Editor’s note: Tim Gaiser, Master Sommelier, is the host and educator for our SommDay School Workshops. Visit our site to find out the dates and times of Tim’s upcoming classes.
Dealing with what I call “wine ballet” or the “being handed the wine list in front of my friends/colleagues/future ex-boyfriend” is a source of major stress for practically anyone. I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the fear of public speaking, which according to some sources is even greater than the fear of death (must be a tough audience). But being put on the spot with a wine list the size of the Gutenberg Bible can definitely cause personal anxiety. But worry not! Here are my own strategies on how to get the best value wine from any wine list.
There are some things you definitely must know before you darken the restaurant’s door. These would include the following:
- Know the style of wine you like to drink. Go into a restaurant armed with the knowledge that “I like a red wine with soft tannins” or “I really like big, oaky Chardonnays.”
- It’s also important to know what you don’t like—arguably even more important than knowing what you do like. Know that you absolutely loathe oaky wines or you break out in hives if the alcohol in a red wine gets to be over 16%, which is not all that uncommon these days.
- Have a couple of examples of wines you’ve enjoyed in the past that can be used as points of reference. Once you know exactly what you like and don’t like, it’s good to have some wines in mind that you’ve tasted in the past that can be used in discussions with a server or a sommelier.
- Price: know how much you want to spend within $15-$20. Wine prices on restaurant lists can vary dramatically, but chances are you already have a good idea of how much you’re willing to spend in future dining excursions.
THE MAIN EVENT
Now, you’re ready to go. You’ve just entered the restaurant with the man/woman of your dreams. When the hostess races you both across the dining room and seats you next to the kitchen while smiling that “adios amigo” smile before racing off leaving the glassware on the table spinning, don’t panic. Keep breathing. Feel good. Feel confident. It’s going to be alright.
- The Wine List: as you pick up the wine list, head to any section and check out the pricing. Spot the highest price you can find and the lowest price as well. Drag those to your mental trash bin and discard.
- Find the average price: get a quick eyeball average of where most of the wines are priced. That could be anywhere between $40 and $150 depending on your location and the style of the restaurant. After all, there’s a huge difference between a corner bistro and Gary Danko in terms of the cost of operations, infrastructure, and the rest. You might also keep in mind the fact that most restaurants do NOT make money by selling food alone but only manage to survive and hopefully thrive by the selling alcoholic beverages.
- Find the sweet spot: set your sights on the 50-60% price range of the restaurants’ pricing scheme. That’s usually where the best values are and that’s the sweet spot for practically any list.
- Your server: when your server arrives and asks if you’d like wine with dinner, say something like the following:
“You know, this is a really interesting list. I’d like to talk to the sommelier/wine buyer if they’re available.”
- The buyer: if the buyer is on the floor, that’s great. Hopefully she or he will be over in short order. Once the buyer makes an appearance, be sure to relay the above pertinent information to them as in:
a) “This is the style of wine I really like.”
b) “I really don’t like X style of wine.”
c) “Here are some wines I’ve enjoyed in the past.”
6. Pricing: if you’re OK with it, give them a price range to work with as in, “I’d like to spend $60-$75,” or “please suggest something great under $100.”
Be specific about your price range but remember that part of their job is to SELL. That means they will probably start in your price range and then suggest something a bit more expensive. Don’t be put off. Listen politely and if their suggestion makes sense in terms of your personal favorite wine style and it’s within your budget, consider it. However, if their suggestion is entirely too expensive, smile and say:
“You know, that’s really not what I had in mind. I’m sure you probably have something more in our price range. Could you please make a recommendation in X price range?”
Likewise, if their suggestion is completely obscure, don’t hesitate to ask about the wine. Good questions to ask about any recommendation would include the sweetness/dryness level or the amount of oak or tannin if it’s a red wine recommendation. Ultimately, ask yourself if the recommendation fits your favorite wine profile. If not, don’t hesitate to ask for something closer in style as in with less tannin, oak, etc.
- Discourse: a bit of back and forth, always being mindful of and communicating that magic combination of your likes, dislikes and desired price range, should be more than enough for practically anyone help you get a delicious bottle.
CODA: MAGIC QUESTIONS!
If in doubt, ask the following questions or variations therein. You can always feel free to skip everything above and head straight to these:
“What wines do you think are the best VALUES on the list?”
“Is there anything you’ve just gotten in that you really like and think is a must try?”
“Is there anything you’re pouring by the glass that you really like and think is a great value?”
If you’re speaking to the buyer/sommelier, chances are they will get dangerously excited at this point or they should be checked for a pulse. This is the moment every sommelier dreams about, the moment when someone is asking their opinion about the coolest wines on the list that they have toiled long hours in relative obscurity to put together. What more could they want? Odds are they will blurt out the best/ coolest/ greatest/most amazing wine in nano-seconds of the question leaving your mouth. They may even get verklempt on you. This is how it should be. If the wine is being poured by the glass, by all means, ask to taste it. Otherwise, if the price is right, give it a spin. And if you really like their recommendation, be sure to let him or her know it and even throw a bit of cash their way. It’s always greatly appreciated.