You've got a hot date. You're dressed to kill and heading for a romantic dinner a deux. Everything's perfect. Then the waiter approaches with the wine list. While attempting to maintain your carefully crafted suave persona, you break out in a cold sweat, and your hot date suddenly chills.
Relax. With a little background info, choosing a wine for dinner is easier than learning your ABCs (which stands for Anything But Chardonnay).
M is for Money
Price is often the top priority when choosing vino. Though restaurants charge wildly varying prices, most usually double or triple the wholesale price. For example, a retail store or restaurant buys a bottle of wine from the distributor for $10. Retail outlets generally raise the price about 50 percent, to about $15, while restaurants will mark it up to between $20 and $30.
The restaurant's markup reflects a number of factors. Opulent décor, crystal glasses and a large inventory of wine most likely lead to high overhead and high wine markups. And true to the old adage of "keeping up with the Joneses," perceived value plays a part in wine list pricing. No self-respecting wine drinker wants to look cheap by ordering a $12 bottle (especially on that hot date), so restaurants pump up the price on inexpensive bottles. Conversely, expensive bottles hover closer to retail prices because no one wants to pay more than their monthly mortgage for a little fermented grape juice.
Luckily, savvy restaurant wine buyers across the country have begun to realize the value of a reasonable wine pricing strategy. The majority of the 1,400 bottles on the 33-page wine list at Prima Restaurant in Walnut Creek, California, are priced $9 above retail. General Manager Paolo Barbieri remarks, "By offering a great price on the wine, our customers drink more and drink higher quality wines." Way to go Paolo -- the restaurant still makes money and wine lovers leave happy.
P is for Pairing
Forget red wine with red meat, white wine with fish. You can successfully pair pinot noir with salmon or pinot blanc with pork if you keep in mind several things.
First, consider the weight of the dish and the body of the wine. No, we're not talking about a chicken with thunder thighs. We're talking about the heaviness on your palate. A filet mignon needs a robust, full-bodied red, such as cabernet sauvignon. But that same full-bodied wine would overwhelm a delicate pork dish. You're better off with a medium-bodied, elegant wine such, as pinot noir.
Second, look for a wine that complements the strongest flavors in the cuisine. With the explosion of Pacific Rim food, sales of Alsatian, German and California gewürztraminers and rieslings are on the rise. Though much-maligned as super sweet insipid whites, nothing could be further from the truth. If well-made, these whites are spicy, intense, high-acid wines that marry perfectly with piquant curry sauces and fiery kung poa chicken.
Wines from A to Z
When ordering a wine for dinner, forget chardonnay and cabernet. Instead, be adventurous and explore the world of wines, from alicante bouschet to zinfandel. Although these varieties are not as well known, they often complement food much better. Here's some suggestions:
RedsChianti (the Italian stuff) - Made primarily from the sangiovese grape. Its fresh fruitiness and natural high acidity are very food-friendly. Many wineries in California have jumped on the Cal-Ital bandwagon and are churning out high-quality sangiovese. (See the "Special Tasting" section in Vol. 2.3 for recommendations.)
Wines from France's Rhone region are made with grapes like syrah, grenache and mourvedre. California wineries, such as Cline, Joseph Phelps and Bonny Doon, have been dubbed "Rhone Rangers," and produce terrific examples of these and other Rhone varietals. They're perfect foils for hearty Mediterranean cuisine.
Zinfandel (the real stuff -- red) is a bold, brawny wine made for imbibing with pizzas and burgers. It also ranks as one of the best values on many lists. (See the "Special Tasting" section in this issue for recommendations.)
Pinot Noir - The noble grape responsible for red Burgundy might qualify as the best all-around dinner wine. It's elegant and fruity without being overbearing and pairs well with fish and meat. Acacia, Kenwood and Chalone are familiar producers on many lists.
WhitesSauvignon blanc and semillon are the main grapes in white Bordeaux and Loire wines. California and New Zealand bottlings are delicious and often priced better.
Viognier is a white Rhone grape, and with its floral, perfumed nose marries well with delicate dishes.
Pinot grigio, a quaffable Italian varietal, is a staple on wine lists and usually a safe choice for a lighter white wine. Check out some Oregon pinot gris (same varietal, different name) for stateside wines.
Okay, so now that I've convinced you not to stick with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon or merlot, I'd like you to keep in mind one more tip: look to wines from Chile, Argentina and Australia (for recommendations see our "Special Tasting" section in the next issue), as they generally cost less than California and French versions and can be softer and more approachable than their Northern Hemisphere brethren.
The Big O
Options. That's the key to a good wine list. Not only should the list offer a well-chosen collection of wines by the bottle, it should also have a decent selection of wines by the glass. The same is true with half-bottles. Containing enough wine for two to three glasses, these diminutive bottles are the answer if some people at the table want white and others want red.
One of the best ways to explore your wine options is by talking with the sommelier (suh-mel-yay), the wine steward or the cellar master. Listen, if you're not afraid to ask waiters which dish they recommend, why should you be intimidated by sommeliers? Their job is to compile a wine list that complements the restaurant's cuisine. So just tell the sommelier how much money you want to spend and what you were thinking of eating, and listen to some recommendations. (If you detect attitude, you can always ignore the suggestions.)
I is for Imbibe
Wine is not to fear or revere -- it's to enjoy. So order what you like. Pull the cork and have a great time. Now that you know your ABCs, there's no more sweating it when that wine list arrives.
Varietals Cheat Sheet
Chardonnay = white Burgundy
Pinot noir = red Burgundy
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot = red Bordeaux
Sauvignon blanc and semillon = white Bordeaux and white Loire
Sangiovese = Italian Chianti
Syrah = Northern red Rhones and Australian shiraz
Roussane, marsanne and viognier = white Rhones.