ORDERING A wine at a restaurant does not have to be a nerve-wracking ordeal. It is not necessary for a normally self-confident corporate executive or lawyer to feel aprehensive and intimidated by an array of foreign and unusual names, not to mention a myraid of vintage years. You don't have to be a wine expert to order intelligently at a restaurant, even when confronted with wine priced in the stratosphere and probably too young to drink. By learning the rules of the game and remembering a few safe wine buys, you can overcome both the odds against you and high prices on most restaurant wine lists. Evaluating the Oppostion
Assesing the wine list and sizing up the wine steward or sommelier is your first move. A restaurant's sincerity regarding wine is reflected by its wine list as well as its wine steward.
A good wine list will offer a selection of wines that complement the cusine of the restaurant. There should be wines for the thrifty as well as expensive "name" wines for the big spenders. It should not come as a surprise the French restaurants emphasize French wine selections and Italian restaurants primairly feature Italian wines. Yet the French restaurant that features overpriced big name burgandies, bordeaux and champagnes and ignores less costly selections from Alsace, the Rhone Valley and the Loire region is undoubtedly ding a big disservice to many of its clientele who would be better served by a $10 bottle of reliable cotes-du-rhone than a $30 bottle of watery and sloppily made burgundy.
Restaurants that take pride in their wine list also should provide decently made wines by the glass and carafe. I am skeptical of any restaurant's sincerity when a house wine is not offered.
Restaurant wine prices are another method of evaluating just how serious the restaurant is about wine -- or whether it is serious only about making big bucks on wine at the expense of the patron. While most retail shops operate on a standard 50 percent above cost markup on wine, restaurants usually operate on a full 100 percent markup on wine, with many of the luxurious restaurants taking an absurd 250 to 400 percent markup. In my opinion, restaurants that take more than 100 percent markup on wine are simply engaged in distasteful price gouging.
Lastly after you have reviewed the wine list and gather a feel for the pricing structure, you will have to deal with the wine steward, or sommelier. The best wine stewards are patient, and great educators if given a chance to share their knowledge. Those wine stewards who display arrogance or a condescending attitude are usually camoufalging their own lack of knowledge. Fortunately, most restaurants with good wine lists have at least one person who is familiar with the wines on the list and can make meaningful recommendations to diners who ask. Remember, if you are not an expert, don't hesitate to seek help. The best sommeliers will love to help you. Ordering the Right Wine
You need only consider two issues with respect to ordering the wine. 'What will I eat, and how much do I want to spend?' The old rules that dictate white wine with fish and red wine with meat are reliable and the safest guides. The faint of heart should seek salvation in a bottle of rose. However, the best rule to remember is not so much color of the wine, but the flavor intensity of the food with a wine of comparable flavor intensity. Spicy fish courses can handle lighter red wines just as delicate meat dished can be matched with a red wine.
After you have decided on your meal, several guidelines are worth following to maximize your wine dollar and avoid the pitfall of paying too much for a bottle of wine.
If you are looking for good bargains among French wines, the one and only rule is to avoid burgundies, the major chateaux of bordeaux and champagnes. An alternative to overpriced burgundies are the red wines from Rhone Valley. Red wines made from appealations such as cote-du-rhone, coteaux du tricastin and cotes de ventoux produce solid, fruity wines that are good values. Alternatives to big-name expensive bordeaux are the offerings from lesser known estates as petis chateaux. Larose-Trintaudon, Garaud, Geysac, Lamarque, Forcas-Hosten and Beaumaont. For good buys in whie wines from the Loire Valley, particularly vouvay, muscadet, sancerre and pouilly-fume and the wines from Alsace. A sound alternative to champagne at one-half the price are the sparkling wines of the Loire Valley. Several good choices for a sparkling white wine include the sparkling saumur, "Bouvet," or the sparkling white burgundy, "Kriter."
The best values on restaurant wine lists are American wines. Unfortunately, most restaurants usually ignore the better bottlings from California and New York in favor of the mystique of imported labels. However, consistent high-quality wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Beaulieu and Sterling are beginning to be fairly represented. In terms of good values, consumers should scan a restaurant wine list for any of the wines from Parducci, Souverain, Fetzer, Simi, San Martin and Somoa, as these wineries consistently produce good to very good red and white wines that are priced lower than most of the competition. Coping With the Ritual of Wine Service
When the wine steward brings the bottle of wine to the table, you will normally be asked to look at the bottle to verify your choice and the correct vintage. If you ordered a French or Italian wine your fluency in either of those languages may also be quickly verified by the bottle the wine steward brings to the table. When shown the wine, you should not hesitate to touch the bottle to ascertain its temperature. White wines should be chilled, but not refrigerated. Red wines should be cool to touch (60 to 68 degrees is about perfect), but never warm.
After you have examined the bottle, it will be opened and an ounce or two will be poured into your glass for apporval. Your job is to evaluate the wine for its overall soundness.
While the chances of getting a seriously flawed or spoiled wine are slim, they do ccur. I recently had the misfortune of getting two consecutive flat bottles of a reputable champagne at one of Washington's finest French restarants. Both bottles were properly refused, but not without a protest from the waiter, who obviously felt the $28 was not too much to pay for bubbleless champagne. Detecting a bad wine is quite easy. Red wines with intense rubbery, barnyard or vinegary aromas are undoubtedly flawed and should be sent back. White wines that resemble a sherry in color are maderized (a deterioration of the wine caused by exposure to oxygen), and unfit for consumption. You should never have any reservations about returning a bottle becasue of one of these flaws. If the wine is too light or too full or not up to your expectations, but overall cleanly made, you have no justification for sending the wine back.
Assuming you are the recipient of a healthy bottle of wine and it has passed your inspection, the wine steward should fill everyone's glass halfway to permit you to swirl the wine gently in order to release its aroma. You may also be presented with the cork from the bottle. Tradition requires that you smell the end of the cork, but this practice seenm a bit absurd today unless you happen to smell the scent of a damp cork.