summed up as Cheech and Cha: more avid recreation than thoughtful research.

I do, however, know some people who are quite knowledgeable on the subject of tea. I was just rereading this classic rumination from Peter Liem on the terroir of the teapot, and what a tempest of thought it can provoke for tea and wine folks alike. It would be easy to neglect the amazing writing Peter did on his personal blog because he no longer adds new posts to that classic compedium. What a mistake that would be! Go back and peruse some of Peter's posts. They deserve a reread. They offer an opportunity to engage with one of the keenest minds in the wine business, and in long form.

It's easy to get hooked on the daily new, the latest chatter on Twitter, the recent tasting, the big mention. I would suggest that if we confine ourselves to the new, while forgeting to acknowledge some of the superb writing of the past, we risk having their keen insights go up in (tea) smoke.

And of course, don't forget Peter's nonpareil current writing at www.ChampagneGuide.net

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

the Amari file: Chinato as it was


We know the situation of Chinato today: there are about 30 commercial examples of Barolo Chinato produced in the Piemonte, with several of those produced on a contract basis by distillers that have been given a recipe by a winery. There are in addition to these the assorted Chinati made for personal use by those wineries who do not want to file the extra (apparently extensive) paperwork required by the Italian beverage and taxation laws and who want to make the Chinato themselves, without employing a separate distiller. It is not premitted in Italy to run a winery and a distillery on the same premises, nor is it allowed to make Chinato in a winery (if you are thinking that this means that the Bartolo Mascarello Barolo Chinato is not made at the Bartolo Mascarello Cantina, you are right, that is what it means). There are Chinati produced in areas outside the Barolo zone, even as far away as Toscana, but the market today mostly follows the Barolo Chinati.

But what was the situation before today? What was the Chinato scene like 100 or so years ago, when more or less it was just getting started at a commercial level?

Looking for answers to an entirely different question, I stumbled on this Agricultural Journal. The article dealing with Chinato, which is a small piece of the larger Journal, is dated 1919. It concerns the analytical testing of the available commercial Chinati of the time.

There are a few generalities to be gleaned from the article (which can be downloaded as a large .pdf file or converted to plain text for translation).

Chinati were not exported in any significant quantities until 1907, although we know that Zabaldano Chinato received a commendation at a fair held in Nice back in 1899.

Part of the interest of the article is the articulation of the broad range, stylistically, that was involved across the available examples of Chinati. Most of the Chinati being produced at the time were not Barolo Chinati. The dominant area of production inside the Piemonte was centered around the Province of Torino, which was also home to the vermouth industry. There was white Chinato. There was Passito Chinato. There was extra old Chinato. There was Barbaresco Chinato (which does not officially exist today). The alcohol by volume of a Chinato might be just over 10%, or it might be as high as 20%. Sugar levels could vary even more radically, although something like 14 to 16% was the norm.

So what Chinati from the province of Cuneo (home to Barolo Chinato) might have been available for purchase in 1919? It just so happens, the report tells us.

Abbona e Figli (Barolo) 10.09% abv.
C. Barale Fratelli (Barolo) 17.54% abv.
Bianchi e C. (Bra) 16.08% abv.
L. Calissano e Figli (Alba) 14.01% abv.
Fratelli Camerano (La Morra) 16.64% abv.
Cantina Sociale (Alba) 12.97% abv.
G.D. Capellano (Alba) 16.74% abv.
Fratelli Faramia (Savigliano) 14.39% abv.
Fratelli Gancia (Canelli) 15.46% abv.
Raimondo e Ravinale (Grinzane d'Alba) 15.65% abv.
C. Rinaldi e Figli (Barolo) 18.64% abv.
Enrico Serafino (Casale) 15.75% Barbaresco Chinato & 16.63% Barolo Chinato
S. Zabaldano (Castigliole Falletti) 16.14% abv.

Zabaldano "China" and "Chinato," side by side

So, what to make of this? Well, the Barolo Chinato market seems to have expanded considerably in the last 100 years, despite the difficulty that you or I might encounter in sourcing a particular bottle. If in 1919 there were less than 15 major producers of Barolo Chinato, and today there are 30 or so, well, there are a lot more today. This assumes that there were indeed less than 15 to choose from in 1919, and that the report doesn't just skip over others that might have been out there.


There would also appear to be little link today with the bottlings of the past. From the list above, I have only ever encountered bottles of Barolo Chinato from a few of those cited, including the co-founders of Barolo Chinato itself, Cappellano and Zabaldano (although Cappellano might be spelled with two p's, it is listed as "Capellano" in the Agricultural Journal). It would also seem likely that a Cappellano Barolo Chinato from 1919 would have been made from grapes sourced from vineyards other than would be the case with a modern day example from Cappellano. In the case of Zabaldano, although bottles may still be found, the Barolo Chinato is no longer produced. The last member of the family to make some, Victor Zabaldano, died in 1989 and left no heirs. It is thought that he took the recipe for the family Chinato with him to his grave, roughly 100 years after it was conceived. So we seem to have in what is available today very little chance to experience what might have been on offer a century ago.

Unless you have a bottle lying around, that is. In which case you should call me.

Other Pages in the Amari File (so far):
A Link of Interest
Nonino
Meletti
An Amari Cocktail for the Holidays
S. Maria al Monte
Braulio

And Mr. Asimov's article, which is seasonally appropriate once again

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The blind tasting

We were able to get the blind tasting group together today, which was great, because it had been too long.


It was quite a turnout!


I think a lot of tasters were really thrown off by the first flight. Someone mentioned "meaty" notes right at the beginning, and you know how that can really sway a whole table's opinion right off. It turned out to be more of a classic example of salinity and minerality wrapped within a firm texture.



The second flight, a side by side, was a much more obvious and clear cut example of the differences between Cote de Nuits, seen here on the left, and Cote de Beaune, on the right.


The Noveau was a particularly fine example of the kind of texture and joyful mouthfeel you can really find only from this style. Most of the tasters had no trouble identifying what we were dealing with right away. A "banker" as they say, and it very pleasant indeed to taste a bit of this on such a sunny afternoon.


Some tasters objected to the serving temperature of the next flight, mentioning that the "gloopy" and out of balance texture was really more a feature of how it was served, as opposed to the actual wine.


But the debate was most vocal surrounding the last flight of the day, with some tasters quite strong in their belief that they sensed the classic pork rind of Syrah, while others were just as convinced that the stewed beef more characteristic of Mourvedre was at play here. In the end, I never got a look at the label to find out.


Certainly it was a lot of food for thought, and I was very happy that I could attend!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I've been missing Joe, and I've tried to preserve something of him here that might otherwise have gone, like he has. Skip over the post if you don't care.

Happy to think that he and Buster can share their afternoon walks again.

"Arianna Occhipinti started with nothing. No money. Rocks. That is what was there, rocks. And now look! That can happen."

"92% Gros Manseng and the other 8% I don't fucking care. Go ask Lee Campbell the answer if you want to know."

"This wine was recently featured in Survivor: Australian Outback..."

It's nice to think of Herb Caen discussing column ideas with him.

Somewhere there is a Red Hook 360, and he is having a great meal there right now.

""Baajjjhhh-Grrrrr-Ahhh" is all I ever say into these lobby door intercoms. The people on the other end can't hear anything anyways."

Refused to join the iGeneration: he was our Bartolo.

"I like to wear other people's nametags at the reunion parties."

"Do you have somewhere I can park my bike? No? Then I'm not coming."

"That's ok, you sit down. I'll stay here and die of cancer standing up."

"This wine was made by a guy who used to walk around with his fly open"

"In the early days, we used to make a lot of mistakes. After that, we made some more mistakes."

"People underestimate the role of copainage."

"Anyone who has a wine blog will automatically be thrown out of the tasting."

He was the biggest VIP there was, a celebrity, at Joe Beef.

I told him that we all know the deal: one day we all get old. He said: "I never made that deal."

"We visited that grower. He had an elaborate Power Point marketing presentation to show us. So we left."

"Sometimes I tell people that Buster is a Mongolian Siamese blend. Sometimes they believe me."

The best possible day was when you could get him to laugh that big toothy aw shucks I don't believe this world I mean am I right? laugh.

"Do you have chocolate cake? No? Okay, then I'll just have the chocolate cake."

"You're a young man, you can still choose not to sell out."

"With my bum leg I can't ride my bike anymore, so maybe I'll come to your no-bike-parking restaurant now. Or maybe not."

"I'll have something simple for dessert. Do you have thousand layer cake?"

"Really, Zaggy, Denyse, and Kevin run the company. I write blogs."

"I could use everybody's help. Except yours."

"Who of the five people in the natural wine movement is persecuting you?"

He used to hang with The Owl Man

Nobody was smarter than Coad or Callahan, except him.

I never heard him say a bad word against Breton, or Chidaine, or Larmandier.

He taught Tasmanian Devils how to be relentless

"It's called a Friend Request, not a Vaguely Recalled Person that I Perhaps met Once Request"

"Roundtable seminar on Nuclear Spectrology and the Modern World, 6th floor": Signage from the tasting

He never wore a fedora.

Beware the competitor schnook who tried to taste at his table

"I don't like to play the Cancer card, but I need to sit down now."

Used to snap pictures of his Favorites

Say if Holden had been Jewish and liked wine...

Was once caught on film passing a bribe to Eric Texier

Anyone who says he wasn't a hedonist clearly never ate with the man: "Are you going to eat those?"

Saw the seer in Sheila D.

His only fear was the Flying Attack Cat of Venice

You used to see him backstage at the Downtown Uproar shows

Where others saw flower labels, he saw Beaujolais

Was King Arthur at the Camelot on Leonard Street

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What I should have known in the beginning, and wish I could always remember now


Looking back over a decade of sommelier service, I seem to have made every mistake twice. Sometimes three times. This is probably because I am stubborn. But it has been through failure that I have really learned what not to do. And just in case you would like to have a successful sommelier career that sidesteps all (most) of the pitfalls, I thought I might share what I know with you. I should probably read through some of these again myself. Sometimes I forget.

People think this is a business about wine. It's not. It's a business about people. And hopefully it is about people who like wine, but it is about people.

Go work at a restaurant with a wine culture and with bottles open to taste. A culture is more than one person.

Don't move for the gold rush. Put down roots.

Today's busser is tomorrow's waiter. Today's waiter is tomorrow's sommelier.

Help with the gruntwork. This is a physical business. You are going to have to lift cases of wine.

Do inventory. You can't serve a bottle of wine if you can't find it in the cellar.

Use professional tastings as tastings. Spend time with the wine in your glass. Think about it. There is no substitute.

Remember stuff. If you can't do that, write it down.

Don't disparage wines that you don't like. You are going to change. Your palate is going to change. There is a good chance that you might eventually like a wine you once criticized. And then you'll probably feel a little bit like a dummy.

Don't get psyched out in the beginning. Remember that it is actually easier to talk to customers if you are one step ahead of them knowledge -wise, because you have more in common with them, than if you are ten steps ahead.

Heroes: they are so important to inspiring you to do something better. And they will open mental doors for you. But keep in mind that fads are fads, and group think is group think.

Reading is fundamental. You've got to do the homework.

Being smart about a subject is really only helpful if you can communicate that nicely.


Every day there is a change out there. In the laws, in the labelling, in the who is doing what. Try to keep up as best you can.

The real skill is in the buying. That is also where the profit is.

Pairing wine with meat or fish: easy. Pairing wine with dessert: difficult. Try the pairing out before you go recommending it.

Make a list of wines to help people have a nice evening. Don't make it for any other reason. This is the real litmus test of a wine director. And the hardest rule to follow.

Create a theme for your program. Stick to it. Don't try to do everything. The wine world is too BIG to do everything. You cannot have every bottle. Do what you do,  and have the bottles that go with that.

Introduce new products. Don't try to sell the same wine 10 different ways. New wines keep it interesting.

Create some excitement. Come in and show people what the fun is about.

Relationships with distributors: you'll never have a great list without sourcing great wines from the people who are bringing them in.

Time management is the key to doing this for the long haul. One part of that is being organized. Another is deadlines, and getting it done today (not tomorrow). And you've got to inspire the people you work with to work hard with you.

Partying: don't let it be why you do the job. If you do, you'll lose the job.


People don't come to a restaurant for the wine. Winebars are a different story. But people come to restaurants for the food. At the end of the day, there is no restaurant without the food.

Which brings us to the next point, which is: whatever the problem might be, the chef is right. Just remember that.

Understand, after a very long day, that you did this because you like wine.

You are going to be working with a lot of managers. Remember that managers like solutions to problems, not more problems. And remember that a good busser will be at that restaurant longer than most any manager.

Remember seasonality. Customers will want to drink differently based on the weather, and based on what produce is available on the menu. But this will just happen one day. No one is going to tell you ahead of time.

Closeouts: get that order in fast.

The 750ml bottle is an obstacle to get around. Think of ways to get more wine in glasses and out of bottles.

Being a good citizen outside of your venue. Don't speak ill of other programs. Don't ask for anything for free because you are in "the industry." Don't be the last table to leave an empty restaurant. And leave that nice tip.

Make regulars by recognizing them.

There are only so many fine dining regulars. Be nice to them.

Look for the wine lover in the crowd of customers. Share an extra (gratis) taste of something with him or her. Wine is cheap. Make a friend.

Make your staff a partner in the success, beyond the financial incentive.

Be your own PR person. Don't wait for someone else to get your message across.

Email vs. Face to Face: email in the orders so they come in exactly and there is a record. But remember that emails aren't a relationship.

If you are fighting for office space at the restaurant, then come in later in the afternoon and work late at night when everyone else has gone home. Then you can use the fax, the printer, whatever. Turn on some music to keep things lively.


A sommelier is still a busser. Or should be.

Be careful about lateral movement. Don't go getting "promoted" to the same thing you've always done. Look for new challenges.


It takes a year to really get a wine program going full speed. That's a full year, 365 days. Don't fool yourself into thinking it is going to happen sooner than that.

 

Engage writers who engage you. Reach out to them. They like to be appreciated just as much as you appreciate them.

Remember the ageing curve of wines on your list. Don't assume the taste of a wine is static. That misunderstands what wine is.

Remember how long a bad buy can stay with you. Years is the answer. It takes 5 minutes to makes a bad buy, and it can take years to get rid of it all.

Getting it right the first time: price it right in micros, spell it right on the list. Then you don't have to do it over again later.


If you take over a program from somebody else, the first thing you should do is check all the pricing in micros. That is the very first thing you should do. Right after you figure out where the employee bathroom is.

Prevent heat damaged deliveries. Think twice about ordering a 20 case drop for delivery in the middle of the afternoon in July.

Make the wine list user friendly. Warn people (in writing) about wines they might find too stange. Encourage people (in writing) to order the wines you are excited about.


Remember that the people who work the vineyard rows and put the wine in bottle do the real work. We are their advocates.


TRAVEL to vineyards.

Update the wine list online frequently. Customers use it as a resource. It frustrates them to spend time picking a wine that no longer exists.

The possibility of a family. "Floor sommelier" is a young person's game. Remember that at some point you might want to have children of your own, and that you might like to spend time with them. What is your end game scenario for when that time comes? If you figure it out, let me know.

Say thank you and be sincere.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Navigating a Restaurant Wine List

Recently, I taught a class at NYU on the subject of restaurant wine lists. The class wasn't focused on designing and buying wine for a restaurant list, which is what I have done for a number of years, but rather took a look from the consumer perspective. How might a restaurant guest use this document they've been handed to the best of their advantage? In case you weren't in attendance at the class, I thought I might recount some of what I said here on this blog, which for today might be called "So You Want to Be Drinking Like a Sommelier?"

First rule: Read from back to front.

Really. Simple as that. Someone hands you a 30 page wine list? Open it to page 30 and work backward. Why? Well, because everyone else starts at page 1. They all look at the same wines, they work into the list about 15 pages, and then they get tired of looking and just pick something. Which means that they don't consider the other pages, and those wines just sit there, and as they sit there they get older, which may well mean the wines get better.

Does starting from the back of the list mean that you are going to be drinking a lot of Sauternes? No. But it might mean that you find that old auslese that has been classified on the wine list as a "sweet wine," even though it now has 20 years of age and little perceptible sweetness. Or it might mean that you spend more time considering the large format page, which is a good idea. Magnums move through most restaurants very slowly, because customers say "Oh, we won't drink that much," even though they will eventually order two bottles of a Brunello anyway. As magnums don't sell through, they age in the restaurant's cellar, and offer more mature drinking than the 750ml options on the list. And again, because magnums don't sell, they often don't get marked up to a higher price point as they get older.

Second rule: Go reverse "type"

It's an Italian restaurant? Well, don't order Brunello. Everyone orders Brunello in an Italian restaurant. The Brunellos are priced accordingly, and that is higher. Time to flip through the list of the Italian restaurant and look for a Burgundy, or a California Cabernet. That's right. Because those wines don't sell in that restaurant. I'm not talking about the DRC or the young cult cab that is there just because a high roller might order it. I am talking about California Cab with age on it, which is ignored because of the venue. The same rule applies when going to a classic French restaurant. Every other patron there is likely to order Burgundy. Look instead for the Barolos that may be there on the list. Often those will be more mature and offer better value because they don't sell every night.

Rule Three: Buy the cheapest wine

That's right. The very cheapest wine on the list. The line everybody believes is "buy the second cheapest wine on the list." I am here to tell you, if it is a good wine program, the only reason the sommelier put a $30 bottle of wine on the list is because he or she likes that wine. There is no other reason. None of the waiters are going to be congratulating the sommelier on putting on a wine at that price, trust me. So a sommelier puts on a wine he likes and what happens? Nobody buys it because it is too cheap. The wine just sits there in inventory. The sommelier can't raise the price, because what if somebody comes in and says "I saw such and such wine at a retail shop and it was nothing and here you are charging a fortune for it!" So the sommelier is stuck. That's where you come in. Order the cheapest wine on the list. Very often you will be surprised at how good it is.

Rule Four: Take the side streets

Don't look for the obvious appellations. The sommelier will have heard something along the lines of "I want DRC (or Petrus) for $80" from guests several times a night. That is what everyone is hunting for. If everyone is hunting for it, it has long since sold out by the time you have occupied your chair for dinner. Instead, look for the lesser known regions. There has never been a better time to be drinking wine from the Loire Valley than today, for instance. Lombardia contains a treasure trove of less expensive Nebbiolo. If you go for the B's (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Brunello, Barolo) you are very likely going to pay a premium when you don't have to.

Rule Five: Forget about vintage hype

Every day, in every city in America, people pay too much for a wine because it is from a "famous" vintage. Don't make this mistake. Great vintages very well may make for great wines, but in the long term, not the short term. Most of restaurant wine consumption does not involve the long term. It involves wines a few years old. Do you want to be drinking 2005 Red Burgundy now? No, you don't. It is hard, and showing little but a promise of future greatness. Don't be fooled into thinking you should be buying that wine for consumption today, at the dinner table, just because you have read so many positive notes about the vintage. Also, and this is the real truth: sometimes those "great vintages" don't turn out to be so great after all. Consider 1995 White Burgundy or 1996 Red Burgundy. Definitely not living up to the accolades that they were given on release. It is a smarter move to snap up "lesser" vintages that will become mature sooner when dining at a restaurant.

Rule Six: Don't be afraid to decant

If a wine does seem to be hard and tannic, go ahead and decant it. Give it some air. Watch the wine change in your glass. It is always amazing to go back to a wine and find that it has changed considerably in just a few minutes. Decanters can help turn unruly wines into proper dinner companions. And it is a myth that decanting is just for old wines. Decanting can help you out the most, in fact, when the wine is young. Young white wines, too.

Rule Seven: Ask about a second bottle when you order the first

If you have a large party and your are selecting wine, don't assume that because a wine is on the list that there will be plenty of bottles to go through, especially if it is an older wine. If you are worried that your steak might later get cold while you look at the list a second time to select a different bottle, make sure that you inquire when you first order a wine if there is in fact another bottle available. Then you know if it will be there if needed.

Rule Eight: Hard to pronounce is cheap, easy to pronounce is expensive

Over and over again one sees guests ignoring wines that they aren't familiar with because of the awkward names attached to the labels. Don't do that. Make a point of asking about wines that seem difficult to say. Often they are overlooked and neglected, when they could be telling you volumes about a native region and wine made in an authentic, traditional manner.

Rule Nine: Don't glaze over a page with high prices

Larger lists are often arranged geographically, and not by price. So it is very possible that you could have 30 wines from the same place, some of which command hundreds of dollars, while others are a relative pittance. Just because you see some big dollar numbers on a page, don't skip over all of the other options on that page. You may be missing something noteworthy and inexpensive.

Rule Ten: Ignore wine by the glass

Really. Just don't buy a glass. The highest markups on the entire list will be on the wines by the glass. In fact, wines by the glass are huge revenue generators for most restaurants. Get a cheap bottle instead. The relative value will be much higher. Leave some leftover wine for the service staff if you want, and become their favorite regular. Or take it home with you (law allowing).

Rule Eleven: Drink what is supposedly out of season

People think of young rose in the summer. Everybody wants rose in the summer. However, few drink the older roses, the mature roses, in the fall, when they can be quite lovely. Find a rose with some savory character, something from Bandol perhaps. Look and see if it has a few years of age on it. If it does, most of the summer time drinkers will have skipped right over it, thinking that it won't be fresh or good. Enjoy that mature rose, which is probably very versatile with a range of foods, as the leaves start to change color.

The same logic applies to crisp, young whites. Lots of people want to drink these in the summer. I often also like a brisk young white in the winter. It gets the blood flowing, I feel more alert. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that high acid is only for warmer weather. And often those high acid, lean white wines are some of the cheapest wines on the entire list.

Rule Twelve: Pick food to go with your wine, not the other way around

Restaurant entree prices are pretty consistent, have been for years, and are likely to continue to be in the future. Which is to say, depending on how many stars a restaurant has, your entree is going to cost somewhere between $25 and $45 for the plate of food. The divergence on any one menu is less than that. Usually no more than $10 seperates the most expensive entree on offer from the least expensive.

Wine prices, on the other hand, vary dramatically. A wine might cost $35 a bottle, or it might cost $3,500 a bottle, and those options may very well be on the same wine list. Which is to say that it makes more economic sense for you to pick your wine first, before your food. If decline to do this, and you pick the turbot as your entree, then you are locked in to wines on the list that go well with turbot, or what may be 30 percent of the list. The other way around increases the chance of finding a great value wine, and then you can decide what to eat with it. Your choices on the food menu won't go down 30 percent with a wine in mind. Usually they don't go down more than half. And you will have possibly saved $100 instead of $10. Bottom line: don't value hunt on the menu, value hunt on the wine list, because that is where the savings will be. Which means you should pick the wine for your meal first, before you pick the food.

The last rule: Avoid the $80-120 trap

For as long as I have been a sommelier, which is to say 12 years, I have watched people at three and four star restaurants usually aim for the same price point. Most people, most of the time, want to spend about $95 on a bottle of red wine with dinner. This number has not changed in over a decade. What has changed is the wine that $95 will buy you today, as opposed to a few years ago. But the best strategy is to avoid that price point altogether. Many people look in that range, and whatever was really good, whatever gems might have been, they are probably gone. The better strategy is to go high or low. As crazy as this sounds, relative value is often highest around $300 a bottle, or $45. Since most people don't hunt in those zones, that is where bottles of real interest can very often be found, as long as you avoid hyped names and vintages. Sure, $300 is a lot of money for a bottle of wine. But what if that is a bottle of Heitz Cabernet from the 70s or 80s? That could be a life changing wine, a wine you will remember for the rest of forever. The odds that you will find a life changing wine for $95 are very low indeed.


All right, those are my tips. Of course there is a lot that wasn't even mentioned, like BYOB. Feel free to add your insights in the comments. I'm always looking for a new way to drink better for less.