Thursday, March 21, 2013
Intimidated by wine? Go undercover as an ultimate snob
Fake it 'til you make it, and maybe learn what you love in the process.
So maybe you landed a hot date, or you have clients to entertain. Perhaps you’d like to show your wife’s parents that you are in fact, no dummy. Here’s your chance, fellow diners! The reservation has been made, and you’ve scored an awesome table. Now, step up, confidently grab that wine list from the middle of the table, scan your options and order a wine that will blow the table away. Enjoy the ceremony of having a bottle presented and poured in your glass. Take a sniff and a swig and beam with approval. Watch as your fellow guest exchange glances of admiration. Accept their praises because they, and your server, now know that they are dealing with the real deal. The taste of food is heightened, the ambiance seems to change, and engaging, highly intellectual conversation ensues. You are the hero.
OK, so maybe it’s not always that magical, but one thing is for sure – adding wine to amazing food at a hip restaurant is a no-brainer. The hard part comes when you look down at that list of words that makes little to no sense and you must choose a bottle that doesn’t give you or your date bitter-face. Here are some easy steps to follow so you can seem like a wine snob without even trying (and hey, you may learn some cool stuff too!).
Overwhelmed by the selections on the wine list? Ready to branch out and try something new but don’t know where to begin? Most nice restaurants have a well educated staff and someone on hand to assist you. If you get the sense that your server knows about as much as you do about the wine list, ask him or her if you can speak with the sommelier (som-moh-yay or wine man or lady). This person is not there to gouge you or just push the fancy stuff. If you’re looking for a bottle in the $30 price range, let your wine guy know and you’ll get the best $30 bottle on the list!
Once a bottle is ordered, it's that person's duty to approve the bottle. When the server sticks the bottle in your face confirm that it is the bottle you ordered. Check the name (wine producer), the varietal (the grape), and the vintage (the year). Everything check out? Give them the OK.
After your server opens the bottle and sets down the cork, there's really nothing you need to do with it. Someone, somewhere started smelling corks, but it's totally unnecessary. A cork smells like cork. It gives you no indication of how good or bad the wine is.
Once the server pours a sample in the glass, move it around in the glass a little. This opens up the flavors and aromas. Always hold the glass by its stem. First off, it just looks nicer and it keeps all of your dirty finger prints off the glass but, it also helps keep your wine at its proper temperature by not warming it with body heat.
Next, take a sniff. But, like, really take a sniff. Like … stick your whole nose in the glass and breath in with your mouth open. There are a few different reasons why a bottle can go bad and you can certainly get it on the nose. Look out for scents of wet cardboard, rotten eggs or sulfur, vinegar, raisins, or the aroma of a sherry or port.
If the wine has passed the nose test, take a sip and really let it coat your mouth. Feel it on every corner of your tongue. If you feel the wine is bad, ask the server or wine director for their opinion and get a new bottle. If a bottle has gone bad, the restaurant can get a refund from the distributer. When its not, they can’t. Sending back a bottle of wine that has not gone bad … they’ll do it, but watch out for falling pianos.
Last, let your server serve your bottle. He or she will refill your glass when it is time. Wine works better a little at a time because it is alive in your glass! A full glass has no room to grow, breathe, and change. Give your wine space and oxygen to experience these changes in your glass for a better experience on your palate.
Ordering by the glass?
Unless you’re dining at an establishment that serves a whole fried onion or anything with poppers in the title, remove the word "house" from your wine vocabulary. Generally speaking, house wines are simply cheap. If you are dining at an establishment with a $35 entree on the menu, you – at least for the evening – are not there to be cheap. Sure, it’s understandable to be wary of ordering something above a comfortable $5 glass of house wine when that’s what you’re used to. After all, what if you hate it? It’s easy to dislike and suck down a glass of $5 wine, but when you’re paying $8-25 for a glass, well, you’d better enjoy it, right?
Lucky for you, your servers and bartenders want you to enjoy it, too. So, if a wine is offered by the glass on the menu, ask to have a little sample first. Since they are poured by the glass, the bottles are already open, it should be no issue to try it first. If you usually ask for house chardonnay, find two chardonnays on the list for a price you’re willing to pay and compare the two.
Look for the wine, not the price!
We are not all blessed with unlimited income. Sometimes we just need to find an affordable bottle to get us through our meals. But let’s not sacrifice quality for price. Understand why the wine is affordable. Is it because it’s a popular label that is mass-produced somewhere in California, shipped all over the world and the fruit is over-extracted and blended? Or, is it because it’s from a family vineyard in Spain that has no debt, quality production and affordable labor? Here’s a hint: South American wines are affordable, complex, and offer many of the familiar California varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Chardonnay.
Throw out all the old rules about wine and food pairings.
We’ve all heard it – red wine with red meat, white wine with fish. Well, what about pork, dark-meat-chicken, pheasant? What about those vegetarians? What if you’re having steak but she’s having fish? The key to wine and food pairing is balance. A light Pinot Noir is perfect for grilled chicken or a meaty halibut. Cool your palate from your spicy Asian noodles with a crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blanc. Try a sweet Sauterne with your creamy cheese plate.
Find all the fancy wines you recognize on the list and totally ignore them.
Want to be a true pro? Dare to go against the crowd and surprise yourself and your guests with a lovely hidden gem on the wine list. Oftentimes, when you are spending money on a big name wine, you are simply paying for that – the name. How much time, love, and attention can be given to a bottle of wine that is seen in every fancy restaurant in the country and around the world? Instead of going for the name, think about what that name is selling you. Maybe it’s a big, robust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $160. Chop that number in half and choose another, less familiar Napa Valley Cabernet. Maybe get out of California and try an $80 Argentinian Cabernet. You and your wallet will likely be happy with the result.
Last, don’t limit yourself to one particular varietal or wine label. Avoid blanketed statements like “I only drink red” or “I hate merlot.” There are thousands of wines all over the world to try, and you don’t have to spend a fortune doing it. The same grape grown in two different regions with two different methods can taste completely different. The more you learn about what you love in your wine the more you can expand your wine experience.
Essentially, just drink many different wines, and drink wine often!
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