At the Restaurant: The Wine List

Wine has been democratized and more often than not, a restaurant like a funky taco, ramen or satay spot will have a cool and hip wine list, written on a chalkboard or printed on a flimsy piece of paper. Big heavy leather-bound wine lists and the stuffiness surrounding them are becoming (thankfully) a thing of the past.

A big reason for this is that wine is no longer an elitist beverage, hence its consumption is no longer dictated by rigid guidelines of etiquette. Still, that doesn’t mean that a wine list can’t confound the eater, the chief reason is the presence of private imports. Oftentimes these wines can have goofy cuvee names or come from regions that aren’t familiar. They are easy enough to spot on a list, but how to know what to expect? The key to interpreting a wine list is a sommelier.

The sommelier is an individual who is skilled at tasting wine, understanding the processes that go into its making and can pair wine with food. The sommelier works the floor of a restaurant and by his presence is there guide you through his wine list. By guide I mean presenting a few revelations to help the dinner guests understand the sommelier’s wine philosophy. It’s this individual philosophy that establishes the link between the chef’s cuisine and the bottles on the wine list, backed by the conviction that pushes the sommelier to opt for one domain over another. Here are few pointers to keep in mind when you open the wine list.

Reading the wine list

Before asking the waiter to call the sommelier over, read over the wine list thoroughly. Even if you aren’t interested in the wines that are out of your price range, they can give you an idea of what’s on hand. Try to notice whether a certain domain, region or grape is over-represented. Perhaps there is a reason for this.

Don’t ignore the selections that are offered by the glass. Oftentimes, the sommelier is showcasing a new arrival, a personal favorite or something out of the ordinary. Take note of these; they may prove to be conversation starters when you confer with the sommelier. Request a sample, it always helps.

Now that you’ve got an idea of the wine list, what is your price range for the bottle? In what price range are the majority of the wines to be found, for example between 70 to 85 dollars? This is the median of the list, meaning the sommelier has decided to focus on this price range to sell the majority of his bottles. This indicated that on average, the cost price of these bottles varies between 30 and 30 dollars, if the mark-up is a coefficient of 2,5.

Usually the first few wines on the list are the ones where the mark-up price (the coefficient by which the cost of the bottle is multiplied) is the greatest. (How is this info related to the sentence before?) The first bottle on the list cannot or should not be a dud. A list’s first wine should have something to offer or it should be there at all. Price alone cannot procure pleasure. A client on a modest budget should still enjoy the entry-level wine and should not be penalized for ordering it, this is key to the sommelier’s job.

Complexity in the variables

Bordeaux and Cabernet, Californian Pinot Noir and Australian Shiraz, these are the reds that clients tend to seek out. Chardonnay or Sauvignon, oaked or not, these are the popular grapes for those who want to drink white wine. They are popular, so many wine lists carry them. They can provide a measure of comfort in a sea of the unknown when looking at a wine list. Sometimes, their popularity allows the sommelier to charge more them, after all they are in demand. Although this is not a practice I engage in, I understand why it is done. Some people simply enjoy what they enjoy and will pay for it. But suppose the client is looking for something else? Or suppose the sommelier wishes to share something he’s discovered? This is where the sommelier’s knowledge should shine most and if you are willing to follow, he will lead you to something delicious that otherwise might have escaped your attention.

The sommelier’s knowledge of the intimate details surrounding his wines is key. He knows why an obscure producer in the Languedoc village of Bédarieux makes delicious Pinot Noir or that the Germans in Baden are equally good at getting great results from the same grape. And as for price : much cheaper options that some cru from Burgundy. How about a wine that is a bit older than say a two or three years? Well Armanda Ru in the Nizza region of Piedmont doesn’t commercialize his wine until he deems them ready to drink, sometimes waiting ten years…and at a price that is unbeatable. Or how about that the young wine maker who worked under the Alsatian wine guru Olivier Humbrecht and is now making some of the finest wines in the South West of France but is still a relative unknown outside the region? I’m talking about Elian Da Ros…but of course the client can’t know, that why I’m here: to share all this!

The Sommelier

The sommelier is there to share his passion. This may come in the form of tips for choosing your bottle, the offer of a few gems that are not on the menu, or just his in-depth knowledge about the bottles on his list. What’s important for the sommelier to know or understand are your tastes and if you are ready to leave your comfort zone. In a sense, the sommelier is there to size you up. Charm, classicism, intrigue, patience, provocation, all these could be important for your choice of wine.

What mood are you in? How far will you follow your curiosity? An orange wine? A white wine with a slight effervescence? A red smelling of yeast?

Trust between you and your sommelier is built gradually. For me, sometimes it’s enough to feel the vibes from the clients at a given table: I’ll just put down a bottle at the table and say, “Here, try this.” I’ll explain the choice later, as they are having their firs sip. Of course, they can always send the bottle back. This boldness comes from a belief that they will enjoy their experience; otherwise I wouldn’t bother.

The sommelier may then suggest you take a few moments to dwell on your choice during which he should leave the table. Of course, the sommelier can’t guess or know what you like to drink, so do offer any relevant information on the subject. That will give him a better grasp of you as a wine consumer, most notably when he asks, “What have you been drinking lately?”.