You already know how to send wine back at a restaurant without looking like a total douchebag. But with just about every other steakhouse chain competing with one another to design wine lists so thick that they require Incredible Hulk–like strength just to get them to your table, how do you navigate those weighty tomes so that you can order a friggin’ bottle of wine in the first place?
To help us unlock the mysteries of the modern-day wine list, I called on the help of someone who’s been on the inside of the restaurant and wine biz for over fifteen years: Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer. Far from being a stuffy putz in the often-stodgy world of wine, Fred is an in-demand beverage program consultant and a heavy metal fan who is just as likely to quote Iron Maiden lyrics as he is to offer you an insider tip on a great, inexpensive new wine brand.
Here are Fred’s four quick tips for getting through the tangled jungle of today’s wine lists:
1. Do Your Homework
The best way to avoid disaster is to, well, avoid disaster. It’s just like when you were in the Boy Scouts (only without having to sneak behind the gym to drink warm stolen beer): preparation is your best friend.
“Not all wine lists are created equal,” Fred warns. “All restaurants have different motivations, and that can cause major caveats between one restaurant and the next — even if they’re on the same block. What’s most important if you really want a great wine experience is that you go to a restaurant that you know has a great wine program: somewhere that has a wine director, sommelier or a service staff that really takes care of the program.
“In a sense this sounds a bit like putting it on the customer, but if you know you’re going out to dinner at restaurant XYZ, you should ask them if there’s a wine list that you can take a look at ahead of time, or if it’s online, do you have a sommelier or someone on staff who can assist me when I come in? If you’re in the neighborhood, pop in and take a look at their pricing and taste a few of the wines.”
In Fred’s view, having a good time at dinner is the first priority, and while paging through a War and Peace–sized wine list might be fun at first, your dinner guests will probably get bored with it pretty quickly, so have an idea of what you want in the wine before you go.
“Especially if it’s a special occasion, like a business dinner. If you’re on a hot date, the last thing you want to do is pore through the wine list for half an hour.”
2. Look in the Middle
While your cheap ass might be scanning the least expensive wines on the menu, those are actually the ones that will bleed you the most.
According to Fred, “Typically wines by the glass have the highest markup, and typically the least expensive wines also have the highest markups. Often times, the wine director will price a $10 wine three or even four times higher. Often the most expensive wines are marked down the least.”
So where do the bargains reside?
“I really look in the middle,” Fred told me, “like $40 to $60 per bottle, for the best deals.”
3. Go off the Beaten Path
A surefire way to spend a bit too much on your restaurant wine is to ask for the same stuff that everyone else asks for when they dine there.
“The most popular wines are the ones that tend to be more expensive, like Burgundy, a Cabernet from Bordeaux, or Russian River Pinot Noir,” Fred notes. “It’s always good to ask for, or look for, wines that are off the beaten path, up-and-coming and emerging regions.”
Where does Fred go on the list when he’s dining out?
"“Chile is a great place to find incredible wines in that middle range. Within France, try the Loire Valley and southwest France. The unpronounceable grapes from Italy are a great place for value right now; not everyone can afford Brunello, and Chianti can be done but also often disappointing. Those wines are a good place to look for wines that you’re not going to get killed on” when it comes to price." [ Full disclosure: Dexheimer does work on education events with Chile and Southwest France, though I can certanly back him up that those are great regions to use to find wine list bargains. ]
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Stop and Ask for Directions
I know it doesn’t feel manly, but once in a while the smart play is to go metrosexual and use the resources you have at hand. Like the sommeliers themselves.
“Talk to a manager or a sommelier about the wine list, but most importantly be open about what you like and don’t,” Fred advises. “It’s always good to ask for help if you go to a restaurant that has dedicated wine people, and there are more and more and more of those in the world today. You should definitely use them, because they can turn your wine experience from good to great, and maybe even turn you onto something cool that they just got in.
“For me as a somm, my first couple of questions were always things like ‘What were the last couple of wines you’ve had that you got really excited about?’ That way I would know what they want to spend, and what kind of wine they’re looking for. The customer should not be scared to say, ‘This is what I like; I want to try something new within this price range.’ Be as open and honest as you can with them.”
Sounds like going to the doctor. Anyway…
5. Wine — It’s Not Just for Dinner
Finally, don’t ignore the pre- and post-dinner libation opportunities on the wine list; while they’re rarely bargains, they are often where the restaurant staff gets the most creative in offering interesting aperitifs and dessert wines — and after all, we’re here to have fun, right?
“Even if it’s looking at Champagne to begin, or a cocktail or an after-dinner drink, the somms can really help your meal,” concludes Fred. “It’s not just about getting that one great bottle of wine with dinner, but the ancillary things that you may want to experiment with and experience before and after dinner as well.”
About the Author:
Joe Roberts is a certified wine geek, and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times, and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, Publix, Palate Press, Mint.com, and Wines.com. You can find Joe regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing them with robust, obscure red) at the award-winning 1WineDude.com.