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How to Successfully Navigate a Restaurant's Wine List

Feb 20, 2014

How to Successfully Navigate a Restaurant's Wine List

Red, white or pink? This is New York restaurant Northern Spy General Manager Ilissa Knisely's opening question when she approaches tables who admit they have no idea what kind of wine they want to drink. Of her friendly, easy-going approach, Knisely says, "It's funny and it lets people know we're not going to be stuffy about the wine."

Few of us can argue with her refusal to act with pretension regardless of her own vast wine knowledge. It's probably safe to say that the majority of today's wine experts are keen on making their beloved juice approachable and accessible.

Even restaurants with 20-page wine lists aren't in the business of making their guests feel unsophisticated when it comes to spending money on food and wine. In fact, depending on the establishment, if there isn't an official wine sommelier on staff, there's likely a knowlegeable wine-buying manager or owner. Quite frequently, there's also an educated waitstaff who can speak to some extent about the restaurant's featured wines.

If it's Knisely who's at the table, once she has figured out what section of the wine list she'll be helping a diner navigate, she moves on to some other helpful and leading questions: light or heavy? (referring to the wine's body), mineral or fruit-driven? (referring to the wine's flavor profile). She also asks if there is anything they hate in a wine, such as notes of vanilla or butter

Even if you don't know that saying you hate grapefruit-y wines means you don't care for typical New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Knisely does. Not being able to name grape varietals that you like and dislike is not as important as developing a basic vocabularly. "People should know what weight and flavor profile they like...and they can communicate those wants to their server," Knisely says.

It's also a good idea to have a price range in your head before you begin perusing the list. Knisely is one of the good guys who won't try and upsell a guest, but a $50 recommendation, on the other hand, wouldn't be out of the question. If you trust the server assisting you, be up front with your budget, and it's unlikely that he'll try to steer you towards a bank-breaking bottle for the mere purpose of upping his tip.

If you happen to be one of the growing number of people whose familiarity and interest in wine is flourishing, you still might find yourself at a loss from time to time when it comes to a new list. The wine buyers are probably eager to offer suggestions from a compilation they created, so don't be shy about admitting you don't recognize any of the producers they've curated. Even Knisely, a seasoned wine buyer, admits that when she is in the position of choosing a wine out at a restaurant on one of her days off, she figures there's some gem on the list she might have missed and is happy to ask for a little guidance.

Ordering on a whim (simply because you're afraid to ask for direction) won't likely lead you to the best bottle. If you can't wrap your head around the bottle list or simply decide that maybe you want to try a couple of different things (perhaps you want to start with rose, then move on to red), consider ordering by the glass. Most places will let you taste whatever you like from already open bottles, which can be a fun way of preparing to order a bottle the next time you're out on date night.

Additional basic restaurant wine-buying tips are featured in the slideshow above.

By Stacey Gawronski

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