Mastering the Massive List
Top ten tips to help you navigate a big-league wine list like a pro.
You’re hosting a big dinner event at the posh restaurant in town. The room rings with excitement as your guests murmur in delight while scanning the menu. All is smooth sailing until the server presents the hefty wine list. Don’t fret. Wine Enthusiast enlisted the help of top sommeliers for tips that will make every host navigate a massive list like a pro.
1. Ask for preferences. Find out which dishes your guests are considering before the sommelier arrives at the table to make the wine selection process easier. “By the time you’ve discussed everyone’s food choices, you can offer the wine professional your parameters,” says Bernard Sun, corporate beverage director of Jean-Georges Management. This will help him or her begin to narrow down the options for you and your guests when it comes time for a final decision. “The goal is to find food-friendly wines that work with most of the dishes.”
2. Pairings should be perfect. Simply asking the sommelier to pick a wine is not always enough—ask why the pairing works, too. Have him or her explain why that particular wine works with the food. It elevates the dining experience for your attendees by making it educational and personal, says Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at restaurant Daniel. “Asking those two questions—what and why—together will give you the reasoning behind the sommelier’s choices, and assure you and your guests that they’re picking the best wine for you.”
3. Talk structure. “[Structure] is the quality that describes how the wine tastes and feels, which should give you a good sense of how it will pair with your food,” says Vaidya. “A high-acid wine with a low-acid dish will make the wine taste austere and the food taste flabby. Tannins can overpower delicate food, and alcohol can overwhelm delicate flavors,” he says. That’s why he recommends you talk to your guests about these characteristics before he pours to ensure everyone is satisfied with the selection.
4. Find the sommelier’s darlings. Scan the list for emerging wine regions or for an abundance of options from one particular region. If there’s a section dedicated to red Bordeaux or two pages of Riesling options, you’ve most likely discovered the sommelier’s area of expertise. Ordering from that list will likely satisfy even the mavens at your table. And don’t forget to ask the sommelier about recent finds. “Nothing gets a sommelier more excited and eager to be helpful than talking about [his or her] discoveries,” says Vaidya.
5. Check wines by the glass. A generous selection of wines available by the glass reflects a great wine program. Sommeliers sometimes open pricy or unusual vintages to introduce little-known styles or regions, or pop a special bottle for good clients who only want a glass. This creates an opportunity for your guests to enjoy something esoteric.
6. Explore the house wine. If you’re at a restaurant with a notable cellar, the house wine is likely carefully selected and worth trying. “Our house wines are high quality and not inexpensive because they have Daniel’s name on them,” says Vaidya. He recommends noting whether the wine is a signature option or simply a house wine. “If the restaurant has a signature wine, then it’s usually quite good, but if it’s just called ‘house wine’ without [the restaurant’s] own label, then they’re probably not that proud of it.”
7. Select a go-to varietal. When in doubt, pick a varietal that can pair with a number of dishes. “People at the table will be ordering a mishmash of different dishes, so for a white, I suggest Riesling or Chablis because they are very pure and have good crispness,” says Sun. He also claims you can’t go wrong with a light red, like Pinot Noir, to avoid overpowering delicate dishes. “These may not be a perfect match for every dish, but they should be a pretty good match for most.”
8. Point to the unpronounceable. Don’t be afraid to point to a wine when you’re not sure how to pronounce it properly. “Even I have difficulty pronouncing some specialized German grapes, so I understand if customers have a bit of trouble with the complicated names of wines,” says Olivier Flosse, corporate wine and beverage director for the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC) U.S.
9. Don’t pick by price. “Never judge a wine by its price. That low-priced wine has been tasted and selected for a good reason,” says wine consultant Rom Toulon, formerly of Meadowood and the Four Seasons San Francisco. The list’s median price can also offer some insight into quality, too. “If most wines on a high-end list run over $100, best to steer clear of that lone $25 bottle,” advises Nick Mautone, formerly of Gramercy Tavern and Gotham Bar and Grill and currently beverage director at New York’s Jezebel.
10. Do some homework. Googling under the table doesn’t scream hostess with the mostest. Research the restaurant’s wine list in advance of your event. “I google the name of the grape,” says Flosse. “I feel information from one Web site is not enough. I want three, four, five opinions.”