Wine Land Mine: The dangerous game of tiptoeing through a restaurant wine list
You’d think it was not physically possible but buying wine in a restaurant can both blow and suck at the same time. Lots of the wines are unrecognizable, your app on your phone says the wine is a far sight cheaper in a store, your server seems to know barely more than you do, you are desperate to impress your date, business colleagues, mother-in-law or what have you, and the sommelier is a stuck-up twit who you know is laughing about you in the back.
Yes, buying wine in a restaurant can feel like more trouble than its worth. Sometimes you just want to say, “keep double martinis coming” and feel like you are in a Bond film. All that being said, there are things you can do to make the whole thing more pleasant and there are red flags you can learn to see when the restaurant does not care that much about wine, or you.
So, for starters, let’s talk about the wines themselves and the prices of those wines. This may seem odd, but the more wines you do not know on a list, the better the list is likely to be. Let me be clear, this is not a knock on wines that have massive retail exposure, get lots of press, and can even be found in grocery stores. Those wines are great wines, and frankly the number one rule of wine drinking is drink what you like. So, if you see a wine you drink at home on a list and you want it, buy it. No shame in that whatsoever. Now my point about not recognizing wines on a list is this: it likely means you have someone creating the list who cares about wine and wants you to have a unique wine drinking experience. Those wines are likely small production, artisanal wines that the wine director worked hard to hunt down and loves so much they want to share them with you. When you go out to eat, you want to be eating food you cannot create at home, and you should think about the wine the same way. Just because you don’t know the wine does not mean it is not brilliant stuff; frankly, quite the opposite is often the case.
Now let’s talk about the prices of wines in restaurants. I will start with the hard truth: restaurants are allowed to be profitable. Sorry, that may bruise your feelings but it’s true. A restaurant is a business, not a charity. I have yet to find a restaurant that has ‘.org’ at the end of its domain name. If you think restaurants are gouging you on wine, don’t drink wine. Just realize that every other beverage you drink is marked up even more than wine. I hope your tap water is tasty.
There are lots of different ways a restaurant goes about pricing their wine. I will not bore you with the details, but it can be rather complex, especially if the wine program is one run with thought and care. A great wine director does not want to rob you blind but they do have an owner who would like to keep the lights on. A well-conceived list takes time, effort, and most of all, skill. You must pay someone to do that. A great wine list should care about the stemware that the wines are served in, that is not cheap. A good wine glass is easily seven to ten dollars each, that adds up. A restaurant that cares about its wine program takes time to train staff, that means bringing them in during off hours and paying them to take class. A restaurant that cares about wine does its level best to store those wines at proper temperatures. Of nearly everything I have mentioned, that is the costliest. If it were pennies to do, there would be a wine cellar in every home in America. Complaining about restaurant wine costs is frankly going after low-hanging fruit, its an easy mark. Try instead moaning about clothing mark-ups. Those jeans you are wearing? They were made in some far-off land for a buck or two and they just charged you $110 for them. Yell at Levi’s, not your local bistro. Oh, and if you really want to get out your pitchforks and torches and attack an industry gouging you literally to death, I give you the pharmaceutical industry. Leave restaurants alone on their pricing, please.
Now let’s talk about your server and your suspicion they wouldn’t know the difference between a Cabernet or a cabaret. (I get one dad joke a blog post, that was it.) Now a server not knowing a lot about the wine list can be attributed to a few things. Let’s get red flag number one out of the way first. It could mean that the restaurant does not care to teach that server or that the server does not care to learn. In a restaurant, if you ever get a gut feeling that they do not care, get out and do not come back. Caring is at the heart of a great restaurant, full stop.
Now the other reasons are understandable. One, it is simply that the server is new and though they are studying their tookus off, one can only learn so much, so fast. Typically, a restaurant tasks new staff with getting the food menu down cold, then learn everything else. You might be impressed that server can wax on eloquently about the by-the-glass Pinot Noir, how fabulous. But if that same server forgets there are nuts in the cream sauce for the braised chicken and kills your date, you will forget about the Pinot chat you had earlier quite astonishingly fast. A wine can taste bad, a food item can kill you. That’s why it is menu first.
Another reason is that the wine list is the size of Jabba the Hutt and no server is going to master that. In those cases, there is nearly always a sommelier to help you. If you are unlucky because said somm is off that night, there is usually a manger who can get you out of the proverbial weeds of that behemoth list.
Finally, a list could just be so esoteric that only the person putting it together can properly speak about it, at least until weeks if not months of training gets everyone up to speed. If that is the case, there is someone there to help you. They want to help you; they think of a wine list as a wonderful adventure where you get something tasty to drink and learn something. You should run to restaurants like that. Trust me.
Now let’s tackle the sommelier. Let me start by saying this: being a sommelier is not a glamorous job. We are not sauntering through the south of France tasting wines at chateaux or having a blast with crazy wine makers in Napa all the damn time. In fact, that rarely happens. Most of being a sommelier is lugging boxes around, making sure orders are placed, updating wine lists, tasting twenty lousy wines to find one good one, and physically being in the restaurant for countless hours to train staff and, most importantly, help guests get a great bottle of wine. Being a sommelier may not be glamourous, but the people who do it, love it.
Dealing with a sommelier is easy: they come to your table, should ask you a few questions about what you usually like to drink and what you are in the mood for, then walk you through finding a stunning wine. Here is a great tip, take photos of the wines you love and when you are in a restaurant speaking to the sommelier, show them. A sommelier will be able to find you something very close to that wine if they don’t have the particular wine you showed them. Another thing the modern sommelier should ask is how much you want to spend. Sometimes they do not because it is still a touchy thing to do,and they are understandably shy about it. This is where you musttake the reins. Tell the somm, “I like full-bodied red blends from California, and I do not want to spend more than seventy dollars.” A sommelier will take that request and run with it, bringing you a great bottle in that price range. A great sommelier will take that request and come back with a brilliant wine that is only fifty bucks, twenty under your ceiling. That is a sommelier you keep. Red flag: if you ever get the vibe that a sommelier is trying to upsell you when you made it clear what your price range is, don’t let them cajole you into buying something you do not want. Thank them by not returning to buy wine from them again. There are very few of those old-school shark-like somms out there, but they do exist. The faster you stop buying from them, the sooner they will starve and die off.
Ninety percent of sommeliers want you to love wine like they love wine. They want to teach you a little something and introduce you to some funky wine they adore like kittens. These same somms do not want to screw you on price, they really don’t. They just want to make you happy. Trust me, I know. I’m a sommelier.
Now if you do experience a list with lots of errors, wines being out of stock, and a general sloppiness about the list, you may have stumbled upon the rarest of breeds, the uncaring sommelier. As I have said before, stop patronizing places like that.
I can assure you that a restaurant that cares about wine will never ever make you uncomfortable about asking questions, stating your opinion, and ultimately buying wine. You will walk in, open the wine list, take a look around, and I assure you that you will feel the care for wine in the room. It is unmistakable, a gut feeling you cannot ignore.
That is the best way to leave this: you have trusted your gut for countless things in your life, so when it comes to wine, do the same. After all, your gut is where the wine will end up. Reward it for its intuition.