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New York Times
11/21/2004

Anxiety and the Vine: Deciphering the List

Francis Schott of Stage Left says neophytes should ask questions.
Francis Schott of Stage Left says neophytes should ask questions.

You're lost.

Well, not literally. You know where you are. You're in an expensive restaurant, with flickering candles, white napery, perhaps a bit of soothing jazz on the sound system. In your hands is the wine list, and it seems to be getting heavier by the second.

Across the table, your dining companion eyes you expectantly. Above you, a uniformed server hovers. He is wafting, one eyebrow raised, for your wine order. Did I mention that the restaurant is expensive? You really don't want to get this wrong. Are your hands clammy yet?

No beverage, by a very long shot, has inspired as much passion and bafflement as wine. It is a vast and mysterious subject, dominated by a few people with a great deal of knowledge, very firm convictions and an esoteric (and often pretentious) vocabulary. In the presence of these connoisseurs, the rest of us are left to feel like novices, adrift on a wine-dark sea with nothing more to guide us than hackneyed, overbroad stereotypes (white with fish, red with meat) and imperfect memories (didn't I kind of like that Kendall-Jackson merlot?). None of it is much help when confronted with an impatient server and a wine list the size of an unabridged dictionary, with a numbing array of unfamiliar names and prices ranging from $24 to $2,400.

But as it turns out, help is available. Finding it doesn't require an advanced understanding of varietals and vintages, acidity and soil conditions. What it requires, as I've learned in interviews with an array of people who know about wine, is curiosity, a mildly adventurous spirit and a bit of assertiveness. Their suggestions follow.

Ask

Wait, there's more: After the wine list, the mysteries of decanting.
Wait, there's more: After the wine list, the mysteries of decanting.

Francis Schott is a co-owner of Stage Left in New Brunswick. His wine list numbers 900 selections, and he has taken many trips to wine regions in Europe and California just to taste. Yet when he goes into an unfamiliar restaurant, he is in the same position as most diners: the wine list is likely to be full of bottles he has never tasted. So he looks for guidance.

"My first question," he said in a phone interview, "is 'Is there someone I can talk to about wine?' If the restaurant is serious about wine, there's usually someone there."

In a restaurant like Stage Left, that someone will have the title sommelier or wine captain; in a less ambitious place, it may well be the owner, the headwaiter or whoever buys the restaurant's wine. "Even other professional sommeliers seek the advice of the sommelier when dining out," said Steven A. Shaw, a New York food writer whose book "Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out" is due next year from HarperCollins.

When sommeliers and waiters seems genuinely enthusiastic, the chances are good that they have tasted the wines on the list and the food on the menu, and will have a sense of what goes with what--a forward, slightly acidic red to cut through the richness of duck, say, or a crisp, mineral-edged white to stand up to shellfish.

Karen MacNeil, author of "The Wine Bible" (Workman, 2001) and chairwoman of the professional wine studies program at the Culinary Institute of America's branch in the Napa Valley in California, has evolved a useful shortcut.

"If you know absolutely nothing about wine and have a good vibe from the restaurant," she said, "ask the waiter what's the chef's favorite wine. Chances are he won't like the most expensive wine on the list, but one that has a lot of personality and goes with his food."

Trust, but Verify

Of course, the world is full of people who pretend to know more than they do, and wine servers are no exception. Respondents to a query posted on the culinary Web site eGullet.org were more than happy to regale me with stories of clueless, inept or mendacious wine service.

"They haven't a clue what they're doing, and it's such a shame," wrote Eden Blum of Metuchen about some servers. "They rarely know how to serve, and they are frequently belligerent when confronted with a corked or otherwise damaged bottle, because they are uneducated about the matter and assume that the customer is being difficult."

Her strategy is to "pick one bottle you know something about and ask a question or two about taste or pairing potential." Or ask yourself, she went on: "Does the person making the suggestions point to lower-priced options as well as higher ones, without any insinuation that the lower-priced ones are merely 'cheap'?"

Know Your Price

Virtually everyone had the same piece of advice: do not be intimidated into spending more than you want to. Go into the restaurant with a limit in mind, and share that information with the server.

"Say to your sommelier or wine steward, 'This is our price range,"' said Nicholas Harary of Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown, the former sommelier at Jean Georges in Manhattan. "Being blunt about it is best way to be. We have plenty of customers who want to spend $35 a bottle and plenty who want to spend $350. You're doing an injustice to yourself if you don't speak up."

Mr. Schott, of Stage Left, agreed. "If a restaurant doesn't want to recommend the least expensive bottles," he said, "there's a problem with the wine list."

Indeed, even some expensive restaurants showcase their inexpensive wines. Amanda's in Hoboken goes so far as to organize its wine list by price: $22, $28, $38, $48 and over $50.

Basil & Vine, a new Italian restaurant in Elmwood Park has a "pearl page" of bottles at $21 or under, many of them unfamiliar. I'm always here to talk to people," said Joe Iurato, the general manager and sommelier. "A lot of people like the price point but don't recognize the wine. I don't mind cracking a bottle and letting them taste it."

Experiment

"When the wine list seems impenetrable, with wines I have never heard of, from unfamiliar regions, I usually order wine by the glass," said Maricel Presilla, the chef and co-owner of Zafra and Cucharamama in Hoboken. She serves many wines that way, and so does Louis Reda, owner of An American Grill in Randolph. "If you are unfamiliar with a wine," he said, "we'll bring the bottle to the table and allow a taste." The usual price is about a quarter of what the full bottle would cost.

The world is awash in good wine, from regions as diverse as Oregon and Uruguay, Spain and South Africa. It makes sense to taste and taste, to see what is out there.

"Give yourself a wine adventure budget," said Ms. MacNeil, the author of "The Wine Bible." "Resolve that when you go out to eat, you're going to spend $30 or $40 or $50 on a bottle and just randomly choose something you don't know. And if you do that for a year, you will know quite a lot. You'll get yourself over that edge of fear about not knowing.

"Because wine lists in the end are like looking up at the Baskin-Robbins board when you were 4. You didn't know what pistachio was like, or black walnut. You had to have the courage to order it and discover that you really liked it."

To discover, in other words, that you weren't lost anymore.


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