Avoid the pitfalls when ordering restaurant wine
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Longtime Washington residents will remember the years when most restaurant wine lists consisted of a red (Hearty Burgundy — not actually from Burgundy), a white (Chablis — not actually from Chablis, or anything like it) and a rosé (sweet and pink).
These days, we all live in the promised land, as far as wine options are concerned. Rare is the restaurant that does not offer at least a few well-chosen bottles, and more and more you'll find focused wine lists that sync up well with the food menu.
With the holidays at hand, you will probably be dining out at least once or twice, and you'll want to order a special wine or two to help celebrate the occasion.
Here are some thoughts on how to optimize your restaurant-wine experience — with some advice on how to recover quickly if things start to go sideways.
The wine list
A wine list at a fancy restaurant may be too big to read through without testing the patience of your companions. Or, it may simply be indecipherable, loaded with obscure or unknown names and wine regions. If you are really intent on studying every bottle before making your choice, visit the restaurant's Web site and see if the list is posted there, so you can do your reading at home. Failing that, visit the restaurant ahead of time and ask to review the list.
If you are not that excited about wading through someone's wine tome, a quick start is ordering a round of wines by the glass, or a tasting flight of wine if those are offered. Wines by the glass are easier to select, because there are fewer of them. Often a free sample taste is offered. And you may find one you like well enough to go for a full bottle.
The other quick solution is to get a handle on what everyone is ordering for food, ask your companions if they prefer white or red, and give your server or wine steward a price range and ask for suggestions.
Bringing your own wine
It is always a good idea to call ahead before bringing your own wine to a restaurant. Ask them what their policy is and what their corkage fee will be. Most restaurants will accept wines that are brought in if there is nothing comparable on their wine list. Standard corkage charges range from $10 to $25 per bottle, but some places have no-corkage nights (usually early in the week).
As a general rule, I bring my own wine only when I have something in my cellar that is truly a special-occasion wine; when I want to drink an expensive bottle that would be priced out of reach on the restaurant list. I always order something from the restaurant's wine list, whether it is a round of wines by the glass, a half bottle of something to go with the appetizer or a wine for dessert. And by all means, share a taste of your special wine with the wine steward — he or she will appreciate it.
The wrong wine is served
One of the most upset readers I've ever heard from had been charged three times the expected cost of the wines he had ordered because the restaurant had served different wines. "It was noisy, the light was dim, our host didn't have his reading glasses. There is no reason that everyone at the table should have to confirm it," the irate reader wrote.
Yes, but ... sometimes it's better to be safe than right. You should always check to confirm that the wine that is brought to the table is the wine that was ordered. Most often, when it is not, I find that it is due to a change in vintage. Sometimes that is irrelevant to quality, but not always. Do you still want it, or would you prefer to try a different bottle from the older vintage? Should you pay the same price as you would for an older bottle? These are fair questions to ask.
The wine is corked
The term "corked" refers to a wine whose cork has been tainted with TCA (short for 2,4,6- trichloroanisole). TCA is a chemical compound that often imparts an unpleasant moldy, musty aroma to a bottle of wine. It is not a danger to health, but even in small concentrations it can dampen the fruit and effectively shut down a wine's flavors.
Sometimes a sommelier will hand you the cork and wait for you to do something with it. Although this may seem old-fashioned and fussy, it doesn't hurt to take a good quick sniff of the wine-soaked end. Corks are a kind of early warning alert system. They should smell like fruit and clean wood, not like moldy newspaper. A cork pulled from an older bottle of red wine may also have scents of tobacco and dried fruits, leather and spice. But if you think that the cork smells musty and old, give the wine a very careful tasting before you approve of the bottle.
Even an expert can be fooled. I recently tasted a newly released syrah with the winemaker who made it. I thought it was fine; he wasn't so certain. The cork seemed just a little off. The wine, he thought, didn't taste the way he remembered it. He produced a second bottle which, in fact, was quite different and significantly better.
Anytime you suspect you have been served a corked wine in a restaurant, immediately ask your server for a second opinion. You are well within your rights to ask for a second bottle.
You don't like the wine
There are many ways that a wine can be damaged. Apart from the TCA problem, it may have been exposed to extremes of heat or cold, stored upright or in direct sunlight, even oxidized at the winery before being bottled. If a wine smells off — musty or chemical — or if it tastes flat or bitter, or harsh or vegetal, send it back. If a wine is perfectly sound, but you simply don't like it, negotiating skills come into play. It's always worth asking your wine server what they can bring you instead. Rarely have I encountered a quality restaurant that wouldn't offer the customer a second bottle of a different wine, unless the customer is simply being abusive and attempting to show off.
Too cold or too warm
White wines should be cool but not ice cold, even Champagne. Don't let your server plop your bottle into an ice bucket and leave it there indefinitely. It kills the aromas. About 10 minutes on ice is plenty; after that bring the wine out and leave it on the table. On the other hand, if you are served a red wine from a warm bottle, that may indicate improper storage. If the wine has been left in a warm cupboard rather than a proper cellar, it may be ruined. Simply chilling it back down won't fix it. I would request a second bottle, served at the proper temperature.
Good wine, bad glass
It is amazing that some restaurants with good food and excellent wine lists still serve the wines in squat, thick glasses, the type that have rounded edges and look like a tiny fishbowl. Ask for better ones; often they have them locked away in a cabinet for special occasions. Better yet, take a moment to inspect the glassware before you place your wine order. There is absolutely no point in buying an expensive and fancy wine if it's going to be poured in a subpar glass. Better to drink cheap wine and let the manager know that you won't be back until they upgrade.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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