Six Quick and Easy Tips for Navigating Restaurant Wine Lists Like a Pro

A woman looking at the wine list in the restaurant Saint Amour in Quebec City, CanadaAlamy

Have you ever been handed a wine list at a restaurant and been completely overwhelmed?

Everyone has been there at some point, and it can be daunting. You’re under pressure to order a tasty wine that everyone will enjoy, but don’t want to pick something that will require a second mortgage.

Here are a handful of quick strategies to help navigate those intimidating and extravagant lists with a bit more ease.

Open with bubbles.

When you sit down and want to really go through the wine list, stall for time by ordering a bottle of bubbles.

Champagne is always a top choice, but there are so many excellent sparkling options typically available at a more accessible price point, particularly Prosecco and Cava. Not only is it a festive way to start any meal, but it allows for some breathing room to properly peruse the wine list and help open up everyone’s appetite.

Want to try something a little further out there? See if the restaurant has a pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, a rustic style of sparkling wine appearing increasingly on lists across the U.S.

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There are no hard and fast rules on quality vs. price.

You’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice on what to order based on price. Some will tell you to never order the cheapest bottle on the list. Others say that the second-cheapest bottle of wine is what the restaurant wants to unload on unsuspecting customers too self-conscious to order the lowest-price wine.

The truth is, there is no quick cheat that’ll tell you which wine you should buy based on price. Sometimes, the cheapest wine is the owner’s favorite, and the restaurant gets a case discount. Or the most expensive wine is something the restaurant barely breaks even on, but keeps it around for prestige and to add to the overall experience.

What you can be sure of is that most beverage directors strive to make all the wines on their list ones that they enjoyed tasting, and deal with the price points later.

Take the road less traveled. 

 If you go into a steakhouse and look to a bottle of Napa Cab or Bordeaux, you are almost guaranteed to pay top dollar for a wine that usually has the highest markup in the joint. The same goes for a Barolo or Amarone at a five-star Italian restaurant. That’s because these are the types of bottles most diners associate with these sorts of restaurants.

However, if you look for Merlot or Zinfandel from Sonoma at that same steakhouse, you’ll likely find an outstanding wine with less sticker shock. A Valpolicella Superiore can offer the same value at your favorite Italian spot and would be a welcome alternative to Amarone. Restaurants tend to mark these bottles up less to entice diners to try their favorite “value wines.”

Double the retail price of the wine for comparison.

Most restaurants will charge a flat percentage markup on wine based on its cost. But some may play around with the prices where they think they can maximize profit.

If you are considering a wine you’re familiar with, a good rule of thumb is to double what you would pay in a local wine shop. That will give you a fair market assessment of restaurant pricing, though you should expect a bit more at higher-end restaurants.

If a wine you like is being offered at less than double its retail price, you’ve found a deal.

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Ask questions.

It’s amazing how many bargains can be found just by striking up a conversation with the sommelier or your server. Tell them what wines you’ve enjoyed in the past and why. If they ask followup questions, they’re trying to get a sense of your taste, not quiz you.

Besides, getting to know your wine professional has all sorts of side benefits. Maybe the restaurant has one bottle left of an older vintage that they need to clear out to make room for a new wine. Or perhaps there are a few wines not even on the list that just arrived. Maybe a sales rep dropped off some sample bottles about which the sommelier would like opinions.

Having a conversation with the staff about your wine preferences and budget could lead to a stellar value selection.

Wine preference outweighs wine pairing.

It’s easy to get hung up on trying to find the perfect pairing, and wine culture places such emphasis on the “right” things to eat and drink together. But if you know that you don’t like Rhône wines and your server or sommelier recommends a Gigondas as the best pairing for your dish, chances are that you’ll be disappointed.

Be sure to order a wine that you know you will enjoy regardless of the food. After all, you’re the one paying the bill, right?

Thanksgiving Wine and Turkey Pairing Recs

You may want to sit down for this: Thanksgiving is a mere week away! How crazy is that?! But ready or not, here it comes. Which means that both your menu and wine lineup need to start rapidly coming together. Even if you are not hosting (which makes life that much easier) you can still have a huge impact on the meal by bringing the right wines for your family and friends to enjoy. I mean, who doesn’t love the guy who rolls in with a few bottles of great juice?! Which then begs the question… what are the right wines to pair with a traditional Thanksgiving meal?

The great thing about a roasted turkey and all the trimmins is that there are a ton of wines that will pair well with the meal. It just depends on what style of wine you crew prefer. The one possible wine component you may want to try and avoid are very high tannins. Turkey doesn’t have the fat content of red meat, which typically will bind with those tannins. Instead, the tannins can take center stage rendering the turkey and stuffing as bland as opposed to full of flavor.  So while just about any wine will work, here are some options that may complement your meal better than others.

The classic white wine pairing with turkey is Riesling. The low alcohol and high acid can be a refreshing complement to the inherent richness of the meal. I prefer to stick with the drier style (Kabinett) as opposed to those that have a sweeter profile (Spatlese). The Willim Alsace Riesling is one of my favorite options for around $15 and for a real value the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling is consistently solid and goes for under $10 at most retailers.

If you like your whites a little bigger and bolder then a buttery, oaky Chardonnay or Burgundy may be the way to go. Although be careful of the super oaked options, as those woody tannins can stifle the richness of the bird. My favorites from CA right now are from Gary Farrell and Stonestreet (both around $30-35), but I’ve been on a real Chablis kick these days. The searing acidity on those wines will certainly complement your properly roasted bird. On the value side try the Joel Gott Chard from CA or the Fox Run from the Finger Lakes. Both are unoaked clean, vibrant and delightfully refreshing options for around $15.

Traditionally the most commonly recommended red wines to pair with turkey are Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Rhone Blends. Pinot is arguably the best option as the higher acid levels, vibrant fruit and peppery spice really bring out the best in just about any poultry dish. The problem in my family is that no one drinks Pinot. Almost everyone at that table prefers their wines big and opulent and tend to reach for a massive Napa Cab over an elegant red Burgundy. But I plan to enjoy my deep fried turkey with a healthy glass or two of the Davis Bynum 2014 RRV Pinot, even if I’m the only one at the table that does.

So the pairing that usually works best for my crew is a hearty Cali Zinfandel or Red Blend.  They tend to have loads of big, dark and spicy fruit but a little lighter body and softer tannins than Cab. Seghesio produces high quality Zins across their entire portfolio, and if you want to go for a mouth filling red blend than grab The Prisoner, as that is always a crowd pleaser.  This year I’m going with the Method North Coast Proprietary Red. This hearty blend of Syrah, Zin and Petite Sirah is balanced and layered with flavors of red and black cherry, blueberry, vanilla, ground espresso and brown sugar… a perfect partner for your perfectly prepared Thanksgiving bird.

Wines from Southern Rhone typically consist of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre with Grenache usually taking center stage. Grenache leans on the lighter side in terms of body with good acid, spicy berry fruit and plush tannins. Blend in some meaty Syrah and a dollup of dark Mouvedre and you have an ideal blend for your Thanksgiving table. Cotes du Rhone Villages wines offer a step up in quality (usually) over a standard Cotes du Rhone, and still can be found for less than $20.  However they have a hard time standing up to those bigger and more complex Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas wines, which is why those are just about impossible to find for under $40. Some value producers include Barville, Santa Duc, Chapoutier and Louis Bernard. But if you are from the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ mentality then you can’t go wrong with any of the big dogs such as Domaine de Pegau, Vieux Telegraphe, Chateau de Beaucastel or Saint Cosme. Just be sure to give those bigger wines some oxygen before you start digging into them, or they may come off a little tight and inexpressive.

Tasty Brews + Good Food + Great Service = The Barley House

Craft Beer has not only retained its popularity over the last several years, but has gotten even more mainstream, dismissing those haters that wanted to see this fad fade. Hell, just about every deli and gas station now has a Craft Beer section, and some even have taps and growlers to take a tasty brew with you. The corner local pubs have all stepped up their beer game as well, as Blue Moon and Stella are no longer their only ‘high end’ options. But then you have the real Craft Beer Bar and Grills in Westchester, and there are plenty out there to enjoy.

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Lazy Boy Saloon in WP is the Grand Daddy of them all, pioneering the Craft Beer movement in Westchester before it was even trendy. Tuckahoe has now become the beer capital of Westchester with The TapHouse and Growlers across the street from one another, both excellent from a beer and food standpoint. Captain Lawrence Brewing Company is the Mecca for beer geeks, especially with the new menu they have recently implemented and the outdoor bar game section. And I have not had the pleasure of a visit yet, but I hear The Oath in Tarrytown is making a name for itself around the Fresh. But tucked away on the side streets of Thornwood sits a revitalized Craft Beer Bar and Grill that is making a strong case to be included in the conversation of top Westchester spots… The Barley House.

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With more than 30 beers on tap, there is something on draft for every palate. The beer menu is easy to navigate as it is organized by taste, flavor and weight. Selections are changed fairly frequently as well, so you can always find something new on the list. Plus, they always select a handful of brews to include in their Happy Hour deal, which is a great time to do some sampling. But more than just having this killer beer list, the food game at The Barley House is also on point.

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I’m told this wasn’t always the case, but since Chef Michael Orchart has taken the reigns they are putting out some of the best ‘pub and grill’ fare around. The staples like fried calamari, flatbreads, wings and burgers are all as solid as you would expect. But some of the specialty standouts and my personal favorites include the fish tacos (made with cod, not tilapia) the cuban, the wicked tuna sandwich and of course the 10 oz giant pretzel among others. Truth be told I have yet to put a morsel of food in my mouth from this joint that I have not enjoyed. And yes, they do have a modest wine list… but with all the cool and eclectic beer options, I admit I have not paid much attention to it.

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What more could you ask for? How about one of the best places for a large group event in town! Bobby Harris (you may remember him from the old Sports Page crew) and his staff do a bang up job from helping set up the menu, to getting the room prepared, to handling the needs of a really large cast of characters to ensuring everything is served hot, tasty and in a timely fashion. We have had two large work functions there recently and I’m already looking forward to the next installment. So if you’re in and around the Thornwood/Pleasantville/Valhalla area and are craving a bite to eat and and adult beverage, be sure to check it out.

What To Drink With Your Bird This Thanksgiving

You may want to sit down for this: Thanksgiving is less than a week away! How nuts is that?!? But ready or not, here it comes. Which means not only does your menu need to start rapidly coming together, but so does the wine lineup for the evening. Even if you are not hosting  (which makes life that much easier) you can still have a huge impact on the meal and overall holiday enjoyment by bringing the right wines for your family and friends to enjoy. I mean, who doesn’t love the guy who rolls in with a few bottles of really good juice?! Which then begs the question… what are the right wines to pair with a traditional Thanksgiving meal?

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The great thing about oven roasted turkey and all the trimmins is that there are a ton of wines that will pair well with that type of meal. It just depends on what style of wine you and your crew prefer. The one trick is to avoid any overpowering wines with high tannins. Turkey doesn’t have the fat content of red meat, which typically will bind with those tannins. Instead, the tannins can take center stage rendering the turkey and stuffing as bland as opposed to full of flavor.  So while just about any wine will work, here are some that may complement your meal better than others.

The classic white wine pairing with turkey is Riesling. The low alcohol and high acid can be a refreshing complement to the inherent richness of the meal. I prefer to stick with the drier style (Kabinett) as opposed to those that have a sweeter profile (Spatlese). The 2011 Fox Run Reserve Riesling is a stunning option for under $25, and allows you to drink local! For a real value the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling is consistently solid and goes for under $10 at most retailers.

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If you like your whites a little bigger and bolder then a buttery, oaky Chardonnay or Burgundy may be the way to go. Although be careful of the super oaked options, as even those woody tannins can stifle the richness of the bird. My favorites right now are from Davis Bynum and Byron, but on the value side you can grab the Seaglass Chard from Santa Barbara. It is unoaked, clean and vibrant… a delightfully refreshing option for around $10.

If you Google red wine pairings for Thanksgiving Turkey, the most commonly recommended wines are Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Rhone Blends. Pinot is arguably the best option as the higher acid levels, vibrant fruit and peppery spice really bring out the best in just about any poultry dish. The problem in my family is that no one drinks Pinot. They prefer their wines big and opulent and tend to reach more towards a bomby Napa Cab than an elegant red Burgundy. Although I guarantee that bottle of the 2013 Papapietro  RRV Pinot will be in attendance this year for my Turkey Day meal.

2013 Papapietro Perry "Peter's Vineyard" Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

So the pairing that usually works best for my crew is a hearty Zinfandel from California… and no, not the pink stuff. It tends to have loads of big, dark and spicy fruit but a little lighter body and softer tannins than Cab. Seghesio is always my dad’s go to, but personally I prefer the Terra d’Oro Zin from Amador for a few bucks less. Forward, rich and ripe with a nice balance of medium to high acid and tannins, this one is always a crowd pleaser.  And if I’m feeling a little frisky, I will break out one of the Zichichi Zins from my stash. Steve Zichichi is a Zin genius and making some of the best Zin to come out of Dry Creek and all of California really. It ain’t cheap and pretty hard to find, but if you can get your hands on any of his juice I highly recommend it.

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The classic Rhone blend consists of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre with Grenache usually taking center stage. Somewhat like Zin, Grenache leans on the lighter side in terms of body with good acid, spicy berry fruit and plush tannins. Blend in some meaty Syrah and a dollup of dark Mouvedre and you have an ideal blend for your Thanksgiving table. Cotes du Rhone Villages wines offer a step up in quality (usually) over the standard CDRs, and still can be found for less than $20.  However they have a hard time standing up to those bigger and more complex Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas wines, which is why those are just about impossible to find for under $40. Some value producers include Barville, Santa Duc and Louis Bernard. But if you are from the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ mentality then you can’t go wrong with any of the big dogs such as Domaine de Pegau, Vieux Telegraphe, Chateau de Beaucastel or Chapoutier. Just be sure to give those bigger wines some oxygen before you get start digging into them, or they may come off a little tight and inexpressive.

 

Another Successful Westchester Magazine Wine and Food Festival In The Books!

Year after year the Westchester Magazine crew puts together one of the most elaborate culinary events in Westchester, and 2016 was no different. From Peter Kelly winning his 4th Burger Bash title, to Kevin Zraly pulling together a fantastic portfolio of wines to taste over the weekend to top Westchester chefs offering delectable bites for all to enjoy… this may have been the best #WMFAW to date!

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While Saturday’s Grand Tasting Village was the most attended, featuring 60+ restaurants and 200+ wines… and of course Kathie Lee and Joy of NBC’s Today, Friday night’s Evening With Westchester’s Tastemakers was certainly the star of the festival. Hosted at the beautiful Ritz Carlton in White Plains, the evening featured 60 top notch wine selections served alongside dishes prepared by 20 of the finer restaurants in the area. Highlights on the wine side included the 2012 Dominus, 2012 La Jota Merlot, 2010 Chateau Certan de May, 2010 Chateau Lassegue 2012 Louis Jadot Volnay and Nuits Saint Georges and of course the Comtes and Cristal were rather outstanding as well. Check out some photo 0610161745b_resizedhighlights of the evening as well as the list of fine chef’s that participated in this year’s event… already looking forward to next year!                            FotoJet Collage 1                    0610161746_resized     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening WithWestchester’s Tastemakers Participants

Michael Abruzese, Polpettina
David Amorelli, Harvest on Hudson
David DiBari, The Cookery
Scott Fratangelo, L’inizio
Eric Gabrynowicz, Restaurant North
Kennardo Holder, The Ritz- Carlton, Westchester
Robert Horton, An American Bistro
Kyle Inserra, Polpettina
Michael Kaphan, Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish
Peter Kelly, X20 Xaviars on the Hudson
Ethan Kostbar, Moderne Barn
Glenn Vogt, RiverMarket Bar & Kitchen
Jay Lippin, Crabtree’s Kittle House

Andy Nusser, Tarry Lodge

Leo Pablo, The Inn at Pound Ridge
Rafael Palomino, Sonora
Christian Petroni, Fortina
Michael Psilakis, MP Taverna
Andy Shilling, BLT Steak
Michael White, Campagna
Bobby Will, Saltaire Oyster Bar

Incoming: Westchester’s Premiere Wine & Food Event!

So it looks like spring has officially sprung here in Westchester, and it’s about time! Aside from the warmer weather, flowers blooming and summer closing in, it’s also the most anticipated time of year for the foodie and oenophile contingency. Why, you may ask? Easy…because in it’s sixth year running, Westchester Magazine will once again host the county’s most elaborate culinary extravaganza boasting an extensive arsenal of wines as well as an impressive list of Westchester’s finest dining venues for their 2016 Wine & Food Festival. For this year’s installment they have changed up the format a bit with what appears to be a much more focused yet expansive event configuration.

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The Festival starts on Wednesday June 8th with a fashion/shopping themed event at Bloomingdale’s which leads into Thursday’s Burger and Beer Blast at the Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla. Here, over 30 local restauranburger-blastts will compete for the coveted Blue Moon Best Burger Award. Think of this as a block party on steroids as there will be tons of great brews, stellar burgers and bar bites, wine, booze and some of the most notorious food trucks in town. These are worthy undercards which lead up to the weekend’s main event of wine tastings and pairings.

Friday night’s ‘An Evening With Westchester’s Tastemakers’  is clearly the belle of the ball this year.  Hosted at the lavish Ritz Carlton in White Plains, it will feature a truly special wine list along with Westchester’s finest restaurants and chefs preparing two signature dishes each specifically for the evening. Such restaurants as Campagna, Crabtree’s Kittle House, Purdy’s Farmer and The Fish, Sonora, Tarry Lodge, The Inn at Pound Ridge and of course The Xaviar’s Group, home to Westchester’s Star Chef Peter Kelly, will be featured among a number of Westchester’s finest eateries. But what good is all this delectable food without the perfect wines by their side? That’s where well-known wine guru Kevin Zraly comes into the picture.

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Kevin has narrowed the evening’s list down to 20 stellar selections for this salacious walk around tasting including sparkling, white and red wines from around the world. Some of the wines offered will include Louis Roederer Cristal and Taittinger Vintage Champagnes, Dominus, Domaine Zind Humbrecht Gewurz, La Jota Merlot and Chateau Certan de May to name a few. The goal here is to pair up each scrumptious bite with an ideal wine in order to complement its flavors and texture. Not an easy feat, but Kevin has been doing this sort of thing for many years so I am sure it will be quite the ‘palatable’ sensory experience from start to finish.  It’s not an inexpensive evening for $125 a ticket ($175 for VIP, which is really the way to go as it gives you early entrance to move around with ease), but when considering the quality of food and wine being offered, it’s a pretty serious value.

grand-villageIf your hangover subsides by late Saturday morning then the Saturday Grand Tasting Village is well worth attending. It costs less per ticket than Friday’s festivities and will have 3X the amount of restaurants and wineries struttin’ their stuff back at the Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla. There will be chef demonstrations all day long with lots of local celebrity chefs as well as members of the NBC Today Show. Plus, for an extra few bucks you gain access to the Connoisseurs Tent where Kevin will be pouring some higher end juice and sharing his extensive wine knowledge with those attending. Sure, it will be a bit more crowded than Friday night’s Tastemaker event, but having attended this in year’s past there is always a fairly open flow and an energetic vibe to the Saturday Grand Tasting Village.

For more info and to buy tickets check out the official website for this year’s event, see you there!

Westchester Magazine’s 6th Annual Wine & Food Festival

Cheers!

Wine Pairing Dinners Bring Out A Restaurant’s Best

Over the last several years, these special wine pairing dinners have become all the rage. It used to be that only the top eateries in NYC or Westchester would hold such prestigious events, and from what I recall they were all extremely expensive. It would seem the point of those dinner events was to not only offer a 5 or 6 course meal while pairing up each course with a special, and perfectly matched, wine, but the restaurants were also looking to turn a nice profit on the night. And why wouldn’t they?? These were small gatherings with superb dishes featuring sought after top tier wines. This traditional high end version of the wine pairing dinner certainly still exists, but a new generation has recently emerged.  Now those of us that can’t drop $500 on a single meal have ability to indulge in an enjoyable culinary experience as well.

I recently attended one of these dinners at The TapHouse in Tuckahoe where Moet Hennessy teamed up with owner Chris O’Brien and Chef Kevin Bertrand to try and put together a fun and well thought out wine pairing menu. It seemed a good way to sample a handful of MH’s somewhat approachable wines in their portfolio with some new and innovative culinary dishes prepared by the TapHouse team. They were able to get a little creative and curate some dishes that they may not typically offer on a high-end gastropub type menu. I’ve been to a few of their beer pairing dinners which are always a blast and provide an interesting perspective in matching up beer and food, but this was their first wine pairing dinner. In short, these guys knocked it out of the park from start to finish, especially at a mere $65 a head!

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You could tell from the opening course that this was going to a be a seriously sick menu starting with tokyo style diver scallops in a jalapeno infused strawberry water with a beautiful watermelon radish. The scallops were delightfully light yet meaty, and the bright strawberry flavor paired wonderfully with the Domaine Chandon Rose Brut bubbles. Pairing any food with sparkling is never easy to do, but these guys nailed it as the DC rose came to life after just a  mere taste of the scallops.

 

0420162103b_resizedThe other highlight of the meal was the roasted loin of venison served over celeriac puree with a corn grits risotto and black currants. The venison was tender, full of flavor and cooked to perfection. They chose the 2013 Newton Unfiltered Napa Cab for this course, and as Yoda would say… chose wisely, they did! The tannins were surprisingly supple for such a big and fruit forward wine, and of course the venison helps smooth it out as well. But the genius combo was the black currant side that when tasted along side this anything but subtle Cab, just popped with flavor and cassis goodness. A great way to finish the main courses leading into the closing dessert finale.

I won’t go into every course here, although it is worth mentioning there was not a bad dish or wine to be had during the evening. So for the $65 price tag there were 5 dishes served (where the portions were ample enough) and 4 really solid wines with 1 standout killer wine in the Newton Cab. So as a couple you could enjoy an entire meal out for $130 (plus tax and tip) where the service is fantastic and the dishes are craftfully prepared specifically for this event. I don’t know about you, but there aren’t too many places these days you can get away with a full quality meal, with wine, for under $150 a couple.

So if you see any of these special wine paring events at your local favorite restaurants it is probably worth checking out, as it can be less expensive to attend one of these dinners than dining off the standard menu on any regular night. It is also becoming more common for these dinners to be a way of marketing and promoting, where the restaurants aren’t as concerned with turning a big profit on the night, but more concerned with getting a good word out about how dynamite their restaurant can be. I can’t promise they will all be as good as this one at The TapHouse, but in the end you should be on the right side of an evening where the owner and chef are hopefully trying to do everything they can to please their customers and keep them coming back for more.