The Boston Phoenix
April 22 - 29, 1999


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Wine for help

Confused by restaurant wine lists? Speak up.

by Thor Iverson

A tall gray man in a tall black suit looms over your table. You glance nervously at your date; you're afraid to look at Mr. Tall Black, because you just know he's staring disapprovingly down the sides of his oversize nose. Your palm sweat is making the leather cover of the novel-size wine list feel a bit sticky. You clear your throat and stammer in a high-pitched squeak, "Um . . . we'll just have this," and stab your finger in the general direction of the most expensive wine on the page (you don't want to look cheap, after all). Uh-oh. Was that a condescending smirk? Did you order the right wine? Did you just exceed your credit limit? Have you ruined any chance of a second date?

Does ordering wine in a restaurant give you nightmares like this? If so, you're hardly alone. The choices can be bewildering, the prices can be staggering, and the pressure can be paralyzing.

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Wine lists aren't much help, either. Many of them are poorly organized, rife with misspellings and errors, and devoid of key information. Others are very well organized . . . for wine experts. What good does the category "Côte-de-Beaune reds" do anyone who's not already an expert on the wines of that particular region of Burgundy?

A few forward-looking restaurants have taken a consumer-friendly approach, grouping wines by style ("big, fruity reds," "light, floral whites"), but most places haven't caught on to this advance in wine-list ergonomics. Thus, the average consumer is left with two options: bone up on the intricacies of wine, or ask for help. For those interested in the former, there are plenty of references (our own wine column, "Uncorked," every week in Styles, in the food section, and archived here, is a great place to start). But it's too late for a comprehensive wine course when Mr. Tall Black is breathing down your neck, waiting for monsieur's wine selection. And so, sooner or later, you'll have to ask for help.

Wine help
Bar dining
Late-night eats

One of the biggest contributors to the aura of snobbery that sometimes surrounds wine is the stereotypical wine steward, the one everyone fears will haughtily mock them (in French, of course) for ordering the '82 Mouton rather than the '82 Lafite. But Boston has only one true sommelier (a trained and certified expert in wine and wine service), and he's both decidedly unsnobby and an absolute prince of a guy. Most of the area's wine stewards (many of whom have professional wine training of their own) are themselves knowledgeable, friendly, and blissfully free of pretension. But you still have to figure out who they are.

Sometimes the restaurant makes this easy. If the wine list arrives separately from the menus, there's a good chance that the person who delivered it is the house wine expert (non-wait-staff attire is another clue). This person might be a sommelier, a wine steward, the owner or manager, or just the most wine-knowledgeable person on the staff. Sometimes, as at Marcuccio's in the North End, it's even the head chef. If someone fails to arrive at your table with an offer of wine assistance, but you feel that you need it, simply ask to speak to the person in charge of the wines; help should arrive shortly.

In many restaurants, of course, there's no such person. In such cases, you might be able to get help from your server. Don't expect expert help in a case like this; instead, try to focus on wines the server might have personally tried and liked, especially with the food you've ordered. The result might not be a legendary wine, but it should at least be good.

But no matter whom you ask for help, it's important to be prepared and ask good questions. "What's a good wine?" is a question destined for a bad answer, because there are simply too many variables. Make your life, and the wine steward's life, easier by supplying the following information: the food you intend to order, how much wine you're interested in drinking (a glass? a bottle? five bottles?), and your price range. If you have any particular preferences or aversions (you love bone-dry whites, or you hate bitter and strong reds), make them clear. Give specific examples of wines you've liked or disliked in the past. And don't pretend that you have knowledge you don't have; if the wine steward really does know what he or she is talking about, you'll just look foolish. If you do all this, you'll get better help . . . and, probably, better wine.

Of course, you'll occasionally run into a bad wine steward. Usually this is the result of a lack of real knowledge coupled with an insufferable pretension, and you'll often find it in restaurants that are more about "being seen" than about food. Thankfully, there are some warning signs. "Upselling" is one; if you're looking for a $30-to-40 pinot noir, and all the recommendations are for $100 Burgundies, you might as well make your own decision. Be wary of a lack of personal knowledge about the wines; any competent wine steward should have tasted most of the bottles on the list, and should know how they'll pair with the establishment's food. An appeal to outside expertise ("Robert Parker rated it 97 points") not framed by personal experience is another thing to watch out for. "Robert Parker rated it 97 points, but I think you'll find it a little heavy for your lamb" is an example of the proper way to use critical evaluations.

Even worse than an ignorant wine steward is a highly knowledgeable one with no service skills. Wine stewards should never, ever tell you that you're wrong, that you're not expressing yourself properly, or that you can't have a wine -- even if they believe it to be a poor choice. Clever and effective wine servers can read between your words, judge your actual (versus your expressed) level of wine knowledge, and gently nudge you in a particular direction, all the while making you feel as if you're the most wine-savvy diner on the planet. And who knows? If the wine's really good, maybe you'll get a second date after all.

Thor Iverson is a wine critic for the Boston Phoenix.