Does this sound familiar…. It’s Friday night after a hell of a long week. You have plans to meet some friends at a new restaurant that you have been looking forward to since LAST Friday. You get to the restaurant, everyone goes through the standard greeting ritual and you all sit at the table. The consensus is that everyone is drinking wine tonight and selects you to pick it out for the crew. The waiter hands you the wine list which weighs about 40 lbs and appears to be written in Sanskrit! With everyone waiting for you to choose something so they can start drinking already, (they have all had tough weeks too you know) you start to feel the pressure….what the hell should I order?!?!
I think most of us have been in this situation before. Well, maybe not in that exact scenario, but have looked at a wine list and not had a clue of what to order. You want to get something tasty that will go with whatever you decide to order, but don’t want to have to take out a second mortgage on it! Not to fear, there are a few tricks to keep it simple, reasonable and will ensure you get something that you, and everyone involved, will enjoy.
1. Try not to order the absolute cheapest bottle on the list (unless it is something you are familiar with and know you will like). In terms of value, typically the least expensive bottle of wine on the list is a house wine of that restaurant. That means they are buying tons of it and are probably marking it up more per bottle than others. It is a money maker for them, but typically by spending just a bit more, and going with the second or third least expensive bottle, you will get a little more bang for your buck.
2. Consider what a bottle would cost you in a store and double it. Restaurants usually mark up wine about 3 times what you would pay for it in a store. In really expensive restaurants, especially steakhouses, it can be as high as 4 or 5 times! So if you see something on a wine list that runs about double what you get it for in your local wine shop, go for it! It probably means the restaurant got a deal from the distributor which works out for everyone.
3. Don’t worry so much about pairing, order the type of wine you know you like. More and more, there are articles being written about non traditional pairings being a fun way to go….and I fully agree. For example, if you are going to order seafood, traditionally you want to go with a light, crisp white like a Sauvignon Blanc. Similarly, if you are planning on having a fat, juicy steak, most people will order a nice Cabernet. But if you see your favorite Pinot Noir or Chardonnay on the wine list at a good price, don’t be afraid to have that with your tuna. The same goes for drinking a big, fruit forward Syrah or Red Zin with your NY Strip. The more different pairings you try, the more you will open your mind and palate to new experiences.
4. If you trust your server…..get an opinion! Depending on the restaurant, most servers should be well versed regarding the wine list and have probably tasted most of the wines on it. If you have talked a little with your server and are getting a good vibe that he has a handle on things, ask him what he likes on the value side. If he points out the most expensive wine on the list, then you may not be the best judge of servers and that should be the last thing you ask him all night.
5. Bubbles….not just for New Year’s Eve anymore. When you first sit down and want to take some time to really go through the wine list, just order up some bubbles. I say bubbles and not Champagne as Champagne tends to be a bit pricey at a restaurant. But there is some really tasty sparkling juice coming out of California, Italy (Prosecco) and Spain (Cava) that is a great, less expensive option compared to the French stuff. It’s a fun way to start a meal as it can act as an aperitif and open up your appetite, and can also get everyone happy in a hurry.
Below are a few examples of some great wine list values that I have found recently. If you have discovered any of your own, I am sure we would all love to hear about it!
Crabtree’s Kittle House, Chappaqua, NY – Seghesio Old Vines Zinfandel 1999 – $35
They have a tremendous wine list and a great temperature controlled wine cellar with tons of older vintages at great values. It can be a bit overwhelming, so you should certainly pick the sommelier’s brain at this Westchester landmark restaurant. This wine, in its current vintage, runs about $30-35 in the store!!
The TapHouse, Tuckahoe, NY – Paraiso Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara – $38
Located right across from the Tuckahoe train station, this upscale gastropub has an extensive wine and beer list at extremely reasonable prices. They carry Paraiso’s Pinot for only about double what you would pay in a store. For the best deals hit their Sunday brunch when all bottles are half price!!
Haiku, White Plains, NY – Veramonte, Primus – $36
This Japanese/Sushi chain (there are 4 other locations) has a great city feel, extremely fresh, well crafted sushi and a value packed wine list. This Chilean red blend pairs nicely with the heartier sushi options as well as the numerous beef dishes on the menu.
Underhills Crossing, Bronxville, NY – Rosenblum Annette’s Reserve Zinfandel – $50
The value on this wine list lies in the higher end bottles. This Zin runs about $28 in the store and is full of dark fruit, vanilla and spice, yet is very complex and structured. If you’re feeling a little saucy, they also carry the Far Niente Oakville Cabernet for around $140. While that is obviously not cheap, that bottle would run close to $100 or more in a store and is not easy to come by. It is hands down one of the best wines to come out of Napa.