It’s only fermented grape juice but wine really seems to have taken on a kind of mythic status–glorified on one hand and feared (in case you pick the wrong vintage) on the other. And nowhere is this strange dichotomy between reverence and fear more evident than in posh restaurants around the world. That captain of industry may be a bull in the boardroom, but when he has to choose a wine from a huge list riddled with unpronounceable names, you can almost see the sweat trickling underneath his shirt collar.
To make matters worse, we’ve all heard horror stories about sneering sommeliers who make wine choosing as excruciatingly embarrassing as possible for hapless diners. But is the masochistic sommelier any more than an urban myth? The truth is, sommeliers weren’t put on this planet to terrorise. If you know how to get the best out of a sommelier–and if you follow the rules below–there’s no reason to suffer from listophobia ever again.
Beware house wines
House wines should be good (and good-value) all-rounders. In practice, however, most house wines taste like the devil’s own brew–astringent and vinegary on the one hand or bland and sugary on the other. Why? The restaurant makes its highest margins on house wines and their cash cow status is often more important than their flavour. There are exceptions. Some restaurants do take their house wine seriously.
If there is a selection of house wines listed, or if the house wine changes frequently, chances are you’re in an establishment that gives its house wine more than a moment’s consideration. Give it a go but try it by the glass first.
Avoid the cheapest wine
This second rule is a kind of corollary to rule one. Again, the cheaper end of the wine list is where the restaurant makes its highest mark-ups. How’s that? Well, as a general rule of thumb, restaurants mark up a bottle of wine by about three times what they pay for it. But most restaurants put a heavier mark-up on the cheaper wines and a lower mark-up on the more expensive wines in order to maximise their profits. That’s why a cheap wine is almost never good value in a restaurant. To beat them at their own game, follow this basic rule: find the cheapest wine on the list and add 50% to it. This price is where the quality wines generally start to kick in.
The priciest wine isn’t the best
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you! While the cheapest wines on the list are seldom good value, it’s dangerous to assume that the most expensive wines will be the best. True, pricier wines may have lower mark-ups and there is a general correlation between price and quality, but unless you really know your way around the vintages and producers of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo, proceed with caution. Like the fashion world, the wine world is beset with expensive wines that trade on fancy names; the most expensive bottles–like the most expensive cars or the most expensive perfumes–aren’t necessarily the best.
Say what you like (and you don’t like)
Sommeliers come in for a lot of stereotyping and ribbing, but the fact is they’re not all called Jean-Claude or Pierre and they don’t really get their laughs by guffawing loudly when you mispronounce Gevrey-Chambertin. A good sommelier (see rule below) is your greatest ally, so make use of his or her skills. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. If you know you like big tannic reds or off-dry whites, let the sommelier know–and be sure to say how much you want to spend. The sommelier will also be able to suggest wines to match your food, so if you don’t know much more than red with meat and white with fish, you and the sommelier should have a talk.
Don’t be pressurised into spending more than you want to
Thankfully, the condescending, snobbish sommelier is largely a creature of the past. That said, there are still some scruple-free souls who do their profession a disservice by habitually recommending wines from the most expensive price band. In one restaurant, my chosen wine, a light, fresh Australian Riesling, was out of stock. “Would Madame like to try this wine (pointing to a heavily oaked Chardonnay more than twice the price) instead?” he enquired. No, Madame would not. If you get one of these types, be firm and don’t be bullied into spending beyond your budget.