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
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.
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?
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
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
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.
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
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
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
Thor Iverson is a wine critic for the Boston Phoenix.