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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing! Great insights.

Craigk8 said...

Really practical and insightful guide. Will be sharing and re-reading - thanks.

leviopenswine said...

Thanks for the positive feedback. That is kind of you.

Unknown said...

I love your article, very helpful for someone like me. I don't know much about wine so I have a question for you. My husband's boss who we owe so much for bringing us to beautiful California loves (expansive) red wine, so for last couple years we've been buying a bottle of Caymus Special Selection for Christmas . I'm thinking it's too predictable to get him the same wine again. Could you give me a advice what would be a nice wine to buy for him or what would wine lover must have for a gift....on the budget of under $500. Thank you for this article :)

obillo said...

In recent months I've been collecting ridiculous statements by experts for an article provisionally titled "Let the Wine Experts Steer You Wrong--Again!" And I admit to seeking more grist from this piece, which surprised, almost stunned me by being the very best and most insightful and helpful wine article I've read in a very long time.

obillo said...

In recent months I've been collecting ridiculous statements by experts for an article provisionally titled "Let the Wine Experts Steer You Wrong--Again!" And I admit to seeking more grist from this piece, which surprised, almost stunned me by being the very best and most insightful and helpful wine article I've read in a very long time.

The Wine Mule said...

I've heard maybe one or two of these hints, from different people in different venues, but I've never seen 13 real-world practical ideas like these in one place before. You've done us a great service (but then that's what great sommeliers do, right?) Thanks.

rsaikowski said...

Great suggestions, except that if it is a great wine list, then I pick wine to go with my food and not food to go with my wine. One further suggestion is to ask the Sommelier for his advice. I have always found it build a raport with someone who can make or break your evening.

CJ and PK said...

One thought:

Eat out - drink in.

The Sediment Blog

Beau said...

Very cool list, thank you for taking the time to write it out. I'll be disseminating this to my friends.

big daddy said...

Excellent post Dalton, Let's hope that more and more people follow such sage guidance when dining out. It will make everyone's life easier and more enjoyable.You are my hero.


leviopenswine said...

Thank you, Chris. Missing you.

Balogh Zoltán said...

A wine bottled with a certain amount of sugar content will keep the sugar for ever. The sugar level can decrease only by fermentation. But fermentation produces significant amount of carbon-dioxide what would be definitely recognized when the bottle is opened.

So in fact it is a silly urban legend that sweet wines lose their sweetness by time. No, they do not.

leviopenswine said...

Thank you Balogh, for your comment.

Would you expect a 20 year old German auslese to be sweet? Or might you expect it to have developed more savory characteristics? My experience would favor the later outcome.

Balogh Zoltán said...

The rule of thumb is that once it was sweet than it stays sweet. If an auslese was sweet (actually there are dry auslese, since auslese refers to the sugar content of the must before fermentation and not the wine)
20 years ago than it is sweet today as well.

Sweetness is not a characteristics what develops or drops out during the bottle aging.

Characteristics developing during the bottle aging never hides the sweetness of the wine. The sweetness of a wine depends on the sugar content and the extract of the wine. None of these changes during the years.

In fact there is only one analytical parameter what can effect how do you taste the sweetness. That is the acidity. So with higher acidity you might feel less sweet a wine. But acidity does not develop but drops by aging. So actually you have more chance to feel sweeter an older wine than a young one.

leviopenswine said...


You may be answering a question that interests you, but you did not answer the question that I asked you. Which was, to repeat, would you expect a 20 year old auslese, opened today, to be sweet?

There was a point to what I said in the piece, and that was that miscategorization on a wine list can lead to value finds for the consumer. So far, you haven't at all addressed that point. Rather, you have come off as condescending, which is fine, but not really of much interest to me.

Balogh Zoltán said...

The minimum must weight requirements for Auslese in german wine, 83 to 100 degrees Oechsle, depending on the region. What means from about 189g/l to 230g/l sugar content in the must.
To translate to alcohol potential it is from 11.16vv% to 13.59vv%.

So in fact an Auslese wine can be bone dry or sweet with 41g/l residual sugar. Auslese is not necessary a sweet wine.

If an Auslese was dry 20 years ago then it is dry today as well. Or if an Auslese was sweet 20 years ago then it is same sweet today.

The sweetness of the bottled wines do not change by time.

So, there is no right answer to your question.

Would I expect a 20 year old auslese, opened today, to be sweet? Yes, if it was sweet 20 years ago then it is for sure sweet today as well.

That is what I wrote to you in my previous comment.

What you wrote in the blogpost is misleading. Acutally I would not recommend to choose a 20 years old Auslese wine in any restaurant, unless you know the producer and the basic parameters of the wine.

Scott Reiner said...

you forgot the easiest advice, "Eat wherever Levi is working."

leviopenswine said...

That's nice of you, Scott. Thanks! Hope to see you soon.

Unknown said...

please tell me how you would critically go about choosing a wine to go with a certain meal that a guest as ordered you in the restaurant as a sommelier..thanks in advance

Anonymous said...

Balogh is both correct and incorrect. He is correct in stating that the residual sugar level that a wine is bottled with will not markedly change with aging. However, as oxygen slowly works its aging magic on the fruit of the vine the perception of sweetness does indeed change. As other flavors develop they often deflect some of the tongue's tasting attention from the RS and so we perceive less sweetness (despite the same sugar concentration).

Alvin Mcguires said...

Pretty impressive article. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your opinions.