Listing to port
Do restaurant wine lists give you that sinking feeling?
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
It lands in front of me with a heavy thud: 40 pages, single-spaced. This is the
wine list at the Simon Pearce restaurant in Quechee, Vermont, and it brings
even wine fanatics to their knees. The waiter smirks and walks away. I start to
When confronted by a novel-length wine list, we all experience some
justifiable anxiety. What should be a chance to explore the infinite complexity
of wine, and perhaps show off a little expertise, becomes a stressful battle of
wills with the list, the waiter ("I just need a few more minutes"), and our
wallets. After all, any money-for-brains schlub can plop down $500 to impress
his friends. What the rest of us need is a way to wrestle this sort of list
into submission, emerging triumphant with the One Perfect Wine while avoiding a
I'm going to assume you know a little bit about matching wine and food (if
not, don't worry, future columns
will explore that subject until you're
thoroughly sick of it) and concentrate on the process. To that end, I hereby
propose a strategy borrowed from the warlords of years past: divide and
Start with the most basic decisions. How many bottles? One wine all night, or
one per course? A different wine for each guest? How much can you
in mind that restaurant markups can turn your favorite $15 "everyday" wine into
a $40 bottle. Also plan for any pre-dinner drinks or
and a digestif; and remember that someone is going to have to drive home.
Being entrusted with the wine list is a big responsibility, but it also means
less time to study the menu. So why not just pick the wine first, and then
select food to complement that wine? You'll be assured of a pleasant (possibly
exceptional) wine-food match. Select a rich white Burgundy, then choose between
the butter-soaked veal with wild mushrooms and the dry-roasted capon. If a
restaurant's principal appeal is its wine list, why proceed any other way?
When it comes to actually picking the wine, don't be afraid to indulge your
individual preferences and biases. For me, this means eliminating from
consideration food-unfriendly wines like big,
merlots, and some
cabernet sauvignons --
though there are always delicious
exceptions. Conversely, I pay special attention to food-friendly Italian and
Alsatian whites, and
pinot noirs (all with
when faced with difficult food-matching dilemmas. A
nice bonus: some of these regions' wines are excellent values.
And finally, there's the question of age. While I do enjoy young, bold,
wine, I crave the complexity that maturity brings. My personal
restaurant strategy is to find the most mature wine that I can afford (which
varies, depending on the occasion, the restaurant, and just how much desire I'm
experiencing for that bottle). Restaurant wine lists overwhelmingly gravitate
toward younger vintages
(storing wine to maturity can be prohibitively
expensive), but even a year or two can make a big difference in the taste of a
wine. A few lists specialize in older wines -- and, given the insane prices
that newly released wines are fetching, these are frequently better values than
their younger counterparts. You can find some surprising bargains if you ignore
the currently hot regions (Bordeaux and Burgundy) in favor of less-heralded
areas like the Rhône Valley,
Australia, and, domestically,
Oregon and Washington.
On the other hand, if you absolutely must have Bordeaux or Burgundy, look
for "lesser" vintages.
Americans are extremely vintage-conscious
and often seem
to believe that wines like Bordeaux are only worth drinking in
great years like
1986 -- which means inferior years
(1992 or '93) are completely ignored. Yes,
an '86 red Bordeaux is unquestionably "better" than a '92, but the '86 is a
monster that's a long way from mature (or even drinkable, in some
cases). The '92, on the other hand, is wonderful right now, and it costs
probably half as much as the '86. Remember: the goal is to find something tasty
to drink with your meal, not to impress the people sitting at the next table.
Two quick recommendations:
1994 Château La Roque Pic Saint Loup (Coteaux du Languedoc)
($9.99). One of the dozens of wine bargains coming out of southern France, with
an utterly compelling, earthy tobacco-and-black-truffle structure underneath
some dark, gamy fruit. There's still a good deal of
tannin lurking about this
bargain red, so either let it age (at this price, buy a few bottles and try one
per year) or air it out for an hour before serving it with strongly flavored
red meat and game.
1995 Ravenswood Zinfandel Napa Valley ($14.99).
Fermented grapes don't get any tastier than this. A
brambly, spicy witches' brew of plums, cherries, cassis, blueberries, prunes,
and strawberries with a mysterious thread of licorice running throughout. This
high-alcohol quaffer won't improve with age, so drink up (alone or with
aggressively piquant cheese).
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Uncorked archive