Too often these days, dining out comes with a ridiculous amount of pressure. Either you’re grabbing lunch at a new fusion eatery and you’re afraid to look silly asking what exactly nato is or you’re treating your sweetheart to a 4-star meal and dreading that moment when you’re faced with a 20-page wine menu and given a massive decision to make.
The wine list dilemma is the worst. You don’t want to cheap out but neither are you always in a position to spend the equivalent of a car payment on some highly lauded French red. You want something that’ll go with your dry-aged beef but if you get the béarnaise will that screw everything up? What if I’m tired of Cabernet – is there something else you can get that you’ll actually like?
Such good wine questions – especially if you’re asking them of the right person. See, sommeliers shouldn’t be that snobby suited-up dude or dudette in the corner with a fancy pin on their lapel and a superior smile on their lips. No no no. Your sommelier is your ambassador into the wonderful world of wine and asking questions is the best way to start your travel.
1. What Would You Drink?
My favorite sommeliers are the one who visibly brighten when I ask them what new or special bottle they have tucked away. Not what’s “best” or priciest or the rarest. I’m looking for the Lebanese nugget I never would’ve known about or the relatively obscure white I would’ve skipped over if left to my own devices. That’s how I first discovered Arneis back in the day – a somm was simply shocked that I didn’t want Riesling and he challenged be with this acidic, peppery, uber-refreshing alternative. I loved it.
2. Does the Vintage Really Matter?
A lot of times you’ll settle on a wine only to be told something like, “We’re out of the ’13 but we have the ’14. Will that suffice?” Cue the panicked look on your face and the irresistible desire to blurt out “YES” because really, what else are you going to say? First of all, that’s not that way I’d pose the question in the first place. If a selection is changing vintage – and it happens all the time, even in great restaurants – then I’d offer the alternate bottle along with something like, “Instead of the ’13 we’re now serving the ’14, which is slightly more fruit-forward and it’ll still pair beautifully with your blackberry-glazed duck.” See? Informative. But if your sommelier doesn’t do that, don’t be afraid to ask what the difference; many wines are consistent enough that the switch won’t matter but if it’s from a region that’s had some off years (’08 Rhone, for example) might not be the same value.
3. I Really Love Napa Cabs. Is There Something Similar You’d Recommend?
If you want a great recommendation you have to give a little information first. There is no wine that’s exactly like a Napa Cab except a Napa Cab, but by doling out that little tidbit you’ve given your somm a thread to follow. They may ask you what you like about Napa Cabs or they may just start suggesting bold, full-bodied wines that have some parallel characteristics (hint: you’ll probably love a really juicy Syrah or the harder-to-find Nero D’Avola). You can also talk about the last bottle of wine you really loved. If you want something similar, you’ve given your sommelier a pretty clear direction to go in.
4. What Would Pair Well with the Ribeye?
Again, give a little to get a lot. Picking your entrée before settling on a wine gives you a great starting point and helps ensure that whatever you end up drinking will enhance rather than do dire battle with your grub. You can also pick a wine first and craft your meal around that bottle, in which case you’d ask your somm, “What on the menu would pair best with this wine?” Wine might be a somm’s milieu, but it’s 100% part of their job to know their restaurant menu inside and out, too, and that means having dozens if not hundreds of pairing ideas at the ready.
5. What’s Your Favorite Bottle Around <Insert Dollar Amount Here>?
Knowing what you want to spend on wine doesn’t make you cheap, it makes you smart. It also makes you the guy who won’t leave the restaurant crying tears of regret into his doggy bag. Don’t worry, you don’t have to blurt out your max price in front of all your guests. Follow the advice of Las Vegas-based sommelier Mario Luna: “Slide your right index finger to the number you are comfortable with and say, ‘I want to stay around here.’ (while pointing to the price.) This method is great because you don’t have to shout out the price and potentially look cheap and it also gives the sommelier an idea of when to work with to give you the best wine. This works every time!”