Wine and dine

Make that restaurant wine list work for you.

click to enlarge SO GLASSY: Learn more about wine sip by sip. - BONEFISH GRILL
SO GLASSY: Learn more about wine sip by sip.

More and more restaurants are taking wine seriously. This fact means a wider selection of wines by the glass, including those of higher quality. It also means a greater selection of affordable bottles from wine regions around the globe. And, on those special occasions when you’re willing to blow the budget, a choice of older vino not available at your local wine shop.

Still, many diners are nervous when the server plops the wine list on the table. We revert to choices that make us feel comfortable instead of getting excited like a kid in a candy store. I want you to use each restaurant meal as a chance to try something new. Wine is a fascinating discipline of unfathomable depth. Despite many years of tasting and studying, I feel like I’m always learning — chipping away a sip at a time.

One wonderful aspect of the never-ending search for wine knowledge is that most restaurants have mentors to hold your hand along the way and lead you down paths you may never have imagined alone. Someone at each restaurant, large or small, is in charge of the wine program. It may be the owner or the chef but chances are there’s a sommelier lurking in the shadows. You’ve got an expert at your beck and call to guide you on this journey.

So don’t be anxious if your familiarity with wine is only rudimentary; sommeliers are your friends. They know the subtleties of the restaurant’s menu and can point you toward new tastes and help you avoid pitfalls. They’re adept at meeting you at your level.

An important factor to remember is that matching the wine to your meal is a different proposition than just drinking a glass as an aperitif. When a wine is paired with food, each of them changes. Under ideal circumstances, both the wine and the food taste better because of the combination. These are matches made in heaven. But under normal conditions, the wine may just cleanse your palate to prepare you for the next bite. In almost all cases, there’s not just one right match. Experimentation yields surprise.

A good sommelier makes inquiries about what you like to drink. All other things being equal, do you prefer to drink white wine or red wine? Dry wine or sweet wine? Sparkling wine or still wine? Then, the sommelier can use her knowledge of the restaurant’s cellar to recommend a progression of wines by the glass or bottle to complement your entire dinner. Depending on the size of your party, you might even choose a series of half bottles. Just point to a price range and the sommelier is off to the races.

Restaurants invest a lot in developing their wine programs. Fine dining establishments use high-end lead crystal from noted manufacturers like Reidel or Schott Zwiesel—check for the name stenciled in white on the base.

These glasses are a joy, with the bowl specifically shaped to enhance the aromas of a particular wine varietal. The ultra-thin edges deliver the wine elegantly upon your tongue. That’s why restaurant wines are double retail at a minimum. Glassware breakage, maintaining a cellar, and paying a service staff has a price. So use the sommelier to your advantage.

Don’t be afraid to ask for small samples of wines by the glass or to question the server if your bottle seems a little funky. It may be “corked” — that’s winespeak for moldy or oxidized.

Sample new wines every chance you get. The more you try, the more you get to know and expand your own tastes. You’ll also start becoming aware of the flavor profiles of different grapes and the stylistic differences based on the wine’s country of origin.

Old world versus new world will begin to make sense on your palate. You’ll start to be able to identify the actual flavors and nuances in your wine. You’ll no longer say, “This wine is nice,” but instead will be pleased when you can identify the orchard fruits in a chardonnay or specific dark berries in a cabernet. Then, each restaurant meal is your playground.