Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What Wine To Order Ask Jeff Mazen The Wine Geek

Thanks for the opportunity to add a column on something that is near and dear to my heart. A little background first if I may. I’m a wine geek! There, I got that out of the way. What exactly does that mean you ask? Well, I believe it means that I actually care about what passes my lips. That’s oversimplified to be sure and given the chance I’ll rant on in detail about specifics, but for now let’s just leave it at that.

The point of this first article is to help folks who panic at the sight of a wine list to be calm and make a good selection for their dinner. It’s kind of funny that anyone would freak about the grape juice they’re ordering. I’ve never seen anyone panic when the menu show’s up. What if I order the wrong salad or cut of meat? Who cares? Right?

Let’s proceed. You walk into a restaurant you’ve chosen for whatever reason. It may be for convenience, reservation time, reputation, or the wine list. You’re seated, handed a menu, and asked if you’d like something to drink. My wife tends to like a Lillet with an orange slice as a warm up. If it’s hot I’ll order a beer. Quite often I’m the jackass that’s been designated to drive since I’ve acquired the reputation of showing restraint so I may pass and peruse the wine list while our server is fetching drinks. Now I have a chance to find out if the establishment is one that cares about their wine program or not. You’re probably asking yourself how the hell I do this. It’s not magic and doesn’t have to be hard. What I’m looking for is an assortment of well-priced wines that are drinkable TODAY with a variety that suits me and the rest of my party. I emphasize today because I could care less what tomorrow will bring relative to the wine I’m buying.

In general what you pay for in higher priced wines is complexity and structure. Without getting too technical, the structure I speak of provides the wine with the ability to age and turn into something different. That’s a subject I’ll cover in another column. In my opinion most people get nervous when looking at a wine list for all the wrong reasons. You don’t recognize the labels? Big deal. Ask your server. If your server seems unsure ask for the person who purchased the wine. If they’re not available, pass. Order something cheap or by the glass. It’ll eliminate your chances of making a mistake and the wine won’t be memorable. You have to gauge your tolerance on how much thought and care the restaurant put into the wine program. Places that really give a shit will have someone in the room that knows the wines and what they had in mind when they bought them. This is usually driven by menu and price. The chef may have a dish, let’s say a stew made with beef and bacon added as a flavoring agent. The sommelier or restaurant manager may have chosen a Crozes Hermitage from the Rhone Valley to match up with the pepper and smoky quality of the bacon. If there’s a raw bar Muscadet may be on the list as it’s briny properties match up will with oysters on the half shell. Remember that’s their job to remember what and why. Your job is to ask the right questions and the ultimate decision is yours.

Price is always a determining factor when ordering. Everyone has limits especially today. What you’re really after is a pleasing beverage to wash down your food. There’s no shame in having a budget. The hard part is sticking to it. Hopefully the restaurant you’ve decided to give your business cares enough to have a good selection at realistic prices. Let’s say you’ve decided to go no higher than $45. You tell the server you’re thinking about the duck and your companion wants the steak. They should be able to look at the list and give you a few choices that will match up well with both. If they’re smart one or more of those selections will be a wine they serve by the glass and they’ll offer you a taste. You can decide for yourself and look like a genius because you asked the right questions. Generally you’ll get a better buy on a bottle than a glass.

Lastly personal taste has a lot to do with what you might want. If you don’t like white wine don’t order it. Forget about what is correct with what you’re ordering. The only rule is it’s your dough and you should get what you want. On that note everyone should experiment with grapes they’ve never tried before. It’ll broaden your experiences and give you more choice when you sit down. Have fun. It’s only wine.
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