Staring at a thick, endless restaurant wine list gives me the heebie-jeebies. And since knowledgeable servers are as rare as a 1948 Lafite, we're pretty much left to run the maze ourselves. But never fear. There are a few savvy secrets to navigating an intimidating wine tome. Beware the "house wine." Often, this is cheap rotgut designed to make a scandalous profit for the restaurant. Yes, once in a blue moon you'll encounter an enlightened locale with good house wine, but unfortunately, this is woefully rare. To avoid the trap, get the info. If the house wine equals "Chardonnay," ask what brand and assess from there.
Buy smart. When the whole table wants wine, consider the value of a bottle instead of several individual glasses. Finding a wine that complements each entree may be daunting, but if you're drinking what everyone likes, happiness follows. And that's the point.
When you pick up a wine list for the first time, assess its organization. Is it by region? By varietal? By weight? "Weighted" lists are also called "progressive," meaning the wines are ranked from lightest to heaviest in flavor. A good comparison is milk: Skim is light, 2 percent is medium, and 4 percent is heaviest. Think of how each type of milk feels in your mouth and you'll understand what "weight" means. Progressive lists are my favorite, if only for their sheer ease of use and helpfulness. Listing only the wine names begs the question: "How the hell do I know what that wine tastes like?" Thankfully, clever restaurants are moving toward more informative wine lists.
Region-based wine lists are a little more difficult to navigate simply because they require knowledge of the region. Same for varietal, although people are becoming more informed about different grapes tastes and styles.
Another pointer: Don't shy away from the cheapest wines. There's a psychology associated with listing the cheaper wines first and going up from there. The restaurateur expects you won't order the least expensive for fear of looking cheap, and counts on your choice of the third or fourth selection. It's a game. Don't go there. The wine is normally already marked up 300 percent, so if you like the cheapest wine, then save the bucks and do reverse psychology on their sneaky ass.
When flustered, seek help. If your server isn't up to snuff, then ask the manager or owner for advice. More than likely, these enthusiastic individuals see the value in helping you make a decision. Don't be shy about asking questions like "I'm having chicken Parmigiana, what should I drink with that?" or "My price range is $30 to $40, what can you recommend in the Chardonnay area?" or "I'm not a fan of Cabernet, but I like a big wine. Is there something on the wine list like that?"
If there's no help in sight, or if the atmosphere is so intimidating your palms are sweaty, go for equal weight with your food. If the food is light in flavor, then choose a light-bodied wine to go with it, and the opposite for heavier dishes. Keep in mind that sparkling wine goes with practically everything. And if there's no brand you recognize, just order a grape type that you normally enjoy and embark on an adventure.
To avoid the whole nerve-racking scene altogether, seek out restaurants that really want to educate and broaden your wine choices.
A few local restaurants where the proprietors are true wine people who train their staff:
Flemings Steakhouse and Wine Bar 4322 W. Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa 813-874-9463
Salt Rock Grill 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach 727-593-7625
Six Tables 4267 Henderson Blvd., Tampa 813-207-0527
Mise en Place 442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa 813-254-5373
SideBern's 1002 S. Howard Ave., Tampa 813-258-2233
Circles 2500 W. Azeele St., Tampa 813-879-5228
Roy's 4342 Boy Scout Blvd. W., Tampa 813-873-7697
Saint Larry's 34980 U.S. 19, Palm Harbor 727-786-0077
O Bistro 6661 Central Ave, St. Petersburg 727-381-1212