The Game begins when you take your seat in a posh new restaurant. First, you choose among your favorite dishes on the menu. Then the waiter hands you a thick leather-bound wine list. As you gaze at the beautifully formed script, with the names of the wines conveniently grouped by country, region or grape variety, a singular thought hits you: There isn't one wine you recognize.
Welcome to the Unknown Wine List Game. The object? To pick a superb wine even though you don't know a thing about the wines on the list.
This minor sport is rapidly becoming a national pastime. Tens of thousands of wines are bottled each year. No one, including an expert, can taste all of them, let alone remember them on cue. Nevertheless, armed with nothing but your wits and your palate, you can battle the Unknown Wine List Game to victory, or at least to a satisfying away-from-home draw. Here's how:
Never concede defeat right off the bat by ordering a carafe or glass of the house wine. These are usually bulk wines bought for pennies and sold for dollars a glass -- great for the restaurateur's bottom line, abysmal for your palate. You deserve better than that.
An extensive array of the wines by the glass is becoming a fixture at better local restaurants. Ask for a small sample of one or two that interest you. Order a bottle of the one you like.
Look for wines on the list with previous vintages scratched out and new, later ones penciled in. The more scratch outs the better. That means the response has been so good that the owner has had to reorder between reprintings of the list, and that he or she thinks enough of the wine to keep ordering it.
If you overhear all the waiters recommending the same wine, order something else. Wineries frequently offer bonuses, and even free vacations to waiters who push enough of a particular wine.
The photographic memories that allow waiters and waitresses to rattle off the 10 daily specials seem to fade when the question turns to wine. If you'd like the luxury of leaving the wine choice to a master, go to one of the 10 or so area restaurants that employ professional wine stewards, who are experts in both wine and food and wine matching. For your information, the top three finishers in the recent Washington Sommelier Competition sponsored by Food and Wine of France were Olivier Daubresse, David Howard and Bruno Bonnet, of the Montpelier Restaurant of the Madison Hotel, Celadon at the J.W. Marriott and the Willard Room, respectively. They and the other wine stewards will do the hard work for you, but help them out by specifying a price range.
Choose young wines (1985 and later). They cost less, and youthful fruit and babyfat can cover a multitude of sins.
If you are in the mood for a splurge, don't choose an expensive young red wine. The best of them need aging, and the price reflects their potential, not their present pleasure quotient. Try a top-notch California chardonnay. Virtually all are ready to drink immediately upon release.
Order French wine in a French restaurant, Italian wine in an Italian restaurant, and Hungarian wine in a Hungarian restaurant. In a Chinese restaurant, order beer, preferably Chinese beer. In an American restaurant, order anything you like.
Memorize the following names: from California, Robert (not C.K.) Mondavi, Beringer, Joseph Phelps and William Hill; from Spain, Torres; from Bordeaux, House of Cordier, whether it's a $9 Chateau Lauretan or a $100 Gruaud Larose. All are paragons of consistency. Forget Burgundy.
The top values in imported wines today are the pinot blancs and rieslings from Alsace. Domestically, it's sauvignon blanc. Good values in these categories abound in the $10-$15 range, even at expensive restaurants.
With regard to pricy old wines, experts' tasting notes are filled with ringing phrases such as "tastes like old leaves," "rotting hay bouquet," "barnyard aromas and flavors" and the like. If such words don't move you, save your money and be grateful.
And finally, having made your selection, savor your meal and your victory over the Unknown Wine List.
Wine Briefs Procrastination has its virtues, particularly if you have yet to pick out your New Year's Eve champagne. Several new releases from the 1982 French champagne vintage have just arrived in recent weeks, and they are fabulous.
This was made crystal clear earlier this month at two well attended local wine events hosted by Larimer's Liquors and Wide World Of Wines. Both events featured sparkling wines, and provided Washingtonians the opportunity to sample well over 50 new releases of the bubbly from around the world.
The direct comparison leads to a few observations about sparkling wine choices this year. First, California has a long way to go compared with the French champagne. Buy Golden State products for reasons of price or patriotism, but not for the ultimate in quality. Over about $12 to $15, bone up on your French.
Second, French nonvintage brut is in a bit of a slump these days. It still outclasses the rest of the world's sparklers, but the effort to keep prices down has apparently led to the use of younger, less refined wines in the blend of many leading houses. The bottom line? Go with French vintage champagne this year.
Champagne vintages are declared only in exceptional years. By law they must be kept three years before release, but many of the better houses hold them for five years or more. For some years, like 1978, one wonders if it's worth the wait, but in 1982, the vintage bottlings are almost certainly the best since 1976 and more than justify the modest premium over nonvintage brut.
If you're not used to vintage champagne, be prepared for a unique experience. Particularly in 1982, the vintage offerings are much fuller in flavor, filled with vibrant, and in some cases, explosive fruit. But because acidities are low, most can, and should be drunk now or within the next year or two.
The following are my top recommendations in order of preference for the 1982 vintage releases. Most sell for around $30, which is about $6-$10 more than nonvintage, but less than half as much as the so-called luxury cuve'es, which are rarely any better:
Veuve Clicquot Gold Label Brut 1982: Toasty, full-flavored, immensely fruity, yet soft and refined. Not quite the equal of the unforgettable 1978, but very close -- just a trifle softer.
Taittinger Brut Mille'sime 1982: Refinement starts here. High percentage of chardonnay in blend yields subtle perfume, set off by yeasty, creamy flavors, smooth, round finish.
Bollinger Grande Anne'e 1982: Styles come and go, but Bollinger is always Bollinger -- toasty, barrel-fermented powerful flavors; apple-like, fresh, explosive fruit. A classic way to bring in the New Year.
Billecart-Salmon Cuve'e Billecart Brut 1982: Strong and stylish, with a creamy richness and biscuity, mouthfilling flavors.
Several other sparklers are worthy of special note. If you do decide to go with nonvintage, two excellent bottlings are Roederer Brut Premier ($20) and Gosset Grande Re'serve ($22), both of which which have significantly more maturity in the blend than the current batch of nonvintage offerings. Two fine choices in French sparklers that are not from Champagne but from the Loire, are the yeasty, full-bodied and fruity Langlois-Cha~teau ($10-$12), a member of the Bollinger stable, and the very champagne-like Charles de Fere Black Label ($8-10), which contains up to one third champagne grape varieties in its blend.
Finally, the first truly outstanding demi-sec champagne I have had in recent years, the Lanson Ivory Label ($22) is luxuriously fruity, with a perfect touch of light sweetness at the finish. A real treat, and a refreshing end to an evening of fine food and wine.
If it's small enough, a wine book can make an excellent Christmas stocking stuffer. One of the handiest recent books is the "International Wine Review Buyer's Guide" (NAL Penguin; $8.95), which will also fit neatly in the glovebox of your car, where its capsule summaries of over 2,000 wines will provide ready reference on those quick trips to the wine shop. For EEE stockings, there's Robert M. Parker's new 456-page "Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence" (Simon and Schuster; $14.95 paper, $22.95 cloth). It's the prolific Parker at his best, and an indispensable tool for mastering the intricacies of southern France's marvelous wines.
Firestone Vineyards has been selected as the set for a new NBC television series, "Aaron's Way" from Lorimer Productions, the producers of "Falcon Crest." According to a Firestone press release, the NBC series, which will air early next year, "revolves around an Amish family that moves to California to operate a vineyard and narrates the adventures of their new life style." Just think of the possibilities. Threatened by drought, the Amish settlers come upon an ingenious solution, draining their hot tub on the vineyards to save the crop. Later in the season, a vat of wine is inadvertently left in the sauna, miraculously creating California's first high-quality madeira. And we thought hard-hitting realism left the small screen with "Mr. Ed."