This is the first part of a series in which I hope to educate some readers, reinforce the knowledge of others, and hopefully make the experience of dining out more pleasant for all parties involved. I have started with the most common wine mistakes. This is adapted from a class I have taught for years but is far from an inclusive list.
Never Order A Bottle Of Something That Is Offered By The Glass
The cost equation for wines by the glass (BTG) is “whatever is paid for the bottle, that is what is charged for the glass. The glass price is multiplied by four to calculate the bottle price. Wine that is only offered by the bottle is normally a three times mark-up. Therefore by comparison, these bottles generally produce better values.
Random Bottle X sold BTG – wholesale price = $10, BTG price = $10, bottle price = $40
Random Bottle Y sold only by the bottle – wholesale price = $10, bottle price = $30
Never Use the Phrase “Table Wine”
Guests when consulting with restaurant staff will commonly indicate that they are seeking a bottle of “table wine” using that phrase as a euphemism for inexpensive. That is a categorically incorrect usage of the word and may brand you an amateur diner. Table Wine is defined as a wine that is made from a blend of grapes rather than a single varietal and has NO reflection on price. The bottle of 1982 Petrus on the list for upwards of $15K is a table wine in the same manner that the 2005 Caymus Conundrum on the list for $40 is a table wine.
Stop Sniffing Corks
The purpose of presenting the cork to the guest who ordered the bottle is for the guest to see that the bottle was stored properly – on its side*. If a bottle is subject to cork taint** the smell will be obvious to anyone at the table. If the bottle is simply “off***”, the cork will still smell like wine soaked cork and tell you nothing of the condition of the wine in the bottle. Smelling cork is a affectation of the uninitiated. The best route is to simply feel the end of the cork with your thumb. Damp is good, dry may or may not mean anything.
Stop Tasting the Wine When a Taste Is Poured
The purpose of offering a taste is to ensure that the wine is not suffering from cork taint. As discussed, this can be accomplished with a simple sniff. Smells like wine – good; smells like wet cardboard left in Tupperware for four weeks – the wine is corked. By simply swirling and smelling, you have subtly but clearly indicated to the staff that you understand wine better than most.
Taste the Wine When A Taste Is Poured
This seemingly contradictory statement applies when a suggestion has been made by a member of the staff. In this instance, the restaurant has recommended it presuming you will enjoy it and this makes them responsible for your satisfaction. So taste it. If you went through the wine list on your own and selected a bottle and don’t like it, that choice is on you. Consider this comparison: you walk into a record store (I know, I know – who does that anymore) and buy a CD that after listening realize you don’t like – you wouldn’t return it. However, if after talking with a member of the staff about other artists you dig, they recommend something you eventually hate – you would feel entitled to return it.
Talk to the Staff
In an era of heightened appreciation for and sensitivity to the enjoyment of wine, most restaurants have a staff member that is tasked with being the resident provider of wine advice. High end restaurants will have a Sommelier or Wine Director, in other cases it may be a manager or even a server with great wine experience. Utilize their services. I am a wine expert, yet I still consult with Sommeliers when I dine out because no matter how much I know about wine and food in general, I expect them to know their menu and wine more specifically. I usually ask “is there someone with whom I can discuss the wine list available.” To indicate my price preference, I will usually refernce a bottle on the list with the phrase “I am looking for something in the same ball park as Random Wine X, that will compliment the meal.”
Ask About a Reserve List
This tactic should only be used in restaurants that have tablecloths. 95% of restaurants do not have a reserve list, those that do, however, place their favorite bottles (usually in a range of prices) on this list. It is another subtle indication that you are a more experienced diner and sends a clear message to the staff that you are to be taken seriously.
* this is not really important for bottles that are served within four years of vintage, however, restaurants that have a strong wine program will do this nonetheless. There is a more detailed explanation for this but I am only willing to give away so much information for free.
** Cork Taint is another area that requires more extensive discussion. It can be caused by a number of factors but the smell is still the same.
*** Wine that is “off” is a catch-all term for any of the numerous things that can affect the taste of a bottle of wine. Wine is a living organism and like any other some times it just ain’t right.