Your Friend the Wine List
"Let's get a case!" my fiancé exclaimed. This is his highest accolade for any wine. The wine that caused such excitement was an Italian Sauvignon Blanc we drank at Campo di Fiori, an absolute gem of a Roman osteria in Park Slope. I rarely seek out Sauvignon Blanc on a wine list, but the sommelier's hearty recommendation won me over. Nothing against the grape, but I tend to order the most unusual variety on the wine list, or a wine from a region that I'm not as familiar with. The 2010 Giralamo Dorico Fruili Sauvignon Blanc was indeed outstanding, and I was very glad to have asked the sommelier's opinion.
I enjoy reading wine lists both in restaurants and as I'm passing by a new establishment. For me, they are a true marker of how much I'm going to enjoy a meal. I can't think of a dining experience I've disliked if the wine list impressed. How do I discern this? Well, I have never put together a wine list, but having worked in other aspects of the industry, there are a number of tells I look for that help me arrive at whether I want to dine at a restaurant, and if so, what I think is the best bottle for the best price on the list.
Check out the by-the-glass pours. Alcohol is where restaurants make most of their money, so a boring wine list always turns me off. If most of the by-the-glass wines are from household name producers that you can get at any wine shop, I don't even go to the restaurant. The creativity in a wine list speaks to how passionate the wine director is about his or her job, and is a potential indicator of the chef's abilities, too.
Look for the oldest vintage on the list. Cynics might say that the 19--s on a list filled with 20--s are lurching time bombs of vinegar, but I'm more optimistic. It's true that a restaurant's wine director may have bought some closeout lots that the importer wanted to unload at a discount, but that doesn't preclude the wine from being outstanding and still chock-full of life. Last night, I ordered a 1996 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre Valpolicella and paid a very reasonable price for the pleasure of tasting a wine that had taken on an aromatically layered quality that comes only with age.
Look for unusual grapes you haven't heard of. If you're not sure what to ask a sommelier, a great place to start is asking what's up with the Dornfelder, Abouriou or Ramisco on the list. Chances are, the wine director put those bottles on the list for adventurous tasters, and potentially did not mark it up as much as the other wines on the list.
Look for regional outliers. As with the above, if you see a California wine on a predominantly Old World list, or if you see a bottle from the Jura on an all-French list with pages of Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy, that is an indicator that the wine director feels passionate about that particular wine.
Also, if you order the "weird" wine, you might be contributing to a trend in the making. In the six years I've been in New York, I've noticed the price tags on Jura wines rising steadily. A Chardonnay I used to buy for $12 a bottle now retails for $20 at the same store. My guess is that Jura wines owe their newfound popularity to confident wine-industry folk jumping on its underpriced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, hedging that those gateway grapes would turn wine drinkers on to Poulsard, Melon Queue Rouge and Trousseau. They were right, and now I've got to find a new region to become obsessed with!
Make it your 2013 resolution to be adventurous in your wine buying and really make a sommelier work for that tip when you dine out. By New Year's Eve, it might be you that your friends and family entrust with the wine list.