I educate people about wine because I see a desperate need to make wine accessible—and, more importantly, make it enjoyable.
I see so much pretension and snobbery associated with wine, and I find myself exhausted by the endless game of one-upmanship. Sadly, I find this holier-than-thou persona often perpetuated by people actually in the wine business.
I began thinking about this wine bravado, and how the language of wine is so exclusive. There are so many rules, so many different languages, so much geography and history and chemistry—and a wine “expert” must pack all of that into their brain and recall it at the drop of a hat. But if we’re all continually learning, why does the conversation of wine so often devolve into nothing more than an elementary-school playground taunting session of, “Neener, neener, neener, I know more than you do!” Why do we feel so insecure about something so subjective and ever-evolving?
I think it’s because we—as wine lovers, wine professionals and wine enthusiasts—have created this. More often than not, I see wine used as a tool by those who know to bludgeon those who don’t. We carry an air of superiority with our knowledge. “Ahh Vouvray—I simply adore those chenin blancs. What? You didn’t know Vouvray was a region and not the grape?!” (Insert patronizing and hearty guffaw.)
This, of course, does no favors to the budding wine lover’s sense of adventure.
The fact is, no one is born knowing this stuff. Some of us choose to learn about wine for our profession. Some of us choose to learn about wine because we enjoy it. Some of us are victims of our partner’s latest hobby, and we learn through a sort of half-listening osmosis. If wine is a passion, and you are inclined to learn more about it, than bravo! Good on you! But under no circumstances does an acquired knowledge license someone to exert power over others who simply choose to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.
People often talk to me about the fear they feel the moment they are handed a wine list in a restaurant. They’re overwhelmed with choices—most of which they have never heard of, and often featuring over-inflated prices. I find that their fear is not so much about choosing the “right” wine, but more so about choosing the “wrong” wine.
I can tell you that I have been a guest at many a restaurant where the server was obviously less than impressed with my choice … and I’m a sommelier! In fact, I was at a popular watering hole last month where I couldn’t stomach the wine list, so I decided to order a white-wine spritzer. That’s right … you heard me: Water that wine down; throw a squeeze of lemon in it; add a huge scoop of ice; and I’ll just sip on this all night to be social. The server, in a very sweet and joking manner, called me a grandma. Yup. Grandma here … just trying to mitigate a terrible wine list.
Herein lies the kicker: This is their list. They are responsible for representing it, and if it’s so awful as to garner a snide remark or a scornful glance, that is their problem, not yours—and don’t you forget it.
Most restaurants today no longer offer white zinfandel, but instead feature a sweet riesling or moscato by the glass. On one hand, they are trying to educate and help people develop a more-sophisticated palate. OK, fine. But on the other hand, what about the guest who just wants a stinkin’ glass of white zin? Do we think of them as so lowbrow that we aren’t willing to taint our wine list with something that could be perceived as amateur?
That leads us to the second problem facing not just wine professionals, but restaurant wine-buyers as well: It’s not about them. This was single-handedly the most important lesson I learned from the master sommelier guiding me: Just because I didn’t like a wine, that didn’t make it a bad wine. And just because I thought something was the greatest thing since canned milk, that did not mean everyone was going to share that same sentiment. Actually, anyone who knows me and my wine preferences will firmly agree that it is, in fact, often quite the opposite: It’s almost guaranteed that the wine I bring will be the least-favorite wine of the night. (That’s OK … more for me!) The point, as my master drilled into my head, was to look for quality—and take myself out of the equation. This is not easy to do, especially when the wine mantra du jour is “drink what you like.” Wine professionals need to remind themselves that this statement only holds true for the guest drinking the wine.
So how do you overcome the fear associated with navigating a restaurant wine list? Short of having a sommelier on speed dial, these tips may help:
• Don’t fight it. Sometimes you have to go with the flow, and drink what the list-maker likes. For example, if there are 27 different chiantis on the list, and you’re in a Greek restaurant, it should be pretty clear what the buyer’s passion is. It may not have been your first choice, but you’ll end up with a darn good bottle of sangiovese.
• Know before you go. Many restaurants post their wine list on their website. Familiarize yourself with the selections in your price point. If a website isn’t available, call the restaurant ahead of time, and have a current list emailed to you. This can be invaluable if you are hosting a business dinner and don’t want to be put on the spot.
• Beware of the value pitfalls. Wines served by the glass and “house wines” are often of the poorest quality and carry the highest mark-up. Restaurants with integrity will choose wines by the glass that are beautiful examples of quality and value, but, alas, these are few and far in between.
• If it grows together, it goes together. Consider the restaurant you’re in, and order accordingly. In an Italian restaurant, have a Rosso di Montalcino. French cuisine on the itinerary? Look for a Cotes du Rhone or Languedoc. This also makes food-and-wine pairing a no-brainer.
• When in Rome: Just as you should consider the nationality of the restaurant, also consider the style and genre. Don’t order a sauvignon blanc in a steakhouse or a California cabernet in a seafood joint.
• ABC (otherwise known in the wine world as “anything but chardonnay/cabernet”): There’s a whole world of wine out there just waiting to be discovered. Some of the best wines out there are from Spain (like a tempranillo from La Rioja) and Argentina (the malbec grape is perfect with beef!).
One other tip involves the antiquated procedure of a server handing you the cork once it is pulled: Please don’t smell it. Don’t roll it around, squeeze it or put it to your ear. I assure you the cork is going to tell you nothing about the quality of the wine. I have pulled corks at times and found them to be completely saturated, and conversely, I’ve found them at times to be completely dried out—and not only was I pleasantly surprised, but blown away at how delicious the wines tasted. Had I relied on just the cork, I would have missed out on bliss. Proof is always in the pudding.