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Season 16: restaurants

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

My friend was excited.

“Here’s the idea: someone at a restaurant calls you up and says, ‘I’m at Chez Louis, I’m having the veal. and I want a $50 white.’ You give them advice, and they pay you.”

“Where do I get the wine lists and menus? Most restaurants can’t even keep their own web sites updated. And let’s say I get forty calls per night. People dine out from 5:30 to 10:30. When do I get to eat? What if this expands to the West Coast? What about business lunches? Are they going to stand around the lobby while they’re on hold? What about…”

And thus, my dreams of wine-soaked billions vanished in a tide of objections. But the thing is, my friend had a point. For those who haven’t made wine their life’s work, the art and science of the wine list can be more than a little obfuscatory. Some help would be nice.

Yes, there are books. But: “Um, waiter, could you please come back in about ten minutes…I’m having trouble finding ‘ostrich saltimbocca’ in the index.” And there are PDA applications, though they’re no less distracting at the table. In any case, neither is truly interactive. What you’re eating probably isn’t represented in the database – unless you’re at a steakhouse – and the book has no idea what is and isn’t on Chez Louis’ wine list.

So now that my dreams of oeno-lucre are smashed, here it is: a five-step guide to surviving the restaurant wine experience. If I could only find the tip jar…

1) Simplify the matching process. One could devote a lifetime of study to wine and food pairing and still be regularly surprised and disappointed. On balance, you’ll have much more fun eating and drinking what you like than you will seeking a brilliant marriage between the two. Still, it’s true that some matches just don’t work – cabernet sauvignon with lobster, off-dry riesling with steak – but very few couplets (gewürztraminer and Munster) are truly revelatory, either. A tip: focus less on color, and more on body. The fuller-bodied (bigger) the food, the fuller-bodied the wine should be (and vice-versa), which is why a delicate Vouvray goes better with trout than it does with tuna, while a hefty Alsatian pinot gris requires a fish with presence, like salmon.

2) Worry less about color. Didn’t I just say this? Well, it bears repeating, but in a slightly different sense. What the heck do you order when you’ve got cod, wild mushrooms, venison and butternut squash soup on the table? There’s the by-the-glass option (though see below), and there’s also genre-straddling rosé. But in general, only extraordinary wine lists offer any interesting pink wine, and rosé doesn’t so much match a wider range of foods as it does remain inoffensive with that wider range.

In much of the Old World, there’s a traditional solution: just drink red. In Sicily, for example, where the fish is stupendous but the whites…aren’t…they drink their heavy reds with pretty much everything. But there’s a better option: light-bodied reds. A Beaujolais will be more pleasant with halibut than will a zinfandel, but it won’t be afraid of grilled meat either. Give it a shot.

3) Control your temperature. This particularly applies to light-bodied reds, which are often served at the same temperature as their heftier brethren. This is a mistake; lighter reds need to be slightly chilled. A few minutes in the ice bucket will lend them a refreshing quaffability that makes them even more amenable to theoretically red-unfriendly foods.

4) Know your prices. Many (perhaps most) restaurants price by-the-glass wines so the first pour pays for the entire bottle. Yes, really. Moreover, the lowest-priced wines on the lists often carry the highest-percentage markups. Other restaurants will price the lower end with more restraint, but take massive profits on big-ticket wines, figuring that if $400 is an option, $500 won’t break the deal. Thus, on most lists, there’s a “sweet spot” of the best quality/price ratio somewhere in the $35 to $80 range, depending on the restaurant. And don’t forget that it’s now legal to take unfinished wine out of a restaurant and drink the rest at home. (Not in the parking lot.)

5) Weird is good. The more prosaic and familiar the wines on a list, the more likely it is that there’s no one on the floor that can offer much guidance. It’s the eccentric and the specialized lists, of whatever length, that are the result of someone’s careful attention. Even if those people aren’t available at mealtime, they tend to train the heck out of some portion of their staff. So when confronted by a parade of zweigelt, Cour-Cheverny, Taurasi and ribolla gialla that might as well be in Klingon as far as you’re concerned, ask. There’s probably someone that can help.

But please, don’t call me during dinner.

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.