We’ve all be through it: we are out to dinner with someone we want to impress (potential boss, potential lover, potential cell mate) and the sommelier presents you with a wine list the approximate size of a London phone book. (N.B.: If you do not know what a non-digital “phone book” is, ask your parents. Or grandparents.) The list is deep, wide, and intimidating, while your wine knowledge is shallow, narrow, and threatening only to the wino drinking out of a bottle on a street corner. What to do?
Fear not. You can come out of this smelling like a rosé with a few simple tricks:
The most important thing is to do your homework. A little advance planning, if possible, will go a long way. If you know what restaurant you are going to, you might well find its wine list online. Or call them up and ask them to email you the list. Some might call this cheating. I call it research.
Don’t let price be your guide. Cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality. I’ve tasted £100 bottles that were crap, and £10 ones that were great – far better than their price would indicate. You can look at a site or app like Wine Searcher that will tell you what the going retail price is for a particular wine, including in UK outlets. (There are also consumer reviews.) Pricewise, I usually gravitate towards the middle to middle-low of the list. That’s where you will often find bargains. But there is a cautionary note: restaurants will sometimes put higher markups on low-end wines than on high-end ones.
Don’t buy wine by the glass unless you have no other option. Know that most (but not all) restaurants are notorious for outrageous markups on wine, often to offset food costs. (And charging you for bread and water, which is like paying for the privilege of a prison diet.) Just look at bottle restaurant cost as opposed to shop price. If you think THAT is outrageous, then wine by the glass is even more of a price gouge. And, on top of that, wines sold by the glass are often poorly stored. A bottle that doesn’t sell briskly may sit out for days (and some of those hand-held vacuum sealers are ineffectual) and will be off. So I often order a bottle, drink half, then have the waiter or bartender reseal it for me to take home, which you can do in many states in the U.S. (Most liquor laws are set by states and cities, not by the federal government.) The law in the U.K. seems to be fuzzy, as far as I can tell from this side of the pond, but it may be possible to do the same as long as the bottle is resealed (the definition of “resealed” may be vague). If you are not allowed to take it the rest of the bottle may turn up being sold by the glass the next day. A barrister is in a better position to render a legal opinion than a bartender.
(Having said that, I offer a caveat: ordering a glass is a great way to stall for time while you are cogitating over the list. A preprandial glass of bubbly will not only buy you extra time to make your choice, but helps take some of the pressure off.)
Look for the offbeat. Anybody can order a New World cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay or a French claret or Burgundy. But more wines are being made with more different grapes now. So look for reds such as a carménère from Chile (used to be a Bordeaux blending grape) or a tannat from Uruguay or a French malbec. (The French have always made malbec, called a Cahors, in southwest France. It was used as a blending grape for claret. Argentina stole their thunder when they found that the malbec grape thrived well in Argentina. Always wondered why it was Britain that went to war with Argentina instead of France. It should have been the Malbec War, not the Falklands War.) For whites you might rummage around for a grüner veltliner from Austrla, assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini, or gewürztraminer from Alsace or California (but be warned that the French and the American styles are markedly different). Ordering the odd greatly increases your odds of enhancing your wine street cred, both with your guests and the somm.
Local wines, if decent ones are available, can be a great value. The prices are often cheaper than the imports (although heaven knows what prices on European wines are going to be in the U.K. post-Brexit). English sparkling wine, for example, is a thriving industry, and there are wines being made that rival Spanish cava or Italian prosecco or even, in some cases, French champagne. The changing conditions for wine cultivation in the U.K. may be the only upside of global warming.
Solicit your guests’ preferences or taste in wine. It’s the politic thing to do, and it gives you some signposts to work with. And that way, you don’t have to accept all the responsibility – or blame – for the choice.
But don’t shut out the somm. Solicit ideas from him or her. Ask what’s new on the list, or what they’ve tasted lately that they like. I often ask if they have any oddbins left – a bottle or two of something that has come off the list or is about to be removed. Some restaurants and bars will offer that wine at a discount just to get rid of it and make space. And make sure to tip the somm!
Above all, have fun. Wine is a great journey in which you never stop learning. So much wine, so little time. To paraphrase Paul Simon, 50 Ways to Love Your Liver.
À Vôtre Santé!
Club member Gary Thomas is Senior Editor and Editorial Board member of Palate Press, the online wine magazine. He spent a lengthy career in journalism in the U.S. and abroad, including stints based in Pakistan and Thailand as correspondent for the Voice of America (VOA), the U.S.-based (rough) equivalent of the BBC World Service. Connect with Gary here.