There's No Free Lunch, but Free Wine? Oui!
Friday, June 1, 2007
Washington restaurants have moved a long way from the days of "Would you like a glass of red or a glass of white?" -- but there are still plenty of us whose eyes glaze over when handed an extensive wine list.
If you spy an unfamiliar bottle at your local liquor store, you can usually cheat by looking at a posted Robert Parker review or scan the label for clues about the wine's origin or the grapes in the blend. Most wine bars and restaurants, on the other hand, merely provide the name of the producer, the appellation and the vintage. If you don't recognize them, you're flying blind.
(Technically, at this point, you should ask the sommelier for advice, but some people worry about being guided toward wines they won't like, and others just refuse to ask for directions. You know who you are.) Wine education courses can require a significant investment of time and money, so here's the next best thing for casual enthusiasts: Vidalia, the stylish Southern restaurant on M Street NW, and Bistrot Lepic, a cozy Georgetown French restaurant and wine bar, are trying to spread the gospel of good wine, a few glasses at a time, by letting customers explore their stocks for free.
Vidalia (1990 M St. NW; 202-659-1990) offers a guided flight of three wines weekdays from 4 to 7, while Lepic pours a pair of wines Tuesdays from 6 to 8. Sometimes pairings have a theme, sometimes not. But you'll always leave knowing more about oenology than you did when you arrived.
It's important to note that although these tastings take place after work, they aren't true happy hours; treat them more as an aperitif. The sample sizes are well below what you'd get if you ordered a glass or even a half-glass at the bar. What you should be soaking up is knowledge, not alcohol. The biggest mistake you can make is not asking more questions about the grapes or the taste, or even, "If I like this, what else will I enjoy?" These events are run by professionals, and chances are they can answer whatever you throw at them without making you feel like a moron. (Trust me; I've tried.) Since the pours are small, the restaurants hope customers stick around and test their newfound smarts by sampling a glass at the bar or by perching in a booth with friends and a bottle of something they just discovered.
Vidalia began hosting a Tuesday wine happy hour last spring, offering tiny splashes of three wines centered on specific themes, with complimentary nibbles from the kitchen: small slivers of rich pâté on crackers, bite-size pieces of charcuterie. The informal series went so well that the program was extended throughout the workweek.
Tastings are held at a small table at the far side of the bar and lounge area, past the knee-high chocolate brown couches and low glass coffee tables. Sommelier Doug Mohr or one of his assistants is usually presiding, sporting a dress jacket, waiting to talk visitors through the evening's selections. Three bottles sit on small silver platters. They could be a trio of wines made from the same grape, as was the case last week, when three French chenin blancs were offered. Sometimes it's a trio from one country, like a few Fridays ago, when Mohr was pouring wines from across Spain to show that the country's production goes beyond the popular Rioja. And on another visit, Mohr explained that the three selections were from the restaurant's by-the-bottle list, giving patrons a chance to taste them without having to order the whole thing.
Since selections change daily, visiting is an easy way to expand your palette: If you usually stick to California pinots, you could find yourself sampling dry French Rhones or Italian whites.
What keeps me coming back are the hosts, who add colorful commentary about the soil's impact on the taste or the producer's reputation, but also go beyond the standard talking points. Mohr suggests food pairings that would work as well at home as they would in Vidalia's dining room. He's in the business of selling wine at the restaurant, but he doesn't mind telling you what a bottle should sell for in one of the city's finer wine shops, even if that reveals Vidalia's markup.
The informality of the tasting can sometimes work against it, especially when the lounge is busy. Since it's not at the bar, everyone is standing around a table in a loose semicircle, glass in hand. And if you're coming after work, don't forget to find a place for your stuff before making your way to the tasting table -- do you really want to be fussing with overstuffed bags, a jacket or umbrella while holding a glass of wine that you're trying to enjoy?
These are small quibbles, though. Once the official tasting has finished, find a couch or move to the bar, where an absorbing, frequently rotating selection of 30 to 40 wines is available in smaller half-glass pours, generally $2.75 to $5 each, and browse the menu of bar-only small plates, including boudin blanc, which matched well with the Austrian white wines. Vidalia's staff is good about making suggestions, and if you're unsure about something, the sommelier is only a few feet away.
Bistrot Lepic (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-0111) has a comfortable, dimly lit wine bar that is one of my favorite date spots in the city, boasting a romantic atmosphere and a good, if short, list of French wines by the glass. The Gallic spirit extends to the Tuesday night tastings, too, where all selections come from France.
Caveat: The evening's expert is sometimes a representative of the wine importer or the producer, so you're looking at an ethical trade-off. Though certainly not impartial arbiters of the wine's taste and quality, these people are paid to know everything there is to know about the vineyard's grapes, soil and harvest, so they should be able to answer your questions.
Last week, patrons got to sample two champagnes from Heidsieck and Co. Monopole: the Blue Top brut (which happens to be Lepic's top champagne by the glass) and the fruity, summery Rose.
There's no designated tasting area at Lepic, so the champagne house's rep -- a well-dressed, smooth-talking Frenchman -- sidled up to every table soon after the customers arrived. "Would you like to taste some champagne? It's free!" Since no one says no to free bubbly, he'd fetch glasses and a bottle of brut from an ice bucket near the bar. Everyone was served half a flute, along with the salesman's perfunctory pitch: It's made in Epernay, in Champagne. The grapes are mostly pinot noir, with 20 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot meunier. It's not as dry as some others. How do you like it?
A few minutes later, a second glass appears: this time, the soft pink Rose. The process repeats itself.
I've found that I enjoy the evening more when my friends and I snag a seat at the bar and let Ted, the longtime bartender, serve as our guide for the evening. A few weeks ago, the night's free selections included a dry, easy-drinking Puligny-Montrachet from Louis Latour. "If you like that, do you want to try a little flight?" he asked. He picked two other whites from the house list, and we had an enjoyable time sampling half-glasses. It's easy on the wallet, too: On Tuesday nights, every wine on the list, whether by the glass or full bottle, is discounted 20 percent.
The tasting dates sometimes change. If you're curious about what wines will be offered or want to stay on top of the schedule, sign up for the restaurant's e-mail list at http:/